Slick, Paranoid Tea Party Video Aims for Violent Insurrection
Attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) were reportedly thrilled by a short sci-fi video depicting a dictatorial near-future government and the underground "Movement on Fire" that springs up to resist it. The video, a thinly veiled advertisement for violent insurrection from the “Tea Party Patriots" group, boasts professional acting and Hollywood production values. But underneath its bright, professional sheen lurk dark overtones of End Times paranoia that will resonate with millions of American fundamentalists. Its apocalyptic imagery is as ancient as Revelations, its glossy look as modern as a Revlon ad, and its near-subliminal barrage of rapid-cut imagery rings with the terror-fueled sermons of 1,000 preachers.
Here's the video:
It stands on its own as agitprop-cum-entertainment for the far right, which is filled with armchair revolutionaries whose favorite fantasies involve the same elements used in this video: attractive people, video-game-like locations, nightmarish bureaucracies and the world-changing power of their own oratory. “Let our lives be the spark that ignites the fire of liberty,” the protagonist shouts at one point. His words resonate with memories of historical heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice rather than yield to tyranny.
"I would so totally do that," a right-wing fantasy rebel might mutter in response.
“We are a movement on fire!” the video’s hero shouts as a crowd cheers. “Will you take up the torch?” Absolutely, our viewer mumbles to himself … "Hey, I hear they’re serving free hors d’ouevres at the Pajamas Media booth...."
But this video’s imagery will have special resonance for American evangelicals who believe the End Times are near. “Movement on Fire” draws heavily on the so-called “Tribulation” films of the 1970s and 1980s. Among the earliest and best-known of these films are A Thief in the Night, Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast and The Prodigal Planet, all of which were made by Iowa-based Russell S. Doughten Jr.
Doughten’s previous film credits were limited to an associate producer credit for The Blob (the original Steve McQueen version) and production duties for grindhouse productions The Hostage and Fever Heat. But Christian filmmaking proved to be his forte. Doughten’s website claims that “over six million have come to Christ through our motion pictures,” and while the figure can’t be independently verified, many Christians in their 30s and 40s recall being terrified by the films when they were young.
All but unknown outside evangelical circles, Doughten’s films became required viewing in many homes, religious schools, and churches. Other filmmakers soon followed in Doughten’s footsteps with films like Mark of the Beast and Years of the Beast.
These films portrayed centralized government as Evil incarnate. Their scriptural source was the Book of Revelations, whose cryptic, evocative prophecies have fascinated and frightened believers for millennia. The same message resonates in “Movement On Fire,” which opens with a young woman staring across a river toward a city. “It was created to give us freedom,” she says in a voiceover as a torch burns beside her. “Our city became a great beacon of liberty and hope to the world.” The wind lightly ruffles her hair. “It was a shining city on a hill,” she adds, quoting the phrase that passed from the Bible to Puritan minister John Winthrop before winding up in Ronald Reagan’s 1976 concession speech.
“But 15 years ago,” says the narrator, “something happened.” Shadowy hooded figures creep up behind her. “Freedom died.” In a shot that moves so quickly we barely see it, one of the figures covers her eyes.
News anchors report on the rise of the “Development Party,” which took control of the city after winning control of its “Senate.” (Hmmm. Cities don’t have “Senates.” Who could they be talking about?) We see a gray-haired man with large, black, nearly pupil-less eyes. “All must contribute,” the dead-eyed “Troy Marcus” intones, “because from each, everything shall be given to all.”
Many modern fundamentalists have been taught that government is the "Beast” of prophecy, a Satanic and dictatorial force which may be given a human form or an artificially synthesized persona in order to beguile and doom humanity:
“And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.”
Millions of Americans were taught that Evil’s earthly reign will begin with a mysterious and charismatic figure who has no real background. Birtherism, anyone? No wonder Sarah Palin wowed the same CPAC crowd with her line, "More background checks? Dandy idea, Mr. President -- should've started with yours."
Some evangelical Christians believe that the End Times will be at hand when this prophecy is fulfilled: "... he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
Any centralized database or tracking system can be the Mark of the Beast. Bar codes were a source of particular fear when they were first introduced, as can be seen in this scene from 1980s Image of the Beast:
The programmer/protagonist stays up all night unlocking the secret patterns beneath bar codes, until she realizes their true meaning and buries her head in her hands. “It was there all along,” says a preacher’s voice in the background.
