When You Throw a Tea Party and No One Comes: Why It's Hard to be a Right-Wing Activist

The conservative activists were enraged. The political left was on the march, and something had to be done. The group, most hailing from upstate New York and all from the political right, had planned to charter a bus to Washington, but by the 3 p.m. deadline too few people had signed up to go. So they arranged for a van, but late that evening its water pump broke. “Spider” the biker had planned to come but he drank too much that night and fell asleep.

Others bailed too. At 3 a.m. the few who were left met in a Macy’s parking lot behind a mall in Albany and set off in the pre-dawn in two of their own cars. They were en route to meet up with thousands of others, a motley brigade of ad hoc right-wing activists, Oath Keepers, Tea Partiers, 9/12ers, the unaffiliated, with overlapping alliances that form a web of kindred rage in their battle for the future of America. They are the Yippies of the square community, and three of them were piled into a 2004 Mazda Tribute barreling down the New Jersey turnpike in the glow of a full moon, in an eleventh-hour rescue mission to save the American way – to Washington, D.C., to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

The right-wing grassroots movement has ballooned in the Obama era and incorporated a large number of people who were never activists before. Many of these neophytes hail from the exurbs, ridicule community organizing and value obedience and social conformity. Having lived most of their adult lives in the conservative America of 1980s and 1990s they have never before considered open revolt – they’re learning as they go. As the anger grows along with the deficit and more people tap into the outrage oozing out of TV sets in bedroom communities from the Adirondacks to the Sierra Nevada, the so-called “patriotic movement” continues to grow. Like any creature coming of age, it is often awkward, clumsy and unsightly, and often a bit confused as to just what exactly it stands for. And its grassroots purity has been compromised, in part, as it has grown to embrace celebrity figures and even some professional politicos.

Nonetheless, the rank and file of the Tea Party Patriots remains a dedicated cadre of volunteers, everyday Americans disgusted with what they think is happening to their country. They are the essence of the movement and as activists they are largely inexperienced. The Tea people and their kind are activism adolescents, and like movements before them they are experiencing growing pains.

“Have you ever heard of Kesey and the magic bus? They were called the Merry Pranksters. Kind of reminds me of this bus,” said Lynne Roberts, 61, from the driver’s seat. Barbara “Barb” Park, 58, laughed nasally in the seat next to her. Bob “The Weasel Slayer” MacInness, 62, slept in the backseat with his head in a pile of soft things.

When Lynne first conceived of this operation just weeks before, the leadership of her Tea Party Patriots group praised her for her enthusiasm, and gently told her it would be impossible to organize on such short notice. But she was sure that tired slogans and clever picket signs weren’t getting anyone anywhere. A health care reform bill had passed the House and was moving through the Senate. Time was growing short.

“I started getting these feelings that what we really needed to do is be right in their lairs.” So she started firing off emails and made a stream of phone calls from her home in small-town Vermont, and soon there was a “We Surround You” event listed for Tuesday, December 1st, on the national Tea Party Patriots website. The plan was to rally outside the Capitol, then invade the offices of enemy senators, delivering to each a petition and an onslaught of disapproval.

“I’m definitely not a book club person,” Lynne said. “There’s a lot of people who want to be studying stuff up. I’m more of a –“

“A rabble rouser!” Barb yelped.

Unlike many in her movement, Lynne isn’t exactly new to rabble rousing. “I tell my kids that I’ll never tell them what I did in the 60s until they are at least 37 years old,” she said.

What Lynne did in the 1960s was move around a lot, a quasi-bohemian non-voter, vaguely leftist without any real political sophistication. In the 1980s she fought local environmental campaigns against two multinational corporations. She cried when Ronald Reagan was elected.

“Now he’s my hero.”

In the 1990s she tepidly supported Clinton and loathed Rush Limbaugh. And by the late 2000s she was convinced of her country’s imminent doom under the leadership of a man she believes hates America.

“I didn’t want to have the government taking charge of my life. I’m very independent and I don’t want people telling me how to live my life.”

Like many activists of all stripes, Lynne describes her political evolution entirely in these vague talking points. It’s unclear what exactly inspired her shift: maybe her conservative spouse, or her outlook on the world changing with age. Or maybe when her youngest of two kids left the house in May 2009 she suddenly had time like she hadn’t had in decades, and the energies of a woman who’s irreverence is rivaled only by her exuberance met with a conservative movement of like-minded suburbanites. Of her first rally as a full fledged member of the Patriotic movement, Lynne said, “The feeling there, it was like coming home.”

If she had an excess of time on her hands after her daughter graduated from high school, just as the Tea Parties were burgeoning into a major movement, she didn’t after she again became an activist. “Now that both my children are away, now I have time to really pay attention to what is going on. It’s an 8-hour a day job for me now,” she said.

