Tea Party’s Fifteen Minutes Are Up

February 6th, 2010 at 6:10 pm | 27 Comments |

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Click here for all of Jonathan Kay’s posts from the Tea Party convention in Nashville.


A Barack-Obama put-down every 60 seconds. That would be a concise way to describe the Tea Party National Convention in Nashville, which will draw to a close later today, following Sarah Palin’s keynote speech.

Steve Malloy, author of Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Ruin Your Life, kicked off the Friday-morning proceedings by telling the crowd that America is controlled by the “Three-headed totalitarian monster of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.”

Hitting on what would become a major conference theme, he warned that Obama and his minions are conspiring to control every aspect of Americans’ lives – the color of their cars, the kind of toilet paper they use, how much time they spend in the shower, the temperature of their homes – all under the guise of UN greenhouse-gas reduction schemes. “Obama isn’t a U.S. socialist,” Malloy thundered. “He’s an international socialist. He envisions a one-world government.”

The next speaker, Memphis Tea Party founder Mark Skoda, put up a dramatic slideshow depicting heroes who’d risen up against tyranny around the world – the anonymous figure blocking tanks at Tiananmen Square, Lech Walesa, Iranian political martyrs … and then concluding with images from a Tea Party demonstration. The situation is just that desperate, apparently. The election of Barack Obama, Skoda said, was “the Pearl Harbor moment” of our time.

Then came celebrity Texas preacher and self-described “Christocrat” Rick Scarborough – one of the many overtly religious figures to appear at this convention. (Conference sessions often began with prayers). In a fiery speech that sounded like a Sunday sermon, he portrayed Obama’s America as a sinful hellhole now facing one last chance for salvation: “America has forsaken God. But the good news is that God has not yet forsaken America. And the Tea Party movement is the evidence, I believe, of that reality.”


*  *  *


This is a big moment for the Tea Party movement – the populist, grass-roots conservative cause that mobilized in response to Obama’s election and the massive recession he inherited. Born less than a year ago, the movement burst definitively onto the national agenda with a massive September 12 demonstration in Washington. Four months later, its supporters played a key role in Scott Brown’s upset Senate win in Massachusetts, pushing back the Democrats’ ambitious plans for health reform.

But despite their growing influence, Tea Partiers are still treated as a sort of kitsch curiosity by the mainstream media in the United States – studied more as human barometers of proletarian frustration in uncertain times than as a legitimate political movement.

This weekend’s meeting at the Gaylord Opryland conference center outside Nashville has given Tea Partiers a chance to change that. Their numbers are relatively small here – just 600 delegates, as compared to the 1-million-plus who swarmed Washington in September. But the speaking roster has been full of star-studded right-wing culture warriors.

Journalists from around the world showed up, asking the same question of everybody: “Why are you here?”

Tea Party organizers tend to describe their agenda with five bullet points: Less taxes, fiscal responsibility, greater liberty, state’s rights, national security. But that quintet – which also summarizes the major planks of the Republican Party – doesn’t really cover it. The Tea Party movement is mostly made up of refugees from the mainstream GOP. They rail hard against John McCain and other RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). Bipartisanship – “Koombaya politics,” as its derisively called – is dismissed as a sell-out.

As with other populist movements, it isn’t always totally clear where Tea Party activists stand on the left-right spectrum. Many of them are protectionists, in violation of Republican free-trading dogma. Their stance on immigration often flirts with xenophobia. The enemies of the movement comprise anyone who sits on the commanding heights of American politics, culture, business and media.

Barack Obama and his Congressional allies are the main targets. But the villain list also includes the big banks, China, Middle Eastern oil producers, bailed out corporations, James Cameron (Avatar is seen as a veiled denunciation of the U.S. military), Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, universities, the Washington Post, Anderson Cooper, and even FOX News pundits such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, who’ve heaped scorn on the Tea Party movement’s more militant oddballs. (One of the most bizarre moments of the convention came when blogger Andrew Breitbart delivered a particularly vicious fulmination against the mainstream media, prompting everyone to get up, turn toward the media section at the back of the conference room, and scream “USA! USA! USA!”)

Their ideological heroes, meanwhile, are all people who are either criticizing Washington from beyond its gates (Sarah Palin), or dead (Ronald Reagan), and thus protected from the taint of power.

