What I Learned in Two Years at the Tea Party

When I started going to Tea Party meetings two years ago, I was sympathetic. Just after attending one in North Dakota in August of 2009, I wrote: “Most tea partiers are not bad people. They’re just mad. In many meaningful ways, today’s Tea Party attendees’ lives have gotten consistently worse for the last 20 years, regardless of which party was in power.” I concluded that trying to figure out what they wanted was a dead end because what they wanted was simply to complain—that the Tea Party “is not a group of listen and respond; this is a group of respond and respond.”

Two years of Tea Party functions later, and I finally know what the Tea Party wants: A Christian nation.

When S&P downgraded the United States debt, the political difficulties it underlined are embodied in Kim Simac, the candidate for Wisconsin state senate. A founder of Tea Party group Northwoods Patriots, Simac is challenging incumbent Democratic state senator Jim Holperin for the District 12 “Northwoods” seat. Holperin now has the indignity of being the only state legislator in history to face a recall twice—in 1990 for supporting a Republican governor, and in today’s election for opposing one.

Holperin, a “flaming moderate,” has the endorsement of the NRA, despite Simac having authored a pro-Second Amendment children’s book.

The Tea Party movement was crafted for yahoos just like Simac, a small fry local leader who wants to jump the painstaking and character-testing traditional steps of campaigning to instead surf a wave of anger to fame and renown. It’s not too hard: Simac was invited to address the Americans for Prosperity Tax Day Tea Party counter-protest alongside Andrew Breitbart and Sarah Palin at the Madison capitol in March, and that goes a long way.

It should come as no surprise that Simac may have self-promotional motives. Although she trains horses for a living, she is also a children’s book author. Her Second Amendment kids’ book is called With my Rifle by My Side. She’s also a speaker available for bookings.

Even after the numerous Tea Party speeches I’ve heard, credit must be given to Simac as a master of the craft of the jingoistic black hole. An example of one of Simac’s speech blurbs, delivered to huge applause:

“Let me put it this way, while Washington bickers, procrastinates and delays facing the fact that our generation has bankrupted this nation, other countries are thriving. Industrial revolutions similar to that of the 1800s are popping up all over the world, and guess what? In the infancy of their newly found property, they have not established a thing called ‘red tape’ or ‘regulations.’ And while I don’t have a degree in economics, I can tell you this, without all those evil corporations offering jobs, products, commerce, taxes to the American economy, this thing called the American Dream will find itself up the creek without a paddle.”

The introduction to one of Simac’s books is one of the most extraordinary examples of the Tea Party polemic I have encountered:

“If America is to persist, we must stop indoctrination so contrary to the beliefs passed down to us. It is our duty and responsibility to defend the ideals and principles that our Constitution was founded upon and restore the links to our heritage… we can impart a love for liberty, which we have inherited because of our Founders’ understanding of righteousness and justice.”

In the jungle of Tea Party rhetoric, the Vietnam War was fought to “make us free.” Not just Vietnam: in Tea Party lingo, every soldier’s death was in the service of keeping America free, even the Air Force mechanic killed by an accident or the paper-pusher who had a stroke. All heroes who paid the ultimate price.

This kind of jingoistic, lofty yet completely empty appeal has changed little in two years. At that very first event I attended in 2009, I listened as a speaker called for the the group “to take it back for the United States Constitution for liberty.” While Tea Party folks are not as “stupid” as they are often characterized, they are not deep thinkers. That of course is fine with them, as the party harbors a strain of anti-intellectualism so viscous it would make even Lee Atwater break a guitar string. Although Lee would certainly appreciate Simac’s “Truck Stop” tour, for which she “will be driving around in her green GMC work truck with a crack in the windshield and a 4×8 Kim Simac Field sign in a wooden rig on the back of the truck.” And he would propose marriage after seeing one of the 9/11-exploiting pages from one of her books.

The Tea Party is no longer about economics, not that it ever solely was. At the larger rallies and for the cameras (CNN or laptop), they hold forth about founding fathers, liberty, spending, deficits, TARP, kicking cans down roads, taxes, living within means and fiscal responsibility. But when the lights are off, it’s all about Jesus, with “God” thrown in, on occasion for Israel.

Back in 2009, the movement appeared genuinely stumped with a conundrum of its key documents. Subservience to the Constitution of the United States of America was paramount, but then what to do about the Bible?

So they’ve engineered a backstory that essentially proves the nation’s founders were just conduits for God. Essentially, the Constitution is just the word of God passed down through guys who wore wigs and snazzy cuffed jackets.

That the Tea Party is just a way to repackage the religious right has no better proof than Ralph Reed. In 2009, Reed took the tenets of his 90s-era Christian Coalition for his “Faith and Freedom Coalition,” which is now a major player at Tea Party events.

