Late last week, as families across the U.S. prepared for Easter, gubernatorial staff in state capitals across the U.S. were busy dealing with a strange homegrown security threat. An organization calling itself the Guardians of the Free Republics, according to its website committed to the “behind-the-scenes peaceful” dismantling of the U.S. government “without controversy, violence or civil war,” had sent letters to all 50 governors telling them to resign within three days or face removal. The demand was part of a “Restore America Plan,” launched, said the group on its website, after “consultation with high-ranking members of the United States armed forces.”
Part of a “sovereign citizenship” fringe in the U.S. that repudiates government and such modern realities as taxes, the Guardians of the Free Republics argues that “illicit corporations” usurped the U.S. federal government in 1933, and refers to the Internal Revenue Service as a “foreign bank cartel.” Its plan seeks a fundamentalist return to the American constitution and an end to both the “foreclosure nightmare” and the horrors of Department of Motor Vehicles registration, which the group refers to as a “hijacking of automobile ownership.” While FBI investigators said they did not believe the letters themselves were threatening, they did worry the group’s anti-government message might spur others to violence.
No wonder. So much has the U.S. surrendered to its anxieties over the last 18 months, to caustic political division and wild conspiracy theory, that the surreal concerns of the Guardians of the Free Republics can sound almost mainstream. Oddball debates over the birthplace of Barack Obama—who so-called “birthers” charge is ineligible to be president because he was born in Kenya or Indonesia rather than Hawaii—his religion, and the depth of his relationship with former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers, have collided with the recession’s near-double-digit unemployment and substantive policy debates over industry bailouts, stimulus spending and health care, to trigger an angry grassroots conservative movement almost without parallel in the U.S. Made up of anti-government, anti-tax and anti-abortion agitators, it is now opposed by a Democratic party newly galvanized by its successful passage of health care reform.
The result, with Republican politicians cowed into moving ever farther to the right by pundits like Fox News host Glenn Beck, talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh, and activists from so-called “Patriot” groups and the burgeoning Tea Party movement, has been toxic rhetoric and rabid polarization in Washington, divisions arguably even more marked than under George W. Bush. “In terms of partisan conflict, we’ve never really seen anything like this and it’s really shocking for a country that by and large has hung its hat on moderation—compromise between conservatives and liberals,” says Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “If you take a look at data in terms of the divisions between Republicans and Democrats specifically, you’d have to go back to Reconstruction in the 20 or 30 years after the Civil War.”
No doubt because the party has suffered two consecutive election routs—the mid-term of 2006 and the presidential vote in 2008—much of the bad behaviour has come from the GOP side. Remember South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson bellowing “You lie” at the President during his speech to a joint session of Congress last September? Or Texas Republican congressman Randy Neugebauer calling pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak “baby-killer” after Stupak changed his mind and voted for health care reform, passing it? Democrats have arguably countered the Republicans with condescension if not anger, and with majorities in both the House and Senate, they have left the jibes to sympathetic pundits. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow devoted a lengthy item to ridiculing support for the Tea Party movement as “teabagging,” an act more often tittered about on HBO’s Sex and the City than referenced in political discourse. New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman allowed that “Republicans have become embarrassing to watch,” adding of his own discretion: “It doesn’t feel right to make fun of crazy people.”
Washington plowed into its nadir on Sunday, March 21, when the health care reform vote split the House Democrats and Republican along strict party lines. The debate over the reform package and how the final vote broke down illustrated how politics in the U.S. has become destructive. “We are about 24 hours from Armageddon. This health care bill will ruin our country,” the Republican House minority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, predicted before the vote. His watch may have been off, but it’s by no means certain Boehner was entirely wrong. The passing of health care reform sparked death threats—one anonymous caller promised snipers would shoot the children of lawmakers who voted for the bill—and recriminations. Republican House whip Eric Cantor accused Democrats of “dangerously fanning the flames” by revealing they’d been threatened. Meanwhile,
Democrats saw bricks thrown through their office windows—and signed on for more security.