The smug left-wing take on the Tea Party movement is that its members are nothing but shell-shocked racists. (In the words of Janeane Garofalo: “It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about. They don’t know their history at all. It’s about hating a black man in the White House.”) I’ve seen no evidence of that sort of bigotry here in Nashville. True, the conference floor is an almost unbroken sea of white, middle-aged faces. But two of the speakers who’ve appeared at the podium were fiery black conservatives – including Washington, D.C. media personality Angela McGlowan, who received a series of massive ovations.

The Tea Party activists I spoke with despise Barack Obama not because he’s black, but because they believe he’s an out-and-out Marxist, as well as a loyal disciple of Bill Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright (those two names came up in virtually every conversation about Obama this weekend). There is also a conspiratorial-seeming belief that Obama is determined to bring America down in the world, and sell out Israel to the Arabs.

One of the keynote speakers, WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah, spent roughly a third of his lengthy oration demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate – echoing the discredited “Birther” conspiracy theory that claims Mr. Obama to be a Kenyan-born foreigner, and therefore constitutionally disqualified from the presidency. Everyone applauded wildly at this nonsense. As the weekend progressed, it became clear that a speaker could hurl literally any slur he wanted against Obama, and people would scream enthusiastically and smack their hands together.

For people who claim they want to change America, the speakers in Nashville spent very little time discussing what they would actually do if they ran the country. Smaller government was the dominant theme – but not a single speaker, to my knowledge (I wasn’t able to attend all of the overlapping breakout sessions), actually identified a government program that should be cut, or how. Everyone agreed Obama’s healthcare plan would wreck America. But no one discussed how healthcare costs might be controlled under a status quo that has 17% of American GDP going to medical costs.

The explanation for this vapidity goes to the Tea Party activists’ self-conception as ideological heirs to the Founding Fathers. (Several of the delegates even dressed up as 18th-Century yeomen, to the great delight of media photographers.) The “Tea Party” motif isn’t just a clever name: In their grandiose statements, its activists really do present themselves as protagonists in an existential struggle for America’s soul – a mission that somehow transcends the dry bristle of ordinary politics.

“We’re in a crisis, a crisis as profound of the [American] Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II,” filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon told the crowd on Friday night. “You just have to ask the Kaiser, you have to ask the military junta that ran Japan in World War II, or the Nazis, or the fascists – no power on earth has ever stood against the common working-man part of this country.”

This statement seemed like a lunatic exaggeration – as crazy as anything I’d heard from the Iraq War-era activists who compared George W. Bush to Hitler. Yet everyone around me nodded their head and applauded, basking in the notion that they were the enlightened vanguard who would protect America. For all the jus’-plain-folks posturing of Tea Party activists, it is hard to ignore how massively inflated is their own self-regard.


*  *  *


Looking forward, Tea Party organizers have big plans. Another convention is being planned for July. And on Friday, they announced the creation of a new non-profit, the Ensuring Liberty Corp., to help hardcore conservative political candidates raise money. But my view is that the movement will soon start to fall apart, if it hasn’t already.

One problem for Tea Party organizers is that populist movements build up critical mass only during periods of crisis – and that crisis, in the form of America’s massive recession, already shows signs of easing.

A second problem is that every political movement – even one that calls itself “grass roots” – inevitably requires leadership. And absent the discipline imposed by a traditional, top-down political organization (like, say, the Republican Party), the struggle for leadership leads to bickering and factionalizing.

That process already has begun in the Tea Party movement, in large part thanks to the for-profit Nashville conference, which has alienated the lower-middle-class rank-and-file by charging $550 per ticket, and providing Sarah Palin with a fat speaking fee (widely reported to be on the order of $100,000 – though the organizers refuse to say one way or another).

Meanwhile, the tantalizing opportunity to seize the reins of a national political movement has drawn in a crew of ambitious, big-talking Tennessee amateurs who’ve been putting their faces all over this conference.

In protest, grass-roots Tennessee Tea Partiers staged their own dissident press conference just steps away from the official festivities – and for an hour or so, became the main draw among the journalist pool.

Such is generally the dénouement of all romantic populist movements: The will of the people soon becomes the will of the bickering few. It’s something Sarah Palin should have thought about before hitching her cart to the Tea Party horse.