In April, in the high din of the Wisconsin budget debate, I attended a full day’s meeting of the northeast Wisconsin Manitowoc Tea Party (now officially called the “Manitowoc County TEA-Movement”). It began with a prayer that included the statement that “we have neglected… the only nation founded on Christian principles.”

Held in a local hotel ballroom, the meeting consisted of info sessions and speakers. The “training” sessions were largely civic and cartographical—who’s your rep, where to vote, that kind of thing. The day’s speakers were a mix of community organizers and preachers. American Majority operatives did sessions on “The System” (smaller-government, term-limit doctrine) and “Social Media” (“How many here have a Twitter account?”). These info sessions were balanced by Jake Jacobs and Kyle Desjarlais.

Jake Jacobs (Ph.D!) is the head of FreedomProject Education, which, not to get too into it, provides “a classical education in the tradition of America’s Founders.” It is, essentially, as Jacobs out it in his exhaustive address, a curriculum about America’s Judeo-Christian founding. (They are an arm of the American Opinion Foundation.) Jacobs’ hour-long rant mixed historical evidence of the founding father’s Christian intentions for America with conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and Columbia University, Bill Ayers, Sharia, Hitler, the Kentucky and Virginia acts of 1789, Sean Penn, his former students’ persecution in college “for their Christian conservatism” and “how to refute the argument that Jesus was a socialist.” (Which, by the way, is to note that “thou shall not steal” is a direct rebuttal to how “socialists despise private property.” Jacobs’ lessons (available online) are set up especially for home-schoolers.

After Jacobs, I was unable to be shocked to encounter a teenager in pressed trousers holding forth on the Constitution before a roomful of senior citizens. Desjarlais is just one of a number of well-spoken Christian home-schooled wonder-kids I’ve listened to at Tea Party meetings. In Wisconsin, the most famous of these kids is Tricia Willoughby, a 15-year-old who gained fame after being shouted down by protesters when she spoke at a pro-Walker rally at the Madison Capitol in March.

Willoughby is an unstoppable home-schooled Christian-conservative leftist terminator—pure, pretty and completely immune from criticism. This is likely why Willoughby could be found three months after that incident at Americans For Prosperity’s RightOnline conference, where, next to her teenage sisters, she taught a room full of middle-aged men and women at a session called “Youth Outreach.” One of the sisters said to the crowd: “Barack Obama may have the unions. But we have the home-schoolers.”

I was even more floored when Morton Blackwell rose from the audience to be recognized. That Blackwell, a member of the wildly powerful dominionist Council for National Policy and a Republican activist going all the way back to Barry Godwater, chose to sit in a poorly ventilated room and listen to the Willoughby teenagers says something both about the growing power of home-schoolers in the Tea Party movement, and about how the movement is desperate to cultivate younger followers.

Desjarlais’ entry to the 2011 Wisconsin “Baptist for Life” essay contest was “God’s Curse on America: the Result of Christian Apathy Towards Abortion.” It concludes: “Tragic instances like the terrorist acts of violence on September 11, 2001 and a series of hurricanes in New Orleans are proofs of God’s anger with this Christian nation because of our failure to exalt God as our country’s head, our failure to stop abortion, and our failure to properly act against it.” His address in Manitowoc was toned down from that but essentially the same: America is flailing because of a lack of God in government. During his son’s address, Desjarlais’ father beamed from a back table. He was wearing an “Obama is what’s wrong with America” t-shirt. The perception that Obama is a heathen is a major driver of the movement.

The $15 for the VIP luncheon got me some wedding reception chicken and entry to a very private audience with Republican state Assemblymen Andre Jacque and Bob Ziegelbauer and state Senator Frank Lasse. First question for Jacque? “What’s being done about funding for Planned Parenthood?”

The Tea Party’s deep need to interpret the Constitution through the Bible hits a troublesome, though not insurmountable, roadblock in the case of the Second Amendment. One way this connection is often made is through 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

This is cited as proof that God wants men to be able to “provide for his own.” In fact, in Simac’s Second Amendment book, the publisher’s note reprints it as “But if anyone does not provide [safety, etc.] for his own [family], and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The publisher goes on to argue explicitly that the Founding Fathers established the second amendment so as to be in compliance with the Bible.

The “etc.” of “Safety, etc.” appears open to include anything from a warm meal to the ability to bring high-caliber high-capacity firepower to bear against, say, black helicopters.

But for Tea Party candidates, just pontificating on God’s role in government is not convincing enough. There may be few atheists in fox holes but there are even fewer in American elections. For this reason, Tea Party candidates often sign pledges to prove their Christian allegiance.

Simac, doing Bachmann and Santorum one better, signed the “Manhattan Declaration,” which begins “Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word….” And then it just gets weird.

