Thursday, April 16, 2009

THE PATRIOT GAME. The Tea Party organizers did a fine job this time, not least in tamping down the loony rhetoric of the first one I attended. The speakers at Wednesday night's New York event went instead for more ordinary conservative palaver with just an edge of hysteria, including patriotic symbolism, odes to the storied past, and tax populism of the old school -- not so much Boston 1773 as Orange County early 1960s.

As I mentioned in the Voice item, some in the crowd were a little on the edgy side. Contrary to the brief feints at bipartisanship on the dais, the sub rosa comments I heard were almost uniformly anti-Obama -- socialist, fascist, teleprompter, Michelle is ugly, etc. He was clearly their hate object, and they roared with anger on those occasions when his name was mentioned from the stage. But those occasions were more rare, this time: the duplicitous actor was less focused on than the duplicitous act -- that is, their betrayal.

Speaker after speaker talked about golden days of yore, whether the age of lower taxes or the age of muskets and tricorners, and how those glories had been taken away from them. They couldn't bring themselves to say that this had been done by a majority of American voters in the last election -- the election was not an election to them, but a supernatural disaster engineered by shadowy forces who did not have the country's best interests at heart. So they stressed, over and over again, that they were the People, they were America, and they were going to take their country back.

When I was growing up in Connecticut, we had a little shop called the Patriot Bookstore that sold books by Robert Welch and William Buckley, records by John Wayne and Walter Brennan, pamphlets, flag decals, etc. The motif was colonial, bunting and eagles and all that, but the thinking was pure Goldwater. I had some relatives who were Birchers, and they swung the same way. They too were America, not because they had attained an electoral majority -- in fact, you see much more of these people when they're in defeat -- but because they were able to imagine themselves at Bunker Hill, fighting Communists.

I'm sure the protesters also want to keep more of their paychecks; so, for that matter, do most of us. But the animating force of these events is not tax policy -- that's not how you get crowds going. The uniting force is grievance. For some the betrayal may have first come at Yalta, or in Dean Acheson's State Department, or by eggheads or outside agitators or limousine liberals or hippies or San Francisco Democrats, or some combination thereof. But the overarching theme on Wednesday was that somehow they (who were America) had been disenfranchised -- whether by greed or by the Comintern or by 192 Electoral Votes, it didn't matter. It's very like real patriotism, in that the motherland is within one's bosom. But it is not necessarily anywhere else.

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