Recent Posts by Jonathan Kay



27 Comments so far ↓

  • Mandos

    I’d say more than racism, this hits the nail on the head:

    But despite their growing influence, Tea Partiers are still treated as a sort of kitsch curiosity by the mainstream media in the United States – studied more as human barometers of proletarian frustration in uncertain times than as a legitimate political movement.

    It’s correctly viewed as a “barometer of proletarian frustration”, more than anything else. There is Someone who has made their lives worse, and it’s a correct assessment.

  • chicago_guy

    This is what you get when you assemble people who have anger, but no facts, anger, but no knowledge of history. They spew. And spew. And spew some more.

    They know that something’s wrong, but they don’t know what, exactly, it is. None of that precludes them from coming up with answers for these problems they can’t isolate, since they want to see themselves as being both informed and full of ideas, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    I disagree that it’s about race, per se. Rather it’s about region and class; That uppity, Ivy League Big City Yankee Democrat is the antithesis of themselves, and THAT’s what rankles them about Obama. Rather than acknowledge that yeah, maybe those who graduated with honors from top universities know a little more than someone who works at Wal-Mart as a greeter, it’s better to say that in fact he’s DUMBER than they are, just cuz….well…then they don’t have to admit that not only could they not get into an Ivy League school, they couldn’t point to any of the Ivy League schools on a map.

    They live in “Real America.” Those who don’t agree with them are, I guess “Fake Americans.” Real Americans believe one thing, and one thing only; that government is the enemy, and that the best thing the government could do is keep it’s government hands off their government entitlement programs.

    It makes sense that Palin is their ideal, in other words.

  • chicago_guy

    5 yard penalty on myself for inserting an inappropriate apostrophe in the final paragraph. 10 yard penalty on Frum Forum for not having an “edit” feature.

  • Mandos

    I disagree that it’s about race, per se. Rather it’s about region and class; That uppity, Ivy League Big City Yankee Democrat is the antithesis of themselves, and THAT’s what rankles them about Obama. Rather than acknowledge that yeah, maybe those who graduated with honors from top universities know a little more than someone who works at Wal-Mart as a greeter, it’s better to say that in fact he’s DUMBER than they are, just cuz….well…then they don’t have to admit that not only could they not get into an Ivy League school, they couldn’t point to any of the Ivy League schools on a map.

    The problem is that, yes, the assessment is partly correct: that it was the elite upper classes of the USA that made policy decisions that have objectively made their lives worse. Who are Geithner, Bernanke, Summers, Greenspan? All top elite people who helped private interests suck the life out of the US economy.

    Their solutions may be incoherent and scary, but the fears and anger are real, and based in real things.

  • Danny_K

    They’re not going anywhere. The RNC will try to use them as human pit bulls.

  • anniemargret

    For heaven’s sake… Obama is responsible for ‘making their lives worse?’ Not Bush or Cheney? Not the last eight years of irresponsible government. Their silence during those years is deafening . Now suddenly they are angry, putting their ‘pitbull with lipstick’ at the forefront to speak for them, among others. Suddenly a Democrat with some university education, a law professor, from Chicago, a half black man is the President.

    Yes, it most definitely is about class and region. But it is *also* about their fears and hatred for big-city people, people who are not conservative Republicans, about people who are black, about people who are Hispanic or other minorities, who are gay, etc… It is about all these things .

    And it is why they don’t represent America anymore. Their idea of America is gone, and thanks for it. They don’t want to join in to make this country better, more progressive more, unifying, more inclusive. They want the opposite.

    And it is why they don’t deserve respect. What they sow, they will reap . Anger, hatred, and fear are not ‘christian’ values. Someone needs to tell them that.

  • Mandos

    For heaven’s sake… Obama is responsible for ‘making their lives worse?’ Not Bush or Cheney? Not the last eight years of irresponsible government. Their silence during those years is deafening . Now suddenly they are angry, putting their ‘pitbull with lipstick’ at the forefront to speak for them, among others. Suddenly a Democrat with some university education, a law professor, from Chicago, a half black man is the President.

    These people existed during Bush time and followed along until 2006 or so because they thought that Bush would stick it too the cultural blame objects. Don’t get me wrong, they reach misguidedly for standard cultural blame objects. I was pointing out that there was a kernel of truth in the motivation.

  • anniemargret

    mandos: OK.

  • TAZ

    Palin: The future of the republican party is with the birthers….

  • Shawn Summers

    Fantastic article, Jonathan. Good work in Nashville so far.

