George Washington is a fetishistic image at Tea Party gatherings. Many feature someone in costume portraying the revolutionary-in-chief. Others, such as the April 12 rally in front of Orlando City Hall, make do with Washington posters and T-shirts. The symbolism is easy to understand. Washington as the archetypical, irreproachable patriot has been appropriated by many political movements in the last two centuries – especially those like the Tea Parties, which purport to seek a return to simpler times, "traditional" values and rudimentary government. And George Washington, who justified armed rebellion as the ultimate reply to a government that imposed punitive taxes without input from taxpayers, resonates powerfully with any who oppose today's complex tax code or believe their voices go unheard in Washington, D.C.
But Tea Partiers longing for a new George Washington might want to take a closer look at the old one. In 1794, the new nation faced a situation that closely parallels modern-day tax protests. The federal government, saddled with many dubious debts, had decided to tax home-distilled whiskey. That was the first internal tax imposed on Americans by the new government, done in part to show that it was possible.
Farmers in western Pennsylvania resisted, claiming they were overtaxed in already-tough times (sound familiar?) and wouldn't pay for what they saw as irresponsible government commitments. Hundreds rallied around courthouses, assaulted tax collectors and formed militias.
But Washington the arch-rebel was now president. People forfeited the right to ignore taxes when they elected a government, whether or not they agreed with their representatives' decisions, Washington's argument ran. When negotiations failed, Washington didn't hesitate: he called out 13,000 troops and personally led the army on the first stage of its march to meet the rebels.
Despite their whiskey-fueled rhetoric, the disgruntled distillers fled before federal troops. A few dozen were arrested, but Washington, feeling the point had been ;made, pardoned the few who were ;actually convicted.
That's probably not the lesson the Tea Party movement would like to draw from the past. But among the babel of opinions on policy and strategy to be heard at rallies, there are lots of direct connections and parallels to be made with historic political groups.
Since 1824, about 1,100 groups have tried to grow into political parties, according to Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks in their book "It Didn't Happen Here." Most fizzled and were forgotten after an election cycle or two; a few survived long enough to influence major party platforms, and a very few movements seized control of a powerful party – at least for a while.
As Tea Party gatherings have continued popping up all over the country in the past 14 months, the question of what happens next has become ever louder. Are Tea Parties destined to fizzle out, coalesce into a political party in their own right or something else? That's where historical parallels can provide what Tea Parties currently lack: an outcome.
So who do the Tea Partiers resemble? A lot of people. It's a movement that's deliberately unfocused and proudly leaderless, venting anger in all directions. What are they angry about? Ask a dozen people, you'll get a dozen answers. But there is a lot of overlap, and even the most far-out answers count as legit; after all, regardless of how bizarre a particular reason for anger is, it brings at least one person to a rally.
Orlando Weekly talked to a number of local Tea Partygoers, listened to the speeches of those striving to co-opt the movement or become its flag-bearers, and surveyed the pronouncements of public figures who have a lot of Tea Party fans. It wasn't really a surprise to find that just about everything Tea Partiers are saying, even the wackiest of conspiracy theories, has been said before – by someone, somewhere back in American history. In many cases, they've recycled the same terms, whether consciously or not. So each strand of the Tea Party tangle can be followed back to its source, and what happened to those progenitors offers clues about the fate of these same ideas this time around.
Take a look at the average Tea Party crowd – like the roughly 1,000 people gathered in front of Orlando City Hall on April 12 – and it's obvious the movement is overwhelmingly white and, either in origin or aspiration, middle-class. Out of this homogeneous mass grows a deep suspicion of anyone or anything that smacks of, ahem, exotic origin.
Such as, say, President Barack Obama. Tony Freeman of Deltona waves a sign portraying Obama as the psychopathic Joker.
Freeman says he's a follower of Ron Paul, the sometimes-Republican-sometimes-Libertarian congressman from Texas who ran an outsider challenge in the 2008 presidential campaign. Paul flirts with isolationism and seeks to eliminate most federal agencies. His campaign also had an entertaining scandal when it was revealed that newsletters sent out for years from his congressional office were full of racist screeds; Paul claimed he hadn't read his own newsletters.
To students of American history, both the positions and the denials sound very familiar. The 1856 platform for the Know-Nothings (officially the American Party) contains many lines that would pass unnoticed at Tea Party rallies today: curbing federal power and spending, fear of subversion by immigrants, even demands that elected officials prove their "Americanism" – paralleling the current fringe denialism of Obama's birth in Hawaii. The party got its popular name because it tried to remain half-secret, and those quizzed about it replied, "I know nothing."
