The National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., started small and started scandalous. Its organizers, small-time attorney Judson Phillips and his wife, Sherry, booked Sarah Palin as a keynote speaker. Next, they drowned under media requests about how much she’d be paid and why tickets were so expensive—$549 for a full pass, $349 just to see her speech. Many activists howled that this was a sham convention. The mainstream media was less sure, and more than 200 reporters, including plenty of foreign press, decided that this would be a great way to file that Tea Party story their editors were asking for.
On the floor of the convention, the ratio was roughly one hack for every three activists. Among the hacks were Will Bunch, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, and me. I joined the rest of the herd and filed hourly updates from Nashville, joining the scrums to talk to political has-beens like Tom Tancredo and Roy Moore, fighting for space with FlipCams and live-tweeters. Bunch was there, too, battling laryngitis as he conducted interviews and filled his notebook. What he learned can be found in his new book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. The rest of the press, he argues, got distracted by Palin and failed to notice the hucksters.
“[T]he second wave of the Tea Party, which had its coming-out amid the central Tennessee woodlands, was chock full of opportunists, especially of the capitalist variety,” Bunch writes. “And in the burst of the energy that was the anti-Obama backlash they saw a different kind of rebirth, which was career reinvention powered by a large new pool of potential customers.” The story wasn’t Palin’s speech. It was Palin’s situation: “She hadn’t lost her job, as so many people in the movement had—but rather she quit it when she saw a lucrative opportunity come along.”
The Backlash is not the first book-length attempt to understand the Tea Party movement. It’s one wave in a flood of books, which began with a memoir by an organizer of the Feb. 27, 2009, Tea Party in Washington ( A New American Tea Party), a these-people-are-crazy take on the new conservative movement ( Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane), and a “manifesto” by the leaders of FreedomWorks ( Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto). It hit shelves at the end of August and is joined next week by Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, by Kate Zernike of the New York Times. In a few weeks, they’ll be crowded out by more Tea Party tell-alls.
But The Backlash and Boiling Mad read less like cash-ins and more like real histories of the movement. Bunch and Zernike both have Pulitzers on their shelves, as reporters on teams that won for spot news and explanatory reporting. Both of them got on the road, sat through meetings, and did long interviews with activists who were mocked or ignored outside of Fox News.
And both books read like the reporters were overwhelmed. The Tea Party is the first true new media movement. It’s the first mass uprising to organize outside and against the press, because—according to the helpful New York Times poll reprinted in Zernike’s book—it doesn’t trust it and it doesn’t need it. Activists find out about meetings through Facebook or TaxDayTeaParty.com, and come armed with information from WorldNetDaily or Glenn Beck’s multiplatform factoid machine. They’ll still talk to reporters, because appearing in print still adds a kind of credibility and fame that can promote the movement. There’s just no pretense that the activist needs the media to succeed. (Also, during the reporting of his book, Bunch became a fellow at Media Matters, which will probably allow most activists to dismiss him as an agent of S.O.R.O.S.)
Bunch tries his best to prove that the hacks are still needed for something, whether or not the movement wants to admit it. The Backlash is not an attack on the movement. It’s a plea for the people inside the movement to realize they’re being taken advantage of. The work of reporting that most resembles his project—and this really won’t convince conservatives to pick it up—is Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Bunch and Moore both end up arguing that the Middle Americans who so terrify liberals are simply being misled.
Still, if liberals want to read this book for the stories of crazies being crazy, they’re in here. Bunch goes beyond Nashville to the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky, to the Pittsburgh suburb that produced the deranged cop-killer Richard Poplawski, and to the Arizona political rallies where, for a little while, it looked like J.D. Hayworth would capitalize on recession-driven immigration panic and oust John McCain. But Bunch, writing for a liberal audience, understands exactly why two years of surging unemployment would lead people to right-wing populism. He just thinks they’re being scammed.
Strike that—he knows they are, because of people like Bill Heid, who made $5 million off of a get-skinny scheme called the “Himalayan Diet Breakthrough” and is now selling “survivalist seeds” (“More valuable than silver or gold in a real meltdown”). And isn’t it a coincidence that a politician like Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., whom Bunch reveals as an awkward panderer who bails on a local event because he has to go to a Tea Party outside of his district, answers questions about joblessness with a bunch of misdirection about “communism”?
Zernike’s take on the movement isn’t nearly so cynical. It’s also not so interesting. Zernike started covering the conservative beat in November 2009, and she worked it well, showing up to obvious events like Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue tour and under-the-radar stirrings like a Pennsylvania group’s effort to replace its local Republican leadership. (The tick-tock of how that worked—or rather, didn’t— is the best part of her book.)
Her problem is that she doesn’t go much deeper than her initial, beat-the-deadline articles. The key figures in the history of the movement are, happily enough, the people who gave her access. She gives serious exposure to the not-altogether-interesting story of Jeff McQueen, a Michigan activist who slapped a roman numeral “II” inside of Betsy Ross’s 1776 flag design—the circle of 13 stars representing the colonies. “It had become popular at Tea Party events across the country,” writes Zernike, although it’s really only omnipresent in the places where McQueen has handed it out. (On Tea Party Web sites, he excitedly reports how he gave one to Piper Palin “with permission.”)
Bunch’s criticism of the movement he’s covering is sad and convincing. Zernike’s is rote. “While some Tea Partiers focused on the income tax,” she writes, “they did not typically mention that under the most literal reading of the Constitution, the country could not have an air force.” She has the best history of FreedomWorks ever put on paper, but little about Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project and nothing about Americans for Prosperity. Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks has floated the idea of joint appearances with Zernike, which makes perfect sense. The friendly treatment that Tea Partiers get here is reminiscent of nothing so much as one of those flattering books about celebrities penned before they fall from grace and their ex-bodyguards cash in on their stories.
But this is a movement that’s writing its own history and shouting the media down when they report unflattering things. The most famous example came when Zernike’s paper walked back a reference to racial slurs that several African-American congressmen claimed to have heard during the final vote on health care reform. Tea Partiers denied the slurs were shouted and argued that the lack of video evidence proved it, so the “official” story was changed. Boiling Mad makes a compromise with the movement it covers. Activists explain why they’re angry and present their evidence. The author reports what she sees and learns. The Backlash asks more and better questions, because it identifies the “pyramid of hucksters” and “needless anxieties” that distort economic angst into a crisis of faith in government and the press.
It used to be up to reporters to decide whether a movement was succeeding by doling out coverage and declaring which leaders were outside of the mainstream, as William F. Buckley did to the Birchers or Michael Kelly did to International A.N.S.W.E.R. How much longer, though, will it even be up to reporters to make those judgments?