I admit I have a hard time taking the Tea Party movement seriously. Wacko-fringe is the term that comes to mind. But, after reading Frank Rich’s column, The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged, I suffered a short, involuntary shudder of recognition. Actually, it was not Rich’s column that evoked the shudder, it was an earlier article he linked to and that I had somehow missed reading. The article, by David Barstow, was an in-depth investigation of the tea party movement that brought back memories of Ruby Ridge, the Patriot Movement and the Aryan Nation.
SANDPOINT, Idaho — Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.
But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.
She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots. She did not know a soul, yet when they began electing board members, she stood up, swallowed hard, and nominated herself for president. “I was like, ‘Did I really just do that?’ ” she recalled.
Worried about hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement.
Barstow connects the dots between the Tea Party movement and the Patriot and Militia movements of the late 1990s.
The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival, as it was in the Massachusetts Senate election, or for division. But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Mrs. Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.
These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.
Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.
Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal — a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain.
A look at the Friends for Liberty web site show that Barstow is not exaggerating. If you visit the site, note the “liberty organization” links. And, if you have the stomach for it, watch some of the videos of “Freedom Festival” speakers.
Who are the Tea Party leaders?
They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.
That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like ResistNet.com (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and Infowars.com (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).
Glenn Beck is serving the role of demagogue, steering the tea party folk ever closer to violence and armed rebellion. Idaho’s own David Neiwert knows more than anyone about the history of the Patriot Movement in the Pacific Northwest. He has been watching Beck and has created a composite video of his hate rhetoric calling for the elimination of “Progressivism.”
Beck is one in a long line of media demagogues. As Joe Klien pointed out on the Bill O’Reilly show, Beck is the latest version of Father Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio.
“I think that your pal Glenn Beck is peddling a lot of hateful crap,” he said.
O’Reilly didn’t disagree — but tried to laugh off Beck’s antics. “But he is funny,” O’Reilly countered. “He is doing it in a funny way.”
“I thought the part where he described the president as intentionally steering the airplane into the ground was hilarious,” Klein said sarcastically. “And the stuff about Obama not being an American?”
O’Reilly cut him off. “He has a blackboard and phone to the White House. He is every man sitting on a bar stool. Why shouldn’t every man have a show?” he asked.
“No. No. No. No. No,” replied Klein. “He is Father Coughlin trying to delude and entertain the American public.” Klein was referring to Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who attacked the New Deal, broadcast antisemitic theories, and expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Coughlin is now considered the father of hate radio.
Father Coughlin was forced off the airwaves in 1942. Beck is unlikely to meet the same fate.