  • TAZ

    Just what exactly is the Republican party going to do with Sarah Palin?

  • balconesfault

    People here keep saying that she’s not going to be a candidate in the future.

    I call that wishful thinking.

    The woman could easily jump to a lead in 2012 with a few winner take all primaries and another candidate or two besides Romney in the race to split up the vote.

    It will be interesting to see how the alliance with Rick Perry continues to form.

  • sinz54

    chicago_guy:
    It’s remarkable how liberals can express such contempt for the American middle class and working class while simultaneously promising to “feel their pain.”

    Did it ever occur to you that what’s bothering them is that Obama has been promoted to his level of incompetence? A Wal-Mart greeter doesn’t pretend to being qualified to be POTUS. Obama did.

  • sinz54

    chicago_guy: 5 yard penalty on myself for inserting an inappropriate apostrophe in the final paragraph. 10 yard penalty on Frum Forum for not having an “edit” feature.
    15 yard penalty on you for being arrogant enough to psychoanalyze millions of Americans at a distance.

  • sinz54

    anniemargaret: They don’t want to join in to make this country better, more progressive more, unifying, more inclusive.
    EXCUSE ME, but it is NOT the job of ANY citizens to support the government’s goals unless they consider those goals acceptable. Obama has to sell his vision to the public–and he hasn’t.

    We don’t work for Obama. As taxpayers, Obama works for us. And he has to reach out to us–not the reverse. That’s how it works in America.

    But liberals don’t want to reach out to Red State America–because liberals hold them in such contempt. Your posts. The posts from “chicago_guy”. The posts from most of the liberals I’ve seen on this blog and elsewhere.

    You reek of it. All of you.
    It’s in your books (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”). It’s in your opinion columns (“The unteachable ignorance of the Red states”). It’s in Obama’s speeches (where he talked about “clinging” to religion and guns). It’s in the latest columns (“Blame the Childish, Ignorant American Public”). And it’s in your actions, where you chased after the chimera of a single-payer health care system and worried about global warming, while 10% of your fellow Americans were unemployed for over a year.

    Liberals’ smug (and false) sense of intellectual AND moral superiority–which underlies all their social engineering schemes–is once again being rejected wholesale by Americans, just as it was in the 1970s and the 1990s.

  • Jesse Watters, Fox Nation Editor, Hypes Hypothetical Tea Party – GOP Merger - Fox News Watchdog

    [...] blogosphere remains eerily silent, wary, or – in the case of at least one neocon blog – sneery. Watters is on the side where money talks, and screw the little [...]

  • anniemargret

    sinz: excuse ME, sinz, but you are not going lay that canard on me. It is not my nature to look down my nose on anyone in this society. One of my three children is a blue-collar worker, non-college educated, and my family, like thousands of other American families is the typical one – some went to college, some didnt. It doesn’t matter a whit to me whether or not someone is from a big city or small town. I have both in my family. Or a whit whether or not they are lawyers or teachers or construction workers or electricians – I have those in my family too.

    The truth is that the class and regional warfare was birthed from Karl Rove and Republicans who saw an opportunity to divide this country to win votes. They won. We now have hatred and fear-mongering among classes and regions. Palin’s absurd ‘real America’ smear is still stinging, because we know that’s exactly how they feel. There is snobbery, sinz. But it can be reverse snobbery too, for ‘real America’ against anyone who hails from a big-city or has a university education.

    So I am not saying anything that isn’t true. As far as ‘RedState’ goes.. as we say in NY…gimme a break. Their rabid hatred is a foaming at the mouth. That you would use them to try to prove your point says it all. I dislike joining forces with extremists, be it dailykos or redstate, as neither can break through all the hate and fear to get things done. I have agreed with some conservative views here, but I am sick and tired of feeling I have to apologize for being a liberal, or for being from a big city with a college education.

    Smug liberals? There is smugness galore among the right wing in this country, too. You have given a very unfair characterization of the political scene today. As if right wing authors haven’t smeared the other side with their books? Have you looked at them lately? They’re all over the NYT bestselling books. Start with Palin’s.

  • Mandos

    Sinz is proposing that policy be made and established on a sense of pique.

  • balconesfault

    Obama has often and eloquently sold his vision to the public.

    However, the public is also being force fed a constant barrage of attacks on Obama – many of them misleading if not outright lies.