Leading the charge on the right is the Tea Party, whose protesters have adopted Obama iconography, featuring the President with a red joker smear across his mouth and white face paint; the effect—a demonic Al Jolson—is disturbingly reminiscent of blackface minstrelsy. Alternatively, he is given a Hitler moustache. Both images are in keeping with Harris polling conducted early in March that said 42 per cent of Tea Party supporters believe Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did,” and that 25 per cent believe “he may be the Antichrist.”
African-American congressmen, including civil rights hero John Lewis, said Tea Partiers protesting health care reform shouted racial epithets as they left the Capitol last month. Barney Frank, a gay Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, also said he heard slurs as he walked by protesters. (Tea Party leaders like Mark Skoda, who heads a Memphis group and who helped organize the Washington protest, are demanding proof Tea Partiers used racist language: “That incident didn’t occur,” Skoda, an IT entrepreneur, told Maclean’s. “Not that I would say that congressman Lewis is lying—I believe he may have misheard.”)
Yet those taking to the streets, with their crudely drawn placards and creative spellings—one website is devoted to photographs featuring what it calls “teabonics”—don’t necessarily reflect the movement’s leadership, as Obama suggested in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer. The President more or less dismissed what he called the “core” of the Tea Partiers as “folks who just weren’t sure whether I was born in the United States, whether I was a socialist.”
He does so at his peril. Indeed, for anyone frightened by the anger of the Tea Party protests, it’s perhaps more frightening still to consider that many devoted members of the movement are mild-mannered, well-educated, hard-working people at the same time as they are committed ideologues—Ned Flanders types quietly enacting a plan to change American politics, not by dismantling government à la the Guardians of the Free Republics, or even by starting a third party, but from the inside. With the intensity and idealism of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the new conservative right is, with as little fanfare as possible, infiltrating establishment political parties, fomenting revolution even as it—mostly—plays by the rules.
That’s not to say that the movement isn’t also fundamentally weird. Nor does it monitor itself with the same fervour with which it polices its political foes. Indeed, its own spokespeople frequently demonstrate a shaky grasp of reality—as has been evident during the current Tea Party Express bus tour that began in Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nev., and will end April 15—tax day—in Washington. The tour is an orgy of vitriol, a carnivalesque bacchanal of political buttons (Alfred E. Newman holding a banner reading “Yes We Can’t,” another designating the wearer an “Angry Mob Member”), booths flogging pamphlets like “The Constitution Made Easy,” or T-shirts emblazoned with the Gadsden flag—a snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” (Michael Goodart of Springfield, Mo., put his last paycheque into printing the T-shirts when he could not make his mortgage payment a year ago and has been touring with his booth ever since.) For entertaining personalities the tour draws upon a limited pool of talent, since most performers, with the exception of the very funny Jon Voight, skew left.
Consider former Saturday Night Live cast member Victoria Jackson, who has appeared during some stops of the tour. On Easter Sunday, Jackson, who took to the stage with a ukulele and who, in a sailor’s hat and blond hair, looked something like the conservative right’s answer to Harpo Marx, said of Obama and his entourage: “They take bribes, they lie, they cheat?.?.?.?steal, they violate the constitution. We’re in a war, it’s tyranny vs. liberty, and it’s a war of ideas. You can’t touch freedom, you can feel it, and I felt my freedom starting to go away in 2008 when a Communist got elected!”
The crowd of perhaps 500 people in Huntsville, Ala., cheered. Jackson, emboldened, rolled her eyes and, in her trademark high-register voice, continued her diatribe: “I mean, they’re saying Marxist. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. Okay? It’s the same thing. Where do I start? They fight with lies and cheating and profanity and bribes. We fight with honour and love and wisdom and truth?.?.?.?They’re going to try to take away conservative and Christian radio! That’s their next thing on the agenda. First they take control of the real estate market. The banks. The auto industry. Health care. Energy. And then its going to be our freedom of speech. We’re not going to take it!!!”
