Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tea Party Nation

I've been out all day, and I've got some photos from my shopping trip. Check back for those a little later. Meanwhile, the New Yorker's got a piece on the rise of tea party populism (and the threat to Obama). See, "The Movement: The Rise of Tea Party Activism." It's not that great a piece, actually. But with the main thesis suggesting that the tea partiers are for real, it's a step in the right direction.

My first immersion in the social movement that helped take Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat away from the Democrats, and may have derailed the President’s chief domestic initiative, occurred last fall, in Burlington, Kentucky, at a Take Back America rally. My escort was an exceptionally genial sixty-seven-year-old man named Don Seely, an electrical engineer who said that he was between jobs and using the unwanted free time to volunteer his services to the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, the rally’s host organization, as a Webmaster. “I’ve never been a Webmaster, but I’ve known Webmasters,” he explained, with a chuckle, as he walked around a muddy field, near a horse-jumping ring, and introduced me to some of his colleagues, one of whom was a fireman. “And he’s also our finance guy.” Being the finance guy, from what I could gather, entailed volunteering a personal credit card to be used for the group’s PayPal account. The amateur nature of the operation was a matter of pride to all those who were taking an active interest, in many cases for the first time in their lives, in the cause of governance. Several of the volunteers had met at Bulldog’s Roadhouse, in a nearby town named Independence, where they assembled on weekdays for what you might call happy hour, were it not for the fact that Bulldog’s is a Fox News joint and five o’clock is when Glenn Beck comes on, warning from a studio that he likes to call the “doom room” about the return of a Marxist fifth column.

Seely wore a muted plaid shirt, rumpled khakis, and large, round glasses that seemed to magnify his curiosity, a trait that he attributed to his training as an engineer—an urge to understand the way things work. He told me that he used to listen to Beck on the radio, before Beck got his Fox show. “I didn’t like him,” he said. “He was always making fun of people. You know, he’s basically a comedian. But the reason I like him now is he’s kind of had a mind-set change. Instead of making fun of everybody, he started asking himself questions. His point was ‘Get out there, talk to your neighbor, see what they feel. Don’t sit back under your tree boohooing.’ ” The Bulldog’s gang was a collection of citizens who were, as one of them put it, “tired of talking to the TV.” So they watched Beck together, over beer, and then spent an hour consoling one another, although lately their personal anxieties had overtaken the more general ones of the host on the screen, and Beck’s chalkboard lectures about the fundamental transformation of the Republic had become more like the usual barroom ballgame: background noise. “We found that you really have to let people get the things off their chests,” Seely said.

Burlington is the seat of Boone County, and the rally took place at the Boone County fairgrounds, on an afternoon that was chilly enough to inspire one of the speakers, the ghostwriter of Joe the Plumber’s autobiography, to dismiss global warming, to great applause. A second-generation Chrysler dealer, whose lot had just been shut down, complained that the Harvard-educated experts on Wall Street and in Washington knew nothing about automobiles. (“I’ve been in this business since 1958, and what I know is that the American public does not want small cars!”) The district’s congressional representative, Geoff Davis, brought up the proposed cap-and-trade legislation favored by Democrats, and called it an “economic colonization of the hardworking states that produce the energy, the food, and the manufactured goods of the heartland, to take that and pay for social programs in the large coastal states.”

Boone County borders both Indiana and Ohio, and was described to me by a couple of people I met there as “flyover country,” with a mixture of provincial anxiety and defensive skepticism—as in “What brings you to flyover country?” The phrase is not quite apt. Home to the Cincinnati airport, which serves as a Delta hub, the county owes much of its growth and relative prosperity over the past two decades to large numbers of people flying in and out, not over. But Delta’s recent struggles, and rumors about the impending contraction of its local subsidiary, Comair, have contributed to a deeper sense of economic anxiety. “You go to the warehouses around the airport, probably at least a third or twenty-five per cent are empty,” Seely said. “We need to give somebody a break here, so people can start making money.” As it happens, the largest employer in northern Kentucky today is the I.R.S.