Mirroring that secrecy in 2010 is a man accompanying Freeman and frequently finishing his sentences. The man says he is from Volusia County but refuses to give his name. His military-camouflage outfit and reflective shades might be more intimidating if they weren't paired with beach sandals. Camo-man says he is rallying because Obama is plotting to make "international law" supercede the U.S. Constitution – how, he doesn't say.
"They basically want to take our freedom away," Camo-man says.
And who are "they"? The conspiracy theory classics come tumbling out from both Freeman and Camo-man: The Bilderberg Group. The Trilateral Commission. Liberal billionaire George Soros. The International Monetary Fund. "A lot of the Islamics." Camo-man even reaches way back in conspiratorial history to blame a "cabal of European bankers." That's been anti-Semitic code for more than a century, ever since "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" – a clumsy forgery by Czarist Russian secret police – blamed most of the world's problems on nefarious Jewish moneylenders.
The same conspiratorial bent and fear of foreigners was exactly what energized the Know-Nothings – for a while. They won some big-city offices and incited a few riots, but even though they drafted a former president as their 1856 standard-bearer, they couldn't rise above 22 percent of the vote and soon collapsed. The Know-Nothings tried to be as leaderless as the Tea Parties, so maybe one reason for their failure was that their most prominent figure was the uninspiring Millard Fillmore.
Tea Parties have actively resisted coalescing into a national group, but some large-scale organizing has gone on – and some groups backed by big money, such as Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, claim to speak for Tea Partiers in general whether local groups like it or not. On April 12 a coalition of these organizations issued a "Contract From America," claiming to define Tea Parties' main issues. Aside from sops to big business and the universal preoccupation with taxes, the theme that shines out of several points is a liturgical obsession with the Constitution that rehashes the hairsplitting legal arguments made by states' rights advocates before the Civil War.
Point number one on the "Contract From America" demands that each new law cite the particular part of the Constitution that gives Congress that specific authority. Problem is, of course, that the Constitution is deliberately vague in its brevity. If such a stipulation were instituted, it would allow years of fussy but ultimately unsuccessful litigation over practically everything Congress did; the result would not be a separation of legal spheres but a deadlock of the legislative process.
Point seven is repeal of the landmark health care reform bill Obama recently signed, an act that has agitated the Tea Party crowd from the start. Legislators and state attorneys general, sucking up to Partiers, have filed bills or launched lawsuits seeking to block health care reform in their states. That includes Florida, where State Sen. Carey Baker produced the "Florida Health Care Freedom Act," and Attorney General Bill McCollum joined in other states' lawsuits.
All these antics hearken back to the same long-discredited legal theory and run smack into a triple barrier: the Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution, the 14th Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court's affirmation in McCulloch v. Maryland that federal law trumps state maneuverings.
There was one occasion on which states' rights advocates, angry that the Constitution didn't say what they wanted it to, went ahead with the resistance that some mouthpieces for the Tea Parties darkly suggest. At the April 12 rally, U.S. Rep. John Boehner – House Republican leader – hails the Tea Party as "nothing short of a political rebellion."
Well, yeah. That's what they called it in 1861, too. And we know how well that worked out, even if some people refuse to recognize the result.
A lot of sign waving at Tea Parties denounces federal bailouts of big banks, expressing anger at the banks themselves and at politicians who pumped in tax money to save them from collapse. That's coupled with the fear that legislators are simply spending too much. The conviction is there, even when the grasp of facts is shaky.
Carl, a mustachioed man who sports a Glenn Beck T-shirt at the April 12 rally, is under the impression that Obama is borrowing $3.8 trillion from China to cover the annual federal budget deficit – that's actually the size of the entire federal budget, not the deficit. But when you start talking about trillions of dollars, it's hard to keep perspective.
Carl says he's from Orange County, but doesn't give his last name. Asked for his specific concerns, he blurts a disjointed series of talk-radio buzzwords: "Unsustainable debt. Obama's trying to turn us into a socialist country. Like Europe. And we're not. We're America, the home of the free."
Those same fears of financial slavery at the hands of big government and big business sparked the Populist movement in the last decade of the 19th century. People had watched the rise of ostentatious wealth, but many small-time investors and businessmen were in dire straits through the 1870s and again in the Panic of 1893. Yet in the midst of this, the 51st Congress became the first to consider a federal budget of $1 billion. In 1890, that number was as incomprehensible as $1 trillion is today. That budget added to federal spending and increased taxes, drawing denunciations by the Republican majority. But House Speaker Thomas Reed dismissed criticism of the "Billion Dollar Congress" with the line, "This is a billion-dollar country."
