The Mad Tea Party

Conservatives learn how to protest.

A “tea party” demonstration

The original plan for the anti-tax “tea party” protest in Washington—one of hundreds across the country April 15—was to gather in Lafayette Park across from the White House, unload 1 million bags of tea, and then move to the steps of the Treasury Department. As it turned out, there were few actual tea bags, the event at the Treasury building was canceled at the last minute, and the Lafayette rally was temporarily shut down halfway through due to a bomb scare.

None of this was the organizers’ fault. Who knew you needed a special permit for tea-bagging? (Don’t go there, David Shuster.) And even if it was their fault, it would be hard to know whom to blame, since more than a dozen organizations co-sponsored it. But Wednesday’s protest was full of reminders that when it comes to mass demonstration, conservatives are still a little rusty.

“This is the first protest I’ve ever been to,” said Dick Farina, a D.C. resident who showed up with his wife. He wore a sandwich board sign: “Slow to anger. Plenty angry now.” Also new was Daniel Kamerling, an engineer who contracts for the Department of Defense and made a sign with supplies he got at Target. Andrew Sexton, who served in Afghanistan until 2006, said, “I’m still new to this whole activism thing.”

Indeed, it’s hard to think of the last time conservatives have come out in such numbers for anything—Wednesday’s rally topped 3,000 in Washington, and some 700 other such parties attracted tens of thousands nationwide. Protests by definition oppose the status quo, which conservatism is supposed to defend. Protesting for conservatism is, to borrow a phrase, like fucking for virginity.

As a result, everything felt upside-down. Bush isn’t the overbearing tyrant anymore—Obama is. (One sign dubbed Janet Napolitano “Obama’s Gestapo Queen.”) Instead of quoting the Constitution on habeas corpus, this group quoted the 10th Amendment on states’ rights. Instead of inviting Patti Smith or Sheryl Crow, they sang “America the Beautiful.”

Even liberals seemed to fit neatly into the new political order. “Love it or leave it!” shouted Dave Kammer, a bearded counterprotester from Seattle. “You don’t want taxes? You don’t want gun control? Go to Somalia!”

Some charge that the tea party “movement” is just a faux-populist front group for Republican powers that be. The organizers therefore took pains to show that the event was an authentic, 100 percent-natural, grass-roots affair. “How many of you are here because the Republican Party paid you?” organizer Andrew Langer asked the audience. Boooo. “How many of you were sent by lobbyists?” Boooo. “Is this grass-roots?” Cheers all around. “We’re not a right-wing fringe,” speakers kept insisting. They doth protest too much.

When conservative godfather Grover Norquist took the stage, he noted that many people had asked him who organized the event. “I know of three people,” he said. “One was named Nancy Pelosi. One was named Harry Reid. One was named Barack Obama. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t spent the last four months spending other people’s money.”

The sense that no one was in charge may have actually worked to their advantage. For one thing, it helped feed the “grass-roots” image. It also gave the impression that anything could happen—an impression that was only reinforced by the presence of Alan Keyes. As a result, few Republican leaders actually attended the events, fearing they might get associated with blowhards, which in turn helped distance the tea party from the political party.

Keyes was in top form. You can blame bankers and politicians for the current crisis, he told the crowd. “[But] you tell me something. In a government of, by, and for the people, how do the people escape the blame?” However, it was not too late for members of the audience to pay penance. “This is the day on which to make known that you care enough about the future of your country to turn out in the storm and in the pouring rain to make your hearts be known.”

I pulled Keyes aside before his speech and asked him what he would do if he were Obama. “If I were in Obama’s position, first thing I’d do is show us his birth certificate. That’s what I’d do. I’d put to rest the shadow of illegitimacy that hangs over his presidency in the minds of people all over this country.”

Around 2 p.m., organizers abruptly announced that everyone had to clear out of the park. Apparently someone had lobbed something over the White House fence, and the police had to clear the area. “Was it a tea bag?” someone wondered out loud. The crowd immediately split into two categories: believers and skeptics. “It’s for our safety,” said Rebecca Wales, one of the organizers. “The bailout was for our safety!” responded Sexton. “I bet it’s because Obama’s dog had to take a dump,” said Dale Waun of Sacramento, who had tea-bag sideburns—a bag suspended from each rim of his sunglasses.

Most protesters, however, waited patiently while law and order were re-established. “We’re conservatives,” said one. “We like the police!”