    You yourself, Sinz, are either a victim or a willing participant in this. A number of times here you have criticized Obama for not saying one thing or another – and I’ve provided direct quotes from very prominent speeches (his Inaugural Address, his Healthcare speech, his Afghanistan speech, his address to the Nobel Committee, his SOTU) where he has said virtually exactly what you’ve called for.

    And you’re far more informed than the average voter … who just hears Fox News and Tea Partiers screaming “socialism!”

  • Shawn Summers

    Sinz, I agree with you a lot of the time. I think you’re a reasonable, understanding person.

    But like anniemargaret said, this conservative anti-intellectualism has to stop. Don’t try and tell me that the high-school dropout working the cash register at McDonald’s has the same amount of intellectual bearing or firepower or political savvy as someone who graduated with a Ph. D. from the Kennedy School at Harvard. They just don’t. Education matters.

    And if educated people don’t want to indulge the incoherent fantasies of angry mobs, maybe it’s because the mobs are just wrong. They don’t know what they want. They demand lower taxes and decreased government spending, so long as it doesn’t affect them. But when their Social Security or Medicare checks are imperiled, you can be damn sure that they’re all for their piece of the Federal dime. The truth is that spending needs to be significantly cut AND taxes need to be significantly raised. It’s the only way. But try suggesting a tax increase (or even the expiration of a tax cut) to a Tea Party crowd, and see how far you get with charts and graphs and budget reports. Not quite as sexy as “Don’t tread on me” and “Second American Revolution”, and other such nonsense, is it?

    You wouldn’t want Joe Six-Pack performing your kidney transplant, and you wouldn’t want Joe Six-Pack managing your investments, so why on earth would you want Joe Six-Pack running your government? That’s the essence of representative democracy – most people aren’t equipped or inclined to deal with the problems of running the government, so they elect qualified representatives to do it full-time for them. The conservative conceit (and it goes all the way back to Buckley saying he’d rather be ruled by the first 400 names in the phone book than the Harvard faculty) that a government can be effectively run by just about anyone, based on their feelings and intuitions, is downright poisonous.

    And now you see its fruits – one of our two major parties in this country no longer even pretending that it’s interested in responsible governance, and the whole conservative movement openly hijacked by the mob.

    Yes, intellectuals and technocrats make mistakes, and they do need to be kept accountable to the needs and interests of the people they represent and work for. So far as this, I agree with you. But the wholehearted (and, yes, very smug – it’s harder to be a liberal in the Bible Belt than a conservative in Georgetown) embrace of anti-science and anti-intellectualism is a cancer that has been allowed to go on for far too long.

  • Christopher78665

    To: Everyone

    Please sign the Tea Party Pledge

    http://www.conservativeexodusproject.com/

    and tell everyone you know to sign it. Thanks.

    —-

  • PracticalGirl

    Shawn Summers:

    The most coherent argument against the anti-itellectualism spreading around the country. Thank you.

  • brandon

    William F. Buckley, an intellectual if there ever was one said:

    “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

  • balconesfault

    Yes Brandon, he did.

  • sparty

    Balconesfault: hilarious.

  • athensboy

    All Palin is is a attractive attack dog for the hard right. She is Rush Limbaugh with breasts.Lets see her at a press conference where she doesn’t know the questions in advance.Obama spoke off the cuff for 90 minutes at the GOP House retreat. Yet she makes fun of him using a teleprompter, while she writes crib notes on her palm.George Bush invaded Iraq,occupied it for 5 years, and we will have spent a trillion dollars doing it, and not a pip from the teaparty crowd? Tax cuts for millionaires under Bush, with no offsetting in spending and no outcry from the teaparty? The only spending that outrages them is Democratic spending.If its a good ole boy with a Texas drawl doing it, its a-ok.The teaparty is a bunch of people that want things to be like they were in the 1950′s. Thats when blacks, hispanics and gays knew their place.These people turned a blind eye to GWB’s incompetence, now they are crying a river on how their country is being run. A little late to the party I say.

  • Mandos

    Truth is, I’d be willing to see a citizen jury type of government, where people are randomly empaneled in large numbers to vote on measures, but have the concomitant requirement to pay attention when the sides of the issues are presented to them.

    The majority of the population supports, for example, real health care reform with at least a “true” public option, if not single-payer.