Now consider these scenes from “Movement On Fire,” which appear as rapid-fire image: A police car pulls up, the Development Party’s fascistic logo on its side. (The logo looks a lot like the gunsights Sarah Palin used to target Democratic congressional districts before the Gabby Giffords shooting.) Inside a “Development Center” our brooding young hero watches his neighbors line up for handouts. A man carrying boxes bearing the Party symbol into a Development Center, guarded by a burly man whose black suit and dark glasses make him resemble a Secret Service agent. People chatter into their cell phones, each of which bears the Development Party’s mark.
A police car. A Secret Service agent.
Inside the “Center,” bear Development Party slogans: “We meet every need.” And more cryptically, “Developing Every Need.”
“Our progress will not be stopped,” says dictator Marcus, “because when we provide for every need, then you will be fully developed.”
“Opposition to the new policies is on the rise,” newscasters announce.
“Something’s very wrong with our city,” he says portentously. A young woman looks shocked. “How can you say that? Look at all they give us!”
“Don’t you see? The more they give us, the more they control us.”
A government ID card is scanned each time a citizen can receive his or her handout. Remember that image.
“I can’t live like this anymore,” says the young man.
Soon we see him breaking his ID card in two. Then comes a violent knock on his door by armed government agents – “Mr. Arthur, you did not pay your contribution yesterday!”
By breaking his ID card in two, the “Movement on Fire” hero is declaring his independence from the Beast, the monster to whom you must surrender or be condemned. That choice is familiar to viewers of Years of the Beast, in which the once-kindly sheriff makes the following announcement:
“By order of the Prince of the World, all people will report for the Universal Census. All people will be expected to report and be registered. At that time you will have the opportunity to pledge your allegiance to the Prince and receive your Economic Mark. And all those who refuse to receive the mark will… be considered an enemy of the state.”
The Development Centers in the Tea Party movement’s video are strongly reminiscent of the One World Government centers depicted in Doughten’s films, where a televised command to "report to field offices" means it’s time to submit to UNITE, the “United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency”:
“It is just a simple necessity that each of us identify with UNITE,” says the American leader, so “report today to your local United Nations center and show yourself a true citizen of the world.”
Our protagonist refuses to get the Mark, and we see her turned away from every door. “Citizens Only” signs announce that she can’t buy groceries. She can’t fill a prescription. She can’t even buy herself the pretty dress she stares at longingly through the glass. (It was the '70s, and even the film’s brainy female protagonist had to bow to the sexist conventions of the time.)
The electronic music swells as her fate is slowly sealed. “It can only be assumed,” says the American leader, “that those who refuse to be identified are working against the Imperium … In the interests of world safety, all people who do not bear the mark of UNITE are subject to arrest and prolonged inconvenience.”
The word “inconvenience” betrays the film’s amateurishness. But the message is a grave one. In Image of the Beast a man happily lets a little boy die, rather than submit to the centralized government, and the child is happy to be sacrificed:
“Now I ask you,” the man says to his tormentors after convincing the child to die. “The boy’s free. He belongs to Jesus Christ … (pause) … What can you do to him now?”
There is no compromising with the Beast, even upon pain of death for you and your children. (“Let our lives be the spark that ignites the fire of liberty,” says the young man in “Movement on Fire.”) The heroes always die in the Tribulation films, but they die as happily as that little boy.
To a population raised on Tribulation films, the message of the Tea Party Patriots video is clear: The “Development Party” is the tool of the Beast. Its leader may be the Beast itself. Better to die than to submit.
Who are the “Tea Party Patriots”? For a group that’s stoking fear of shadowy organizations, they’re pretty shadowy themselves. They refuse to disclose their funding sources. There’s a paranoid strain to their style, which extends to their co-founder who was forced to resign after being arrested for bringing firearms onto an airplane. According to reports at the time, Mark Meckler made the implausible claim that he carries a gun because “he receives numerous threats.” Meckler’s gun was unloaded, but most of us who use guns recreationally pay more attention to laws and regulations.
That paranoid style even extends to the Tea Party Patriots website. The site is closed to all non-members, and registration must be pre-approved by the group’s leaders. The process begins with a message stating that “this forum is for Tea Party activists only to discuss issues or legislation that fall under Tea Party Patriots three core values. (Limited government, fiscal responsibility, free markets).”
