This Saturday, some 70,000 people marched through downtown Washington, DC. Organizers of the “Taxpayer March on DC” crowed on their website that “thousands of local organizers and grassroots Americans” took to the streets because they’ve had “enough of the out of control spending, the bailouts, the growth of big government and soaring deficits.” Pretty straightforward, bread-and-butter economic conservatism, right?
So imagine my surprise when, having just arrived at the march, I saw a thin, tall, bearded fellow with a boonie cap jogging up Pennsylvania Avenue shouting “White Power!” A few people looked around awkwardly, not sure how to react, but mostly the crowd just moved along. Why wouldn’t they, after all, when just a few paces down the road an elderly man was showing off his “McCarthy Was Right!” sign, or when numerous placards compared the president to various genocidal tyrants, or when the most common mass-produced poster (courtesy of an antiabortion group) demanded that we “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy”?
This was only a sampling of the hateful language on display at the rally, which was only tangentially about taxation. More accurately, the event was a FreedomWorks-organized, corporate-funded, Fox News-fueled celebration of every conservative political and cultural cause of the past fifty years. Milling around the crowd, it was impossible to miss the references to issues as disparate as blocking investigations of CIA torture, promoting assault weapons and God “judging” America for homosexuality. Confederate flags were flown, Obama was told to “go back to Kenya,” and so forth and so on. The crowd itself was almost exclusively white–and its members had come to get their country back.
Up on the podium, speakers put a more positive spin on the gathering; one actually echoed (with no sense of irony) a famous line from Barack Obama’s stump speech, claiming the tea party was “not here to represent white America or black America. We’re here for the United States of America.” A more candid assessment came a few minutes later, however, when a singer took the stage and summed up the America those gathered at the base of the Capitol pined for. She was a “proud Christian American,” anticommunist and Bible-believing. In fact, the most common rallying cry–beyond “You lie!” and “Can you hear me now?”–was that protesters wanted their country back, their republic restored. A country, one could only assume, that resembled the crowd.
One of the most popular memes on display was veneration of Joe Wilson, the South Carolina representative who interrupted the president’s recent address to Congress by shouting “You lie!” In this crowd, it was “Joe Wilson for president.” The man had done a courageous thing, with many accepting his inaccuracy about illegal immigrants getting government-funded healthcare in Obama’s proposed plan as fact, and even more suggesting he ought not apologize for breaching the rules of decorum. Instead, Wilson was a hero to be congratulated. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, Wilson was opposed by 68 percent of Americans for his outburst, according to a USA Today/ Gallup poll. A mere 21 percent supported Wilson–but those at Saturday’s tea party fell into a subgroup of that number–the 6 percent who told pollsters they were “thrilled” by Wilson’s actions.