It only served to increase the feeling of foreboding hovering over the U.S. last week that the letters dispatched by the Guardians of the Free Republics arrived just days after the FBI arrested nine militiamen in the depressed rust-belt states of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio; authorities allege the group conspired to kill police officers as part of a plan to trigger a civil war the militiamen hoped would ultimately bring about the collapse of the U.S. government. According to the Detroit Free Press, the final straw for the Hutaree, as the Christian group calls itself, may have been a rumour circulating on the Internet that Obama had signed into law a bill that would see $20 billion go to helping the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas establish itself in the U.S. Tina Stone, wife of militia leader David Stone Sr., wrote on Facebook: “I’m peeved,,, when people in this country is getting kicked out of there homes everyday?.?.?.?that just wrong.” She later added: “I’m so stressed I could KILL someone!!!!!!!”
Such extremist paramilitary groups are on the rise across the U.S., says a report released earlier this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, almost tripling to 512 groups in 2009. Militias had largely disappeared after an uptick in the 1990s under president Bill Clinton, a surge that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. (Like the Hutaree, Timothy McVeigh’s co-conspirator in the bombing, Terry Nichols, was from Michigan.) This new generation, says “The Second Wave,” a 2009 report by the same non-profit civil rights group, differs from earlier iterations in that it has been “racialized” by increasing levels of non-white immigration and the ascendency of a black President. “At the same time,” the report argues, “ostensibly mainstream politicians and media pundits have helped to spread Patriot and related propaganda, from conspiracy theories about a secret network of U.S. concentration camps to wholly unsubstantiated claims about the President’s country of birth.”
Militia-style rhetoric has not been confined to paramilitary groups in recent weeks. “Don’t Retreat, Instead—RELOAD!” tweeted Sarah Palin the day Obama signed into law the health care reform bill. A map posted on her Facebook page, meanwhile, indicated with crosshair targets the districts of 20 House Democrats who had beaten Republican incumbents to go on and vote for the health care bill. “Let’s take back the 20, together!” said the Palin graphic. “It’s time to take a stand.”
It was a trope even some militiamen said went too far. “That’s very distasteful—it is,” Lee Miracle, the 43-year-old coordinator of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, told Maclean’s during one of dozens of media calls he took in the wake of the Hutaree arrests. “We don’t put people targets up—except for Osama bin Laden, he’s okay. There are rules. There is a degree of decorum and civility that we engage in that apparently surpasses that of certain national Republican speakers.” (Miracle, who objects to charges that militia groups like his are motivated by racism, points out that the Democratic party isn’t immune to such rhetoric; he cites Obama’s commitment in a 2008 speech to escalate Republican attacks: “If they bring a knife to the fight,” Obama said, “we bring a gun.”)
This Saturday, Miracle’s group is slated to hold a Militia Field Day, described on its website as an “Open Carry Family Picnic & Tea Party” (“Show, Shoot, Shout Then Sip Some Tea With Us,” runs the flyer’s very tempting tag line). The event will marry the two main strains of the American right’s response to the Obama administration. “If you’re drawing your Venn diagram, there are going to be overlaps,” allows Miracle, who has worked for the U.S. postal service for 20 years (and sees no irony in it). He adds of the distinction between militiamen and Tea Party activists: “We’re concrete. We’re not thoughts and philosophies floating through the air. We are boots on the ground.”
No doubt many Tea Party organizers would disagree. It was only a little over a year ago—on Feb. 19, 2009—that CNBC personality Rick “The Rant” Santelli ad libbed what would become the Tea Party movement’s manifesto, live on television. In a lather of dismissive pique over Obama’s $75-billion mortgage rescue plan, Santelli complained that the government was “promoting bad behaviour” and asked: “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” It was then that he suggested a Chicago Tea Party: “All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan,” said Santelli (who never went on to become a Tea Party spokesman), “I’m gonna start organizing.”