Applicants for website registration are asked, “Do you understand and agree to abide by these rules and do you state that you are a Tea Party activist that agrees with our core values?"
The Tea Party Patriots also produced a highly deceptive film called "The Determinators," which uses Oregon’s assisted-suicide law and one woman’s unfortunate death to make the “death panel” argument. Local columnist Rick Attig captured the situation in a column titled “Sensationalizing a sad case cheats the public of sound debate.”
Oregon’s Medicaid program denied payment for the highly toxic, rash-producing drug a doctor had prescribed to a dying cancer patient. There was a 92 percent likelihood the drug would fail, it had highly toxic side effects. Even in the unlikely effect the drug had worked, it would only have prolonged the patient’s life for 4 to 6 months at best.
Fearmongers on the right used the case as proof that “death panels” were taking over the US healthcare system, even though Oregon voters (not government authorities) had passed that state’s “assisted suicide” law, and that assistance was one of many options offered to the patient in her denial letter. Like the Tribulation films, their narrative was designed to terrify people into believing they could be at the whim of faceless government bureaucrats with the power – and the will – to send ordinary citizens to their deaths.
The Determinators succeed, at least on that level. As a commenter on the film’s YouTube page writes: “It feels like Hitler is running our nation...is he?”
In its Spring 2013 Report, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported the findings of its annual census. “The number of antigovernment groups on the American radical right reached an all-time high in 2012,” the SCLC reports, “the fourth consecutive year of powerful growth by a movement that is growing increasingly militant as President Obama enters his second term and Congress debates gun control.
The SCLC sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warning of “the potential for domestic terrorism from the so-called ‘Patriot’ movement.”
“The climate is reminiscent of the 1990s,” writes the SCLC, “when the Brady (handgun) Act and the 1994 assault rifle ban helped spark a militant movement that culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.” The fear and hate is rising again, and this amateur video captures the mood:
The image of Obama as the Joker is followed by sinister images, as the following phrases appear on the screen: “While you were sleeping ... our government went rogue. It plans to disarm you, It plans to kill you ... this is not a joke. Foreign troops are here and ordered to kill Americans.”
Fear walks the land, and the Tea Party Patriots are here to package and sell it. The “Development Party” is the Democratic Party, of course. What about party leader “Marcus”? His name means "Mark us.”
Mark of the Beast.
For an audience raised on terror and tribulation, the message is unmistakable: Democrats are Satan. Like the little boy in Image of the Beast, we’re supposed to understand that it’s better to die than submit to them.
“Let our lives be the spark …” And not? After all, they're free. What can you do to them now?
“The potential for deadly violence,” concludes the SCLC report, “is real.”
Many members of the Tea Party Patriots, and groups like it, are undoubtedly good people who have been manipulated into believing terrible things. Cracks in the group’s wall of secrecy have offered glimpses of those manipulators by revealing its relationship with big-money Republican operators.
Mother Jones magazine cited the group's use of “high-priced PR consultants and GOP-connected direct-mail and telemarketing firms,” and questioned the IRS status it uses to maintain its secrecy. Rolling Stone (“The Lie Machine,” 2009) and Talking Points Memo have evidence that the group was used as a front operation by GOP operative Dick Armey’s “Freedomworks” group.
As Talking Points Memo noted, the group accepted Armey’s choice for its original logo, which showed a raised fist in front of the Capitol building. “The left thinks we don’t understand the connotations of the symbol,” said one of the group’s organizers, “which we do.”
Republican funding would explain “Movement On Fire’s” rhetorical finish, which otherwise seems unsatisfying and even anticlimactic. As the video ends we see a blue starry shield draped in a red-and-white sash appear on the screen and then burst into flame. Words appear, their anemic, Republican-friendly phrases a stark contrast to the video’s heated imagery and rhetoric: “Fiscal Responsibility.” “Constitutionally Limited Government.” “Free Markets.” Then they, too, burst into flames. The final words appear: “Tea Party Patriots.”
We may never know who paid for the Tea Party Patriots’ slick and professional video, but we do know that it taps into some very deep – and very disturbing – strains in the American psyche. For most conservative viewers it will provide nothing more than one more moment of escapist fantasy. But for those who have been stepped in death and destruction, resurrection and revelation, it may be highly provocative.
Who’s behind the Tea Party Patriots? We don’t know. Their new logo is a torch, and this film shows that they’re still playing with fire.