And time proved Reed right. Although the Populists came close to electing William Jennings Bryan president in 1896 (under the Democratic banner), the economy improved enough in four years to steal their thunder. In 1900, a rematch between Bryan and President William McKinley came out even worse for Bryan, and by 1904 the Populists had ;virtually disappeared.
They're going to hate to hear this, but Tea Partiers may have a lot in common with their ostensible archenemies, the socialists, specifically, the Socialist Party. Both grew by attracting the disaffected in times of economic distress, and foster the feeling that the current political and economic setup does them no good – indeed, that those in power don't even wish them well. Both are also fractious, with extreme elements flirting with militancy; and both have American archetypes as their prime constituency: recent immigrants struggling to make it in the case of the Socialists, and homogenized suburb-dwelling Middle American white folks in the case of Tea Parties – the "real Americans" that Sarah Palin praises to everyone else's denigration.
On issues, there's nothing that scares a Tea Partier more than creeping socialism – or communism, or fascism, since they can't seem to tell the difference – and people like Carl denounce Obama's revamping of the student loan program as a "government takeover," apparently unaware that it was a federal program to start with. But Tea Partiers had better hope they can muster the Socialist Party's staying power, because under Eugene Debs' leadership the Socialists had among the best outcomes of any political protest movement in American history.
The Socialists never got closer to winning the presidency than garnering 6 percent of the vote in 1912, but they won major offices in a few states for decades. Indeed, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, while classified as an independent, openly considers himself to be a small-S socialist. Most importantly, the Socialist Party demonstrated enough consistent clout that the Democratic Party – previously conservative, as Republicans had started out as liberal – edged over to co-opt some of the Socialist agenda, creating many of the workplace standards we have today.
At Tea Parties there's always plenty of talk about "freedom" and how it's being taken away, but exactly what freedoms are disappearing and how they're being removed is not consistently defined. One thing that is clearly stated is the desperate certainty that someone, somewhere, is getting fat on each Tea Partier's tax dollars. This is usually directed at urban-legendary welfare cheats; the conviction that lavish payments go to the undeserving runs deep.
The angry buzzwords come from talk shows like those of Tea Party favorites Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and especially Neal Boortz, promoter of the "Fair Tax" platform that aims to replace the income tax with a national sales tax. Its promoters say it would lighten taxes for the average American; but FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project operated by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, says the "Fair Tax" proposal would greatly reduce taxes on the rich and require a 34 percent rate to bring in the same amount of money. "Fair Tax" signs dot Tea Party rallies, and Boortz's message brings Desni Brannon of Apopka out on April 12.
Brannon declares that taxpayers have no say in how their money is spent. Mixed with Boortz's tax lectures are diatribes against minorities, immigrants and crypto-socialists.
Talk radio's screaming rhetorical style is not unlike the preaching of Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest" who railed against both socialists and big business from his post in Detroit during the Great Depression. Coughlin amassed an audience of 40 million in the 1930s – comparatively, about 24 times Boortz's modern audience – but as he veered into conspiracy theories, open praise for Adolf Hitler and anti-Semitic violence, federal broadcast regulators forced him ;off the air.
One of the few things unifying Tea Partiers is the belief that they, and all decent Americans, are being conspired against. Who's doing the conspiring? Just about everyone else: Obama, members of Congress, foreign governments. Freeman and Camo-man name many of the usual suspects. But what's the goal of all this conspiracy? The pervasive fear is that sinister forces are trying to rot the United States from within and turn it into a clone of Europe, which they envision as a hellish socialist prison, tightly regulated and sunk in misery.
That this portrayal would surprise Europeans whose countries regularly rank with or above the United States on indices of freedom means little to the dedicated conspiracy believer.
But Tea Parties are pale shadows of the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 and still around. Its members have spent 50 years harping on many of the same theories that Tea Partiers think they've just formulated, and like Party-goers, Birchers rail against social programs – from civil rights to mental health assistance – as stealthy arms of the socialist/communist conspiracy. This dovetails well with the hysteria over health care reform. That's the issue that has Freeman waving his "Obama Joker" sign. To him, the reform means he'll be subsidizing someone else's medical treatment – the possibility that others might pay for his care never comes up – and he doesn't want to have to do that. He'll help people if he wants to, Freeman says, but shouldn't be required to do so.