Santelli’s message found a ready audience. “The fuel was there, he lit the fire,” says Tea Party activist Amy Kremer. “There were already rumblings in the conservative world—you know, maybe it’s time for another American revolution, maybe it’s time to have another Tea Party—because people were tired of the out-of-control spending and taxation.”
Kremer, a plump 39-year-old from Atlanta, who paints her lips red in the severe manner of Betty Boop, is standing in the shade not far from a life-sized replica of the space shuttle Pathfinder in Huntsville, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Space Camp program. “What a beautiful setting—this says ‘America,’ ” Kremer had said moments earlier, addressing the people gathered in Pathfinder’s shadow during the stop on the Tea Party Express tour. “Our movement is like a rocket that’s been taking off for the past year!”
A political neophyte, like most Tea Partiers, and a former Delta Air Lines flight attendant, Kremer came to prominence during the 2008 elections blogging as “Southern Bell.” The day after Santelli’s rant, Kremer says she helped organize a conference call with others of like mind via Twitter. “The purpose was to organize Tea Parties one week from that day,” she says. “We defined our success as 10 Tea Parties across the country, 50 to 100 people in attendance at each party. That following Friday, one week later, we had 53 Tea Parties with 30,000 people in attendance. And we did that with no media—it was all through social networking.” The following Monday, with just six weeks to spare, the same group set about organizing a nationwide April 15 tax-day protest, this one heavily promoted by Fox News. “We had 850 Tea Parties with approximately 1.2 million people and it’s just mushroomed,” says Kremer. “I never planned to be involved in politics, and here I’m right in the centre of it.”
Corroborating Kremer’s numbers is no easy task. Amorphous, diffuse, organized almost by cell, Tea Party groups are stubbornly reluctant to take direction. Websites associated with the various branches send surfers through an oddly hermetic universe, filled with sister groups like Glenn Beck’s 912 Project, which seeks to establish nostalgia for post-9/11 American unity as a patriotic touchstone. “The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created,” reads the group’s mission statement.
It would be a mistake to identify the rise of the new and angry conservative populism too closely with the GOP—or to dismiss it as too looney to matter. Though Tea Party and other Patriot activists skew overwhelmingly Republican—74 per cent of Tea Partiers are either registered Republicans or independents who typically vote for the GOP, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll—they tend to view present-day Republicans as apostates and to brickbat Bush for approving the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the bank and auto bailout that now totals $700 billion. “Look, people are mad as hell at the Republicans—they’re madder at the Republicans than they are at the Democrats,” says Kremer.
While Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white (88 per cent, according to the Quinnipiac poll), more than 50 per cent are women, and more than a quarter have completed post-secondary education. “If I were to sort of try and put them down on the psychologist’s couch and get inside their psyches a little bit, my sense is that this is a group of people that’s just frightened to death by what they view as monumental changes that are taking place,” says political scientist Marc Hetherington. “These people must be looking at a world that is changing so fast, and it’s dizzying to them and in ways that are very disturbing.”
Tea Partiers and others are going about the business of reshaping politics in their own image with a strange combination of the quixotic and the canny. Most are savvy enough to leave social issues like abortion off the table. “It really helps our movement that we don’t focus on social issues,” says Chad Capps, head of the Huntsville Tea Party Movement. “There’s a lot of things that people want us to get involved in that we just say, ‘Nope, sorry, that’s outside our core mission and we just can’t do that.’ ”
It seems clear that Scott Brown, the Republican Massachusetts senator who beat Martha Coakley in January to take the Senate seat long held by Teddy Kennedy, won in part due to Tea Party support. But the movement’s influence is being felt in other ways, too. “A year ago, I wasn’t able to get through to a congressman’s office,” says Cincinnati Tea Party member Justin Binik-Thomas. “Now I’m getting phone calls from them.” He adds: “They’re welcome to come to our events but they don’t speak—they listen.”
