March 7, 2010


At the Tea Party (Jonathan Raban, 3/25/10, NY Review of Books)

The first night's speaker, Tom Tancredo, ex-congressman from Colorado and no-hope presidential candidate in 2008, gave a taste of what was to come as he warmed up the audience with a show of self-deprecating, clownish good humor. He told stories—some of them extremely tall, as when he described visiting a new high school in the richest Denver suburb, where the students all drove new BMWs and, on Monday mornings, were fresh from skiing weekends in Vail. He had, he said, picked up their textbook on American history, whose first sentence was—"and this is exactly what it said"—Columbus came to America and ruined Paradise. Shaking his head, he repeated the sentence, which I took to be a fantastic, garbled invention, loosely inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. But we were still in the realm of good, relatively clean, political fun.

The drollery vanished as he climbed aboard his old anti-immigration hobby horse. "The revolution has come. It was led by the cult of multiculturalism, aided by leftist liberals all over, who don't have the same ideas about America as we do." Since George H.W. Bush's administration, RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) had been conspiring with Democrats to boil us like frogs in the "cauldron of the nanny state." "Then something really odd happened," Tancredo said, "mostly because, I think, we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not spell the word 'vote,' or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama."

Though a ripple of cheers and applause spread through the ballroom, I was taking my cue from a middle-aged couple sitting immediately in front of me. When they clapped, I clapped. When they rose to their feet, I did too. Now they exchanged a hard-to-read glance and their hands stayed in their laps.

My guess was that few in the room were offended by the association of the "literacy test" with the Jim Crow laws, though some may have been. But everyone I'd met so far was in a position to know immigrants, legal and otherwise; they employed them in their houses and businesses, to look after their children and work on their yards. The idea that Maria and Luis, or Tatyana and Dmitri, had somehow subverted the political system to bring about Obama's election struck them as insulting and absurd.

Something very similar happened the next night, when Joseph Farah, the author and impresario of the right-wing news site WorldNetDaily, took to the stage. Farah, self-consciously handsome, with his swept-back gray hair and bootblack chevron mustache, spoke in that tone of patient, inexorable, commonsensical logic that seems equally distributed between long-tenured professors and certified lunatics. He took us on a quasi-scholarly tour of the first chapter of Saint Matthew's gospel, where Christ's genealogy is traced from the patriarch, Abraham, down through many generations to "Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ," then invited us to compare Jesus' unassailable ancestry with Obama's dubious family tree. "I have a dream," Farah said. "And my dream is that if Barack Obama even seeks reelection as president in 2012, he won't be able to go to any city, any town, any hamlet in America without seeing signs that ask, 'Where's the Birth Certificate?'" Again, I saw as many glum and unresponsive faces in the crowd as people standing up to cheer.

Having established Obama as a Ken-yan imposter, Farah went on to explain how his administration is using 1960s Marxist theory to bring about the destruction of the "American free-enterprise system." The President and his red henchmen are employing the "Cloward-Piven strategy"[1] —"turning make-believe crises into real crises" to paralyze capitalism, as, for instance, when they manufactured crises and bailouts, like those of the banks, AIG, and the auto industry. Farah seemed untroubled by the implication that, since these crises and bailouts dated back to September 2008 and before, George W. Bush must have been in on the plot too. Proof of his argument, Farah said, had come when Rahm Emanuel inadvertently let drop the secret of this master plan by saying, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." This was Cloward-Piven strategy, succinctly stated. "It is the only paradigm that makes any sense," Farah told us.

I was off to the smokers' ghetto after Farah's speech, so missed the confrontation in the lobby between him and Andrew Breitbart of, another prominent and forceful speaker at the convention. But David Weigel of The Washington Independent, who was live-blogging from Nashville, was himself caught up in the row, and captured it on audiotape. Breitbart attacked Farah for raising the "birther issue" because it was "divisive." Here's a snatch of Weigel's transcription, with Farah speaking first and Breitbart second:

"It is a winning issue!"

"It's not a winning issue."

"It is! It becomes even more of a winning issue when the press abrogates its responsibility—"

"You don't recognize it as a fundamentally controversial issue that forces a unified group of people to have to break into different parts? It is a schism of the highest order."

Out with the smokers on the freezing balcony, I was feeling sufficiently at home with my fellow attendees to voice, as mildly as I could, my own impatience with the birther stuff and the Cloward-Piven strategy. I wasn't surprised to find people agreeing with me. "Stupid," a woman said. "My first thought was, 'This guy's a liberal plant.' I thought we came here to talk about taxes and government spending and national defense."

The rhetorical extravagance of Tancredo, Farah, and other speakers was in tune with the extravagance of our surroundings. The convention had begun in discord and controversy, with the last-minute withdrawals of two star performers, the Republican congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn, and sniping from rival Tea Party groups who accused Tea Party Nation and its proprietors of trying to hijack the movement for personal profit. Much of the criticism was directed at the cost of the event and the choice of the gigantic Opryland resort hotel as a venue.

The scenic route from my hotel room to the convention center led through nine acres of jasmine-scented tropical rain forest, contained by interlocking atriums that resembled London's 1851 Crystal Palace. Bridges and winding pathways ran past waterfalls and fountains through a dense jungle of banana trees, palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, cannas, ferns, vines, and orchids. "Mississippi flatboats" took passengers on circuits of the shallow canal that looped around Delta Island, and on my walk, I'd pass Epcot-style recreations of old French New Orleans; an antebellum planter's mansion; a bit of Italy; a quaint village street, possibly English; and a Dublin pub. Such a concentrated dose of surreality, taken before breakfast, helped to prepare one for life in the alternative world that was on offer in the ballroom.

Obama's election was "our Pearl Harbor." We were now living in "the Third Reich": the first two Reichs were FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. Liberal environmentalists were leading us into "socialist totalitarianism disguised as polar bears." Luxuriant and overreaching metaphors bloomed like the tropical foliage just outside. I suspected that few of the cheering tea partiers took them very seriously. They were, rather, the floor show, a contrived entertainment, meant to add spice and dazzle to proceedings that would otherwise have been tedious in their emphasis on modest, neighborhood politics. The same speaker who roused us with talk of Pearl Harbor and the Third Reich later told us to run for our local school board, and be careful to avoid "divisive social issues."

Only once did I find myself with a group of people from whose company I was glad to escape. At dinner on Friday, our eight-person table was talking—somewhat facetiously—about emigration. "We may have to leave this country sooner than we thought," a woman said, and laughed. Australia was mooted as a possible destination. "Well, you could have gone to Australia once," said a beefy man in his sixties, with coiffed silver hair and matching beard, the alpha male of the table; "but now they've got another liberal in charge—even in Australia."

The woman's husband shook his head, and said, "It may still come to shooting," the tone in which he made the remark delicately balanced between eagerness and regret.

Then conversation swerved on to the subject of Obama, "the idiot," "missing a few marbles up here," "that nitwit." (It's curious how the Tea Party view of the President exactly mirrors the way the left talks about Palin: both are self-evidently stupid.) Obama was an unknown quantity when he was elected. He had no record, no experience; he was an empty suit about whom we knew nothing.

"Well," said the alpha male, producing his ace of trumps, "we knew he was black."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2010 9:37 AM
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