The Declaration connects the modern anti-abortion movement to “rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities” and eventually gets to stuff like “the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy,” and ends by declaring that the undersigned “will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Simac announced the signing over Twitter.

That a viable politician for American office brags about signing away allegiance to a power other than the Constitution, just 50 years after John F. Kennedy was forced to humble himself and say his church did not speak for him or him for it, is simply mind-scrambling.

But then, Simac has said that our “God-given freedoms [were] passed down to us by our Founding Fathers,” “We really need to stand up for the rights of God in our constitution” and “I believe America is God’s special miracle and we need to not let Him down.”

One reason the Tea Party’s patriotic political statements are so taupe is that they mirror the religious rhetoric, which is high on generalizations about God and low on nuance and complexity and conflict. Go ahead, replace “constitution” and “patriotism” with “God” and “faith” in some tea party speech sometime—it’s not as wacky as it should be. The flag is just a cross; those who do not outwardly display it, are obviously not Christians.

The fallout from the debt ceiling debacle will be the Tea Party’s Waterloo and organizers know it. While they explain away the atrocious public opinion polls about themselves, the economic element of the movement is becoming divisive and argumentative.

On August 4th, days after the debt ceiling vote, major Tea Party organizations began a move against the Republicans who had voted in support of Speaker Boehner’s proposal. Darla Dawald, national director of the Patriot Action Network, wrote a blog post listing the “turncoat Republicans,” calling for readers to “obtain their Town Hall schedules for the August.” The post linked to a form for reporting town hall events. The action had every indication of being a post-bailout Republican-In-Name-Only protest, the kind that launched the Tea Party to prominence and resulted in many incumbent Republicans facing Tea Party primary challengers in 2010.

Not long after, though, responding to criticism, Dawald posted an update, writing, “Patriots, let me be clear… we are not saying vote them out immediately.”

And then: the entire post was removed (cache).

This willingness to find compromise shows that at least some who consider themselves part of the Tea Party understand that public sentiment has turned against them. More importantly, it’s a show that the movement is beginning to understand that politics is a long game of compromises and forged allegiances, not one of the juvenile obstinance. Most importantly, it may suggest that more moderate Tea Partiers understand that sentiment within their own party has turned against them. In Wisconsin on Tuesday, this sentiment will be put to the test, as Simac’s race becomes a referendum on the public face of the Tea Party.

But even as the economic focus splinters, the faith-focused engine of the Tea Party coalesces. Americans for Prosperity Director Tim Phillips is a good friend of Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed, who has promised a massive get out the vote effort in 2012. There’s evidence of this already in Wisconsin, where Americans for Prosperity’s absentee ballot mailers used Christian activism group Wisconsin Family Action’s return address.

It’s noteworthy that the most ominous read for the 2012 cycle is a 2008 report from Christian news magazine World. It tells how the most powerful Christian leaders in the country “who could have generated the financial backing” for Huckabee “blew it” by selecting a more well-known candidate. That the men who can motivate more votes than any other organization in America bickered and failed “to see what many of their supporters in the trenches” is a bad omen for Romney in 2012.

In the end though, the biggest enemy of the organized grassroots faction of the Tea Party is that it’s a lot of work for a hobby.

In the last year or so, in addition to going to meetings and rallies, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time on the websites, Facebook pages and social networks of Tea Party organizations and those sympathetic to them. While many are still active, many others have not been updated for months and months. Many appear to have fallen off in activity in December, just after the elections. Event calendars are barren. “Latest updates” are months old and unanswered. Those that are active are often just ugly RSS feeds, just a string of links to news items on Breitbart sites or Newsmax.

The most active presences now are the Tea Party leaders who’ve gone whole hog with the movement and have nothing to lose in doubling down (such as Kim Simac) and the professional Tea Party organizers such as Freedomworks, American Majority, Tea Party Express and 9/12, who are, at the end of the day, simply community organizers for corporate advocacy.

Freedomworks head Dick Armey? Well, that’s just the Contract with America all over again.

American Majority head Ned Ryun? A speechwriter for George W. Bush, now out on his own.

I’ve even had the opportunity to argue with Ryun on this point, citing the troublesome fact that he now leads a cut-spending, smaller-government organization after being part of George Bush’s team. His answer was this: “the Ryuns disagreed with him on almost everything.”

Like playing against a certain type of Scrabble player who throws down any jumble of words and then justifies it later when the dictionary does indeed have an entry for “zun” (“any of a wide range of ancient Chinese wine vessels”), you can’t win. The top leaders of these organizations will have no harder time melting into whatever movement comes next than they did repackaging themselves from DC-insiders to anti-DC advocates.

Meanwhile, nearly everyone else, Simac included, will go back to the grassroots anti-abortion, pro-Christian activism they were doing before this brief hiccup of interest in economics occurred.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com. He is on Twitter.