Another Bulldog’s regular, a middle-aged woman dressed in jeans, a turtleneck, and a red sweatshirt, stood beside some stables, hustling for signatures to add to the Tea Party mailing list. “I tell you, it’s an enthusiastic group,” she said. “Talk about grassroots. This is as grassroots as it gets.”

“And she works full time,” Seely added.

“Not as full time as I’d like.”

About a thousand people had turned up at the rally, most of them old enough to remember a time when the threats to the nation’s long-term security, at home and abroad, were more easily defined and acknowledged. Suspicious of decadent √©lites and concerned about a central government whose ambitions had grown unmanageably large, they sounded, at least in broad strokes, a little like the left-wing secessionists I’d met at a rally in Vermont in the waning days of the Bush Administration. Large assemblies of like-minded people, even profoundly anxious people anticipating the imminent death of empire, have an unmistakable allure: festive despair. A young man in a camouflage jacket sold T-shirts (“Fox News Fan,” for example), while a local district judge doled out play money: trillion-dollar bills featuring the face of Ben Bernanke. An insurance salesman paraded around, dressed as though guiding a tour of Colonial Williamsburg. “Oh, this is George Washington!” Seely said. “Hey, George, come over here a minute.”

“I’m back for the Second American Revolution,” the man said. “My weapons this time will be the Constitution, the Internet, and my talk-radio ads.”

If there was a central theme to the proceedings, it was probably best expressed in the refrain “Can you hear us now?,” conveying a long-standing grievance that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to the needs and worries of ordinary Americans. Republicans and Democrats alike were targets of derision. “Their constituency is George Soros,” one man grumbled, and I was reminded of the dangerous terrain where populism slides into a kind of nativist paranoia—the subject of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay linking anti-Masonic sentiment in the eighteen-twenties with McCarthyism and with the John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s contention that Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The name Soros, understood in the context of this recurring strain—the “paranoid style in American politics,” Hofstadter called it—is synonymous, like Rockefeller or Rothschild, with a New World Order.

The Soros grumbler, who had also labelled John McCain a Communist, was dressed in jeans pulled up well above his waist with suspenders, and wearing thick, oversized shades. When he saw my notebook, he turned to Seely and asked, “Where’s he from, supposedly?” Informed that I live in New York, he replied, “There’s a nightmare right there.” What he had in mind was not a concentration of godless liberals, as it turned out, but something more troubling. “Major earthquake faults,” he said. “It’s hard in spots, but basically it’s like a bag of bricks.” Some more discussion revolved around a super-volcano in Yellowstone (“It’ll fry Denver and Salt Lake at the same time”) and the dire geological forecasts of Edgar Cayce, the so-called Sleeping Prophet, which involved the sudden emergence of coastlines in what, for the time being, is known as the Midwest. I asked the man his name. “T. J. Randall,” he said. “That’s not my real name, but that’s the one I’m using.”

Seely saw our encounter with the doomsayer more charitably than Hofstadter might have. “That’s an example of an intelligent person who’s not quite got it all together,” he said. “You can tell that. But he’s pretty interesting to talk to.” Seely’s own reaction, upon learning where I’d come from, had been to ask if I was familiar with the New School, in Greenwich Village. His youngest daughter, Amber, had gone there.

I asked Seely what Amber thought of the Tea Party. “We kind of hit a happy medium where we don’t discuss certain things,” he said, and added that at the moment Amber, who now works for a nonprofit that builds affordable housing in New Orleans, was visiting his son, Denver, who is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering at Mississippi State.
RELATED: A pretty bizarre piece from Tea Party Nation defending their TFUBAR convention. Also, from Gateway Pundit, "Eric Odom on Tea Party Nation Organizers: They Don’t Know What’s Going On & Haven’t From Day One (Video)."