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.”
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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.
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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.