In a similar demonstration of grassroots potency, Alabama Tea Party groups joined forces in past weeks to press state legislators in Montgomery on passing the Healthcare Freedom Act, one of a raft of state bills across the country seeking federal health care opt-out amendments. Alabama Tea Party members “would go and sit in on the Senate discussions every day and write up emails letting us know which senator needed some pressure applied,” says Huntsville’s Capps. The bill has since passed the state Senate and will likely go to the House this week.
Yet such political acumen is often combined in the Tea Party with a naive commitment to candidates too conservative to appeal to independents, an obstacle to electoral success. Many Arizona Tea Partiers, to cite one example, now back J.D. Hayworth’s bid to unseat Sen. John McCain in that state’s Republican primary. But Hayworth’s tough stance on border issues—“It’s not only a matter of national security, it’s a matter of personal security,” he told a Tea Party rally last week—would leave the party at a disadvantage viz. Arizona’s fast-growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
Still, it’s McCain who has been making concessions rather than Hayworth, beefing up his border bona fides, repudiating his “maverick” past and appearing on stage alongside former running mate Palin, a Tea Party favourite, at least for now. “Right now we’re upset with Palin because she’s campaigning with McCain,” says Detroit-area Tea Partier Dennis Moore, who is disappointed Palin is not supporting Hayworth. “We thought Palin would be more to our liking.” Perhaps predictably, the Tea Party’s growing influence has prompted purges in Republican ranks (most famously that of Canadian-born conservative David Frum, who lost his job at a conservative think tank after calling Obama’s health care success a Republican Waterloo).
David Lanoue, head of political science at the University of Alabama, calls this the “death of pragmatism,” arguing: “Ronald Reagan, who is the patron saint of the right and well respected by the Tea Party, was the ultimate pragmatist. When Ronald Reagan had to raise taxes, he raised taxes. When Ronald Reagan had to work with Democrats, he worked with Democrats. Now pragmatism has gone out the window and there’s an expectation that you must meet every single demand or you’re a turncoat.” Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine who has written about third-party movements in the U.S., is even more pointed: “What I worry about is that [Tea Partiers] capture the Republican party like the Goldwater people did in ’64—and then what you have is a very conservative, very small minority party. It seems to me that’s not good for a two-party system.”
Yet that may be just what’s happening. Indeed, Tea Party activists are now beginning to apply their exacting standards in ways they hope will transform the established parties from the inside. Arizona’s Darla Dawald, national director of ResistNet.com, a conservative website, remembers learning of a magic infiltration mechanism as a “did you know?” moment. “It was one of those things,” says the 46-year-old former health care administrator, who sought a life change after a bout of cancer, leaving her job to open a gift basket boutique that she was forced to close during the financial collapse of 2008.
Then a friend told her that the lowest rung of elected office within both the Republican and Democratic parties—often called the precinct level, depending on the state—“is where we actually decide who gets put on the ballot” by electing local party leadership. Dawald looked into the situation at her local Republican precinct and found that over half the committee positions stood open—a dearth of local participation that holds true across the country for both parties.
“I signed up myself!” Dawald says, standing outside the Tea Party Express bus in Nashville. She adds that Tea Party activists across the U.S. have done the same, and that she knows of some precincts where Tea Partiers have taken total control. “We believe that can be done for the Democratic party, too,” she says, before describing her state of mind as she took up politics: “I had no job, I didn’t know what to do, I was disgusted with what our government was doing.” Her career history as an administrator had taught her to do much. “I knew how to build infrastructure, I knew how to build a team.” She got involved, and now guides other Tea Party supporters who seek to do as she has done. “We want them to get involved on the local level to take back their country!” she says.
“Spiritually,” she adds, she knows she lost her gift basket store to do just this. She is so sure she is right.