Birchers offer a dismal example for Tea Partiers, showing that feverish hysteria wears out quickly. Although some true believers remain, the John Birch Society has shrunk into insignificance. Perhaps its greatest unintentional achievement in recent years was inspiring half the name of Birch Barlow, the right-wing crackpot character on "The Simpsons.";
Susan Seifert of Orlando wanders around the April 12 rally handing out giant $100 bills, not as any sort of tax protest but as a gimmick that conflates legal standards and religious rules. That's a common theme at many Tea Parties nationwide, as a number of socially conservative organizations – anti-gay, anti-abortion, etc. – have rushed to embrace the movement, hoping to reconstruct something akin to the alliance with economic conservatives that functioned for three decades before breaking down in the last few years.
Abortion is Seifert's main concern, mingled with her view of Obama as a hypocrite of biblical proportions. Her rationale? Obama denounces oppression of the weak by the strong but favors legal abortion, Seifert says. To her, abortion is oppression of "weak" fetuses by the "strong." Ergo, hypocrisy.
That's the sort of argument made consistently by the Christian Nationalist movement, chronicled by Michelle Goldberg in her 2006 book Kingdom Coming. Its beliefs include the idea that the Constitution is literally a holy document and that all faithful (i.e., ultraconservative) Christians should take over the U.S. government and impose Old Testament law to root out "immorality" such as abortion. The Christian Nationalist movement is in sync with Tea Partiers on many economic issues but based on a different rationale: social programs such as welfare and health care reform are not just bad ideas but actually contrary to God's will and are therefore ;to be destroyed.
Although social conservatives like Christian Nationalists haven't made much formal headway in binding themselves to Tea Parties, the overlap means they share a number of prominent figures such as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. DeMint and company saw some of their hopes dashed in the 2006 and 2008 elections, as many sympathetic Republican leaders were swept from power; but by tapping into the power of Tea Parties, they ;hope for resurrection.
Recent polls indicate about 20 percent of Americans support Tea Party ideas, whatever those may be in total. While the variety of Tea Partiers has some overlap with a variety of historic groups, either in substance or in style, the closest resemblance is not with a specific group but an attitude.
Historian Richard Hofstadter's characterization of the "conspiratorial mind" – applied predominantly but not exclusively to the extreme right – is an eerily accurate description of many Tea Party beliefs and characteristics. The concept appears in his classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," first given as a lecture in 1963.
"The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life," Hofstadter wrote. "(The political paranoid) is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing ;resistance to conspiracy."
Hofstadter thought the paranoid style grew out of an almost allergic reaction to a complicated world, in which ordinary people felt increasingly powerless even as improved communication allowed a constant drumbeat of apparent crises. This near-hysteria is often exploited by the rich and cynical to further their own economic goals, he said.
Go to any Tea Party and you'll hear the same conspiratorial fears, the same apocalyptic rhetoric and – if you listen closely enough – the same efforts to steer a mass of inchoate anger into support for one special interest or another. The same dread of disappearing freedom, sense of betrayal by elected officials, and denunciations of taxes and foreign influence surface time after time – if not ;very articulately.
Those Hofstadter called pseudo-conservatives were "more than ordinarily incoherent about politics," people who denounced President Dwight Eisenhower – a Republican and hero of World War II – as a closet socialist.
The politically paranoid are so durable because, while their fears of repression are never realized, their dreams of victory aren't either. In the end, they remain a minority movement – and in electoral politics that ;means "losers."
Even should Tea Partiers surge sufficiently to "capture" a major party – the Republicans, let's say – that's still no guarantee of broader success. According to Hofstadter, the high tide of the paranoid style was Barry Goldwater's seizure of the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, which was followed by crushing defeat, the worst electoral drubbing a major-party candidate had received in more than 140 years.
But for a movement that hasn't yet decided whether it even wants to take over a major party, become one in its own right or simply remain a mosquito-like presence buzzing in the ears of politicians, any prediction of electoral strength is premature. (Got ;that, Marco?)
Whatever their hopes and fears, local Tea Partiers aren't particularly enthusiastic about morphing into traditional political foot soldiers, anyway. Emotional posturing matters more than political allegiance, even as the tea leaves fall into patterns familiar throughout American history.
That uncertainty doesn't leave the Tea Party without a purpose, though. ;Formally organized or not, a good Tea Party scare might be useful to "tighten up Republicans," Carl of the mysterious mustache says. "Make them do right, or they're all going to get fired with the rest of them."
And history pours another round.;
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.