People like Lynne – passionate volunteers – are the backbone of the movement, but this plebian innocence has been partly compromised, and was never a full picture of things. Former majority leader Dick Armey’s Freedom Works Foundation was a potent force in the beginning of the Tea Party movement, and as it has grown it has been co-opted, in part, by other opportunist establishmentarians. Politicians like as Senator Jim DeMint and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have become beloved celebrities in the Tea Party crowd, bridges between the base and the establishment and uniquely adored in a movement that professes to be sick of traditional politicians. A doppelganger of sorts has even cropped up: the Tea Party Express, a soulless imposter of the grassroots Tea Party Patriots movement, well-funded and well-connected, orchestrated by the Republican PAC Our Country Deserves Better and given heavy-handed support in the media by Fox News – the opposite, in many ways, of what the grassroots movement purports to be. And trouble is brewing for the upcoming first-ever Tea Party Convention, at which such conservative luminaries as Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann are slated to speak. Citing concerns over transparency and its $549 entry fee, the grassroots are crying foul and at least one sponsor, the American Liberty Alliance, has decided to pull out of the event.

In rural New Jersey, as the sun was breaking over the horizon, the crew pulled over at a rest stop to switch drivers and re-supply. A fresh coffee in hand, Bob took the wheel and Lynne sat in the back with Barb, making last minute preparations.

“It’s gonna be really interesting to see how many people are here because the only numbers that I know absolutely – well as absolute as anything can be – is the 1,500 to 2,000 coming up from Tampa and Georgia.” She had also heard rumblings about Oath Keepers from Arkansas and Tea Partiers from the D.C. area. But she was having trouble verifying these other groups – no one was answering the phone.

Lynne picked up a box of one thousand song sheets, took one out and began to sing in the back of the car. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord - He is trampling on the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

Maryland. In the exurbs of D.C., and suddenly, a traffic jam. The parade of cars was creeping impossibly slow. In the rumble of the engine lurching forward, the car’s occupants, the driver Bob excepted, went to sleep.

Bob the Weasel Slayer is nicknamed as such because, he said, Nancy Pelosi looks like a weasel and he has made it his business to figuratively slay her. A former Brooklyn cop, Bob, 62, retired in 1986 and now lives in rural upstate New York. He is a Vietnam veteran, an Oath Keeper, and an outspoken critic of the broad advance of post-colonial post-modernity.

“You gotta talk about western civilization too, it’s not just happening here, it’s happening all over Europe,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people that think it’s no longer our turn, our time in the sun is gone. Well, the Chinese eat dogs. They throw living dogs in boiling water and have them for dinner. Is that the civilization you want?”

Bob spoke with an ideologue’s clarity of the conditions ripe for revolution.

“They want a nation of peons so we can compete with the Chinese. And that’s one of the things I think, in this whole movement, people see the middle class getting squeezed out of existence,” he said. “You’ve got to have manufacturers to make something to pay the service workers, you can’t have a whole nation of service workers,” Bob said. “It’s like an avalanche coming.”

Bob, who like many in his movement uses the moniker “liberal” as a pejorative, like dickhead, or idiot, could easily be confused for a union organizer railing against NAFTA, until he starts singing the praises of Glenn Beck. He retired in his 40s and is living on a New York police officer’s pension – his grievances are not economic. For Bob, this is a war for the culture of his country.

Kellen Giuda, who sits on the board of directors of the National Tea Party Patriots – the closest thing the Tea Parties have to a central command – said in an interview following one protest, “You will never find me talking about a Tea Party outside the realm of fiscal responsibility ‘cause to me that’s what it is and that’s what we stand for.”

Yet the sloganeering at Tea Parties shows that they have become something more. As they have grown they have enveloped other elements from the broader conservative movement and the fringes of American politics; recent rally sings took fiscal responsibility a step further, comparing Obama to Hitler (“The American Tax Payers are the Jews for Obama’s Ovens”). There were pro-life protesters and conspiracy theorists: “Barack Obama Supports Abortion, Sodomy, Socialism and the New World Order,” said one sign in Columbia, South Carolina. The paranoia and overtly racist conservatism of the Tea Parties has been overblown in the media – Bob the Weasel Slayer is neither paranoid nor overtly racist. Still, it is clear the Tea Parties are an expression of something bigger than support for fiscal conservatism. They have become an expression of the culture war come to a boil under the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama.

The car was delayed nearly two hours by the traffic, and Lynne wasn’t getting phone calls from other organizers. “Now I just have this horrible feeling of having a Tea Party and nobody comes, just this horrible sinking feeling. If that happens, I’m just going to cry,” she said.

They parked at Union Station and walked toward the Capitol Building, and a small handful of rightist comrades gathered together in the parking lot. Something had gone wrong. The buses from Tampa weren’t coming. There were no Oath Keepers from Arkansas. The sky was radiant blue and they all shook hands in the sunshine with a light breeze and the faint smell of an outdoor grill – a beautiful day teasing the failed protest. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disappointed in my life,” said Lynne.

They decided to make the best of it. The right-wing platoon went around to senate offices, at each stop Lynne warning staff that if her demands are not met, “we’ll Virginia you.” The constituency had changed, she said, and any legislator who supports this socialist president would feel the full wrath of the movement in dollars and bodies in their next campaign and was sure to be thrown out of office.

Compared to what it might have been, Lynne’s event had failed. A thousand copies of the Battle Hymn of the Republic sat unused in her car. But such is the nature of grassroots movements. Organizing, they found, takes more planning, teamwork, and coordination.  

But they are learning and they are fired up. The Tea Partiers are gearing up for what has become a surprisingly close race in Massachusetts to fill the late Senator Kennedy’s senate seat. There is trouble in Tea land, to be sure, as the grassroots clash with the establishment. But its foundation of outrage remains strong, and as a force in American politics they are certainly note done yet.


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