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The Tea Party contingent struck again last Friday.  A group that the local Fox news affiliate estimated to be between 1000-2000 assembled in Frontier Park in St. Charles for the usual whinging and raging. You may take that estimate with a pinch of salt, given the tendency of teapartiers to exaggerate their numbers (see here, here, and here), but by all accounts there was definitely a fair-sized crowd. While I did not attend, I did come across several descriptions of the festivities, often accompanied by YouTube videos that I found highly suggestive.

At the Saint Charles event, the militant “don’t tread on me” placards, the martial drum-and fife music provided young men dressed in what I assume to be revolutionary army uniforms, all combined to suggest a fantasy camp for true believers, would-be heroes of the status quo who gather to fight the changes that they fear will leave them behind. The dazed-looking man who can be seen in this video rambling through the crowd, beating his little drum “for freedom” seems emblematic of some unreal and fantastical alternative world that teapartiers have collectively invented.

What strikes one most forcefully about Tea Party atmospherics here is the degree to which the participants’  rhetoric  magnifies the objects and individuals they oppose. It isn’t just health care reform these stalwarts are fighting against, but the downfall of Western civilization. The standard bearer for the other side is not just a mildly centrist Democratic president, but a Muslim terrorist, Hitler, Stalin, and the Anti-Christ rolled into one, not even the legitimate, born-in-America president, but a cuckoo planted in our nest by some inexplicable conspiracy. One can only ask, why such excess?  

To answer that question, it’s useful to look at the origins of the Tea Parties. By now it has been well-documented that the movement is the brain-child and financial beneficiary of several wealthy conservatives who have funded a maze of Astroturf organizations, and who have been aided and abetted  by numerous Republican politicians.  These relationships are discussed in detail by Michael Tomasky in “Something New on the Mall,” Oct. 22, 2009, New York Review of Books, as well as in an article by Tim Dickinson, “The Lie Machine,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1088.

Given the financial motives and murky ideological underpinnings of the funders, it is safe to say that the goal has never been to generate informed opposition, but rather to inflame the emotions of those Americans who feel the greatest sense of anomie and alienation. Ramping up this discontent and fear deflects attention from inconvenient facts about our abysmal health care delivery system, environmental threats, our economic malaise, and all the other problems we face, while creating an appearance of substantive opposition that, because of its decibel level, captures media attention.

The effect, as manifested in the Tea Party movement, are chaotic expressions of intense, paranoid emotion, totally divorced from reality.  Michael Tomasky, in the article referred to above, notes the irrational aspect of the entire Tea Party zeitgeist, observing that:

Instead of elected officials acting as a sort of restraining ego to the activists, everyone here shares one big id.

Judging by the invective spewed by the speakers at the St. Charles event, that id seems to have been on steroids last Friday.

For a case in point, consider one St. Charles speaker, Kevin Jackson, seemingly a regular on the Tea Party circuit, a blogger and author of The Big Black Lie. Mr. Jackson wasted no time getting down to the business of raising the emotional temperature.  He delighted the crowd by declaring all liberals to be racists, and boasting about his role in the ACORN stormlet, that, in his words, “exposes the left as the cockroaches they are.” Liberals, he claimed “will plant criminals in your neighborhood and ask you for money to fight crime,” and “kill babies in the womb and if they survive, then serve them up to pedophiles.” This bubba-esque rhetoric from an African-American seemed to create a palpable sense of vindication for the nearly all-white group in attendance, who are clearly uncomfortable with the imputation of racism,  if not always with the substance.

Another of the speakers last Friday, ex-marine Paul Curtman, has made quite a name for himself in Tea Party circles with mock-heroic displays of defiance and ersatz constitutional erudition. He initially attained his celebrity status earlier this year when he struck a pose and demanded that Senator Claire McCaskill apologize for failing to defend the same right-wing interpretation of the constitution that he has so uncritically swallowed. Apart from the young man’s obvious pleasure in being lionized, one gets the distinct impression that he may be using these Tea Parties to audition for a future role in Missouri politics.

After observing the robust response to this rhetoric, it is hard not to conclude that teapartiers are correct when they insist that they are sincere; but progressives are also correct that Tea Party events are classic astroturf.  The dynamic is that of applying a match to dry brush.  The brush was already dessicated, diseased and ready to burn, but somebody had to come along with a match to get the conflagration going and continue to feed it to keep it going strong. As Michael Tomasky notes in the article cited above:

This conservative protest movement, though, has three powerful forces supporting it: bottomless amounts of corporate money; an ideologically dedicated press, radio, and cable television apparatus eager to tout its existence; and elected officials who are willing to embrace it publicly and whose votes in support of the movement’s positions can be absolutely relied upon. … the left-leaning protest movements with which we’ve been familiar over the years-and that serve in our minds as the models for street protests and political rallies-have typically had none of this kind of support. For the foreseeable future, what we witnessed on September 12, and over the summer at the town-hall events, is likely to be a permanent feature of the political landscape.