A journey into the heart of the paranoid strain of American politics.
A word of warning: The story you are about to read is neither fair nor balanced; just true.
The other night I snuck into the Tea Party, like a spy in the House of Glenn Beck Love, and nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. You know about the Tea Party movement, right? The populist jihad—sponsored by Fox News, FreedomWorks, the Taliban wing of the Republican Party and the rest of the Dick Armey—that’s putting the RIOT back in PATRIOT. They’re white as hell and they're not gonna take the 2008 presidential election anymore. It’s all the rage, and judging by the buzz on the Internet, there’s quite a lot of rage in this region.
There’s The Pennsylvania Tea Party Coalition, The Loyal Opposition, The 912ers, Independence Hall Tea Party Association, Citizens for Constitutional Government, The Thomas Jefferson Club, The Kitchen Table Patriots, PA Tea Party Patriots and the Valley Forge Patriots. The party is holding a candidates forum next week at the Crystal Tea Room in Center City and pretty much every Republican running for higher office in Pennsylvania is expected to show. There’s also a national Tea Party convention this week at Opryland in Nashville, where Sarah Palin is the featured speaker (her fee: $100,000). It’s closed to the press, so my original plan was to infiltrate one of the area Tea Parties like a liberal narc, gain their trust and try and tag along to the convention, find out what they were hiding and drop the dime. Then at the last minute they opened it up to the press and announced plans to televise the convention. Plus, they were charging $560 to get in, so I decided to think nationally and act locally. As far as I can tell, there is not much Tea Party activity going on in Center City Philadelphia: All the action is out in the suburbs and exurbs.
So I crashed a meeting of the Delaware County Patriots, an organization based in nearby Media. I elected to go incognito because the Tea Party people don’t much cotton to Huffington Post -reading, NPR-listening, latte-sipping media types like yours truly. It’s a crowd with little demonstrable patience for opposing views or dialogue with the enemy, but if some skinny white kid can dress up like a pimp and bring down ACORN, at the very least I can pretend to be all Fox-News-in-the-head for a few hours to find out what these people are so darn mad about.
To pass for a Tea Party type I needed to make some changes—these people may be crazy-mad, but they ain’t stupid. I needed to look more like I live in the suburbs and less like I hang out at The POPE, and so goodbye skinny black jeans and Timberlands, hello dad jeans, Adidas sneaks and ball cap. I debated shaving off the indie-rock beard, but decided it would give me a faintly Unabomber-esque countenance that just might tickle the Tea Partiers’ anti-gummint bone. Next, I needed an alias since my name is too easily Googled-back to an unmistakably liberal paper trail. To keep things simple, I decided to just add another ‘n’ and drop the last ‘a’ on my surname: Valanni. Easy enough to remember, but different enough to throw off Google, plus I could simply claim poor penmanship if my true identity was somehow detected and things turned ugly.
I also needed a new Gmail account to go with my assumed name. I elected to go with JGalt@gmail.com, a tip of the hat to John Galt, the benignly self-interested protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the sacred texts of the Tea Party movement. The one hitch I ran into was vastly underestimating how long it would take to scrape the frickin’ Shepard Fairey Obama bumper sticker off the back of my car. With time running out I said ‘fuck it' and jumped on I-95, setting the controls for the mouth of the right wing lion.
The Delco Patriots meet at The Media Inn, a rundown motor lodge on Baltimore Pike, about a mile south of the Media exit on the Blue Route. The big neon ‘M’ on the roof is burned out, so it says EDIA INN. I circled around the parking lot looking for signs of trouble—black helicopters, sharpshooters on the rooftop, men with sunglasses and earpieces talking into their sleeves that kind of thing. Seeing none, I decided to park a few blocks away so that the Obama bumper sticker wouldn’t blow my cover. The Delco Patriots gather in the dank basement banquet hall of the Inn, which, with its low-hanging drop ceiling, cheap glass chandeliers and musty wall-to-wall carpeting, has a certain dungeon-fresh charm. Before I could get inside, though, I had to negotiate a pair of Tea Partiers with clipboards taking down the name, address and email of everyone seeking entry: time to break out the alias. The guy taking down my info seemed a little hard of hearing and asked me to repeat my email, so I said it again louder: Jgalt@gmail.com. His fellow name-taker, a brassy blonde with a fierce Mary Matalin mien, looked up from her clipboard when she heard this and smiled.
“I am John Galt!” she exclaimed. We exchanged knowing glances, mine a little more knowing than hers. I had established Tea Party street cred; this was going well. Once inside the meeting room, I helped myself to the Delco Patriots literature spread out on a table in the back.
Among it was a statement of purpose declaring: “The Delaware County Patriots is a non-partisan group of ordinary people which is attempting to educate citizens as the effects of proposed legislation in Congress and newly implemented governmental polices. Our goal is to thoughtfully and lawfully PUT A HALT TO, and REVERSE, the escalating governmental control of so many aspects of our everyday lives.”
Another piece of literature railed against health care reform. “It is morally wrong to reduce Medicare (400 billion dollars) to those who have earned it to give in [SIC] new ‘HEALTH CARE BENEFITS’ to people who have not earned them.”
“People who have not earned them” being, perhaps, a nice way of saying low-income, non-white people.
A flyer declared: “The concepts of ‘social justice,’ ‘spreading the wealth,’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ are destroying our way of life.” Translation: Certain people—you know who we’re talking about—looking for a handout can be blamed for everything, including the two wars, the financial collapse, the 10 percent unemployment rate and the 48 percent of American homeowners that are under water. There was also a photocopy of a recent Patriot-penned LETTER TO THE EDITOR printed in the Delaware County Daily Times that bore the headline, “GLOBAL WARMING IS NOT SCIENCE, IT’S A SCAM.” That’s some convenient truth, right there, and I couldn't help but wonder what all those polar bears doing the doggy paddle in the Arctic Circle would say about it.
I took a seat as the rows of folding chairs began to fill up. Another stroke of luck: Each seat came with a pen and tablet paper—taking notes was encouraged. There would be no running back and forth to the bathroom to scribble notes for this intrepid Woodstein. By the time the meeting came to order there were roughly 250 people in attendance. Most were white, graying and pushing retirement age, if not well past it. There were a few handfuls of blue hairs, and one or two that appeared to be under 30. There were a lot of aging married couples, and the gender ratio was not nearly as phallocentric as one might expect, but for the most part, classic angry white males make up the bulk of the crowd. There were two black people in attendance; they didn’t appear to know each other. One was a stylish young man with Stevie Wonder braids, the other a middle aged-woman with an American Flag scarf proudly wrapped around her neck. Still, nobody was going to mistake this for a meeting of the NAACP. The ratio was 248 white people to two black people.
A fiftysomething blonde called the meeting to order and led us through the pledge of allegiance. She looked like the lunch lady that used to call me ‘Toots’ when I was in the fifth grade. Right away I wanted to like her, but then she opened her mouth. “My name is Vicki Thompson and I am a patriot,” she announced into a microphone plugged into a beat-up Peavey guitar amp.
By a show of hands, Vicki asked, who was at the Tax Day protest at LOVE Park? A few hands went up.
How many were at the 9/12/09 Tea Party protest in Washington, D.C.? More hands went up, along with a smattering of whoops and cheers.
How many of you have spent the past year yelling at your TV?
I’m not certain, but I think that Barack Obama is about to surrender to the Tea Party right with his spending freeze on domestic spending. Why? Because it tells the voters that the big huge stimulus package passed at the outset of his presidency was unnecessary — and that the Tea Partiers are thus right [...]
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It was informative, tame, well-enough attended and sad.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino