Tampa—National political conventions are supposedly about building up a party’s nominee, to introduce him or her to the American public. Sure enough, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Republican National Convention will try to enhance Romney’s likeability. “The Romney camp will turn to an unusually large circle of others who know him, including people he has helped through his church and business career, in an attempt to make the prospective nominee more approachable to voters who seem to respect him more than like him,” write Patrick O’Connor and Colleen McCain Nelson.
The official Republican National Convention might stick to that template, but the Tea Party Unity Rally on Sunday night made no such pretense. The event, headlined by former Republican presidential front-runners Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Herman Cain, was not about building up Mitt Romney. It was all about tearing down Barack Obama and demonizing his supporters.
Held at a church in the suburban town of Brandon, about fifteen miles from downtown Tampa, attendance was hardly overwhelming. There were a few hundred folks, and the church’s huge parking lot was mostly, but not entirely, filled.
What they lacked in numbers they made up for in passion. But what incites their passion is not joy for what Romney proposes to do. Rather, it is hatred of liberals, anger over being out of power and fear of what will happen if Obama wins another term.
Neal Boortz, the popular conservative talk radio host who will retire and be replaced by Cain next year, offered the most unvarnished expression of this attitude. “It is not the Democratic Party, it’s the Democrat Party, if for no other reason than it makes them crazy,” said Boortz, 67, demonstrating his maturity to delighted laughter from the audience. “They are not public schools, they are government schools,” he continued. “It’s 100 years of government education that led us to the point where a man like Barack Obama could be sworn in as president.”
Boortz contends that there are two kinds of Americans—net taxpayers and net tax recipients. He treated it as a given that everyone in his largely elderly audience is in the former category, even though many of them have been receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits for at least twenty years. Therefore, expounding on the speakers’ theme for the evening, everyone in the audience must mobilize their friends to vote down the expropriators. “Barack Obama takes your money and gives it to someone more likely to vote for him,” said Boortz, who used to write speeches for Georgia’s segregationist Governor Lester Maddox. “The Democrats—the looters, the moochers, the parasites—know how they will vote, for access to your pocket.” Boortz did not specify who exactly these looters are, but his overwhelmingly Southern white audience could fill in the blank.
Between speakers the audience was treated to a trailer for 2016, the film based on Dinesh D’Souza’s book that spreads paranoid fantasies of Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonial agenda.
Like Boortz, the other main speakers barely acknowledged that there is a Republican ticket, and their praise for it, especially Romney, was very parsimonious. Bachmann had a negative frame for the election, defending America from radical government intervention. It was less divisive, but arguably more hysterical, than Boortz’s. “There’s only one option left for America to remain free, at the ballot box in November,” Bachmann declared. The only time Bachmann mentioned Romney was to note that he has promised to repeal healthcare reform. Bachmann ended on a slogan, joined by the entire audience, to “Take our country back!”
Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a rising Tea Party star, addressed the crowd and hit the same anti-Obama themes. Sandra Stuart, an elderly woman who came down from Lakeland, Florida, interrupted him to shout, “Chicago! Send him back to Chicago! Send him back to the mob with all the mobsters! Send him back to Bill Ayers!”
The notion that Obama threatens to eviscerate the Constitution even finds its way into Tea Party art. Jon McNaughton from Utah was selling prints of his paintings at a table near the bathrooms. In The Forgotten Man he depicts a white man—because, he explains, the majority of Americans are white and the majority of workers are men—who is downtrodden on a bench due to the serial infringements on the Constitution of US presidents. Obama is grinding the Constitution under his shoe, although George Washington is there too. (When asked how Washington violated the Constitution, McNaughton mentioned the Whiskey Rebellion.) In One Nation Under Socialism, a painting that Sean Hannity has purchased, Obama holds a burning Constitution.
Herman Cain seems to still be widely beloved by the audience. They saved his speech for last and he received at least four standing ovations. Many of the audience members exhorted him throughout his speech, with phrases like, “Go Herman!” “Amen brother!” “We love you, Herman!” and “Preach it!”
“I’m still on a mission to defeat Barack Obama,” said Cain. Cain mentioned a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing Romney’s attracting only zero percent of the black vote as some sort of liberal media conspiracy. “They put out these polls to divide us,” said Cain. “But we are not going to be divided, because we are not stupid.”
Cain did an awfully poor job of demonstrating his or the audience’s intelligence, though. His evidence that the poll was inaccurate? “I’m not a zero!” He bellowed to gales of laughter and cheers. Pointing out the few African-American crowd members, he said, “Look at all these zeros.” To state what should obvious to anyone with a high school education, one individual is not one percent of an electorate of about 120 million people. That would be 1.2 million people. And, of course, the results could be 0.4 percent rounded down to zero, and there is a margin of error for every poll. Cain’s little demonstration, which made the crowd go wild, did nothing to disprove either the poll results nor the notion that Tea Party activists have some problems understanding basic facts of math, science and American politics.
In a similar display of ignorance, Stuart’s friend Linda Gadd told me that they call themselves TEAvangelicals and the TEA stands for “Taxed Enough Already.” I asked what taxes has Obama raised (because he has not raised income taxes and in fact passed temporary tax cuts as part of the stimulus package). “Obamacare,” she offered. I asked what taxes Obamacare raises. “The whole thing is one big tax hike,” said Gadd. I asked her to name one tax raised by the law. She couldn’t.
Like the other speakers, Cain praised Romney only as a vehicle for Tea Party influence. He talked up Paul Ryan, who was clearly an object of more affection in the audience than Romney. Picking Ryan, said Cain, “said a lot about the leadership of Governor Romney.” Cain also employed similarly dire rhetoric to Bachmann, averring that “the American people are not going to go down without a fight to save the United States of America.”
After the event wrapped up, Cain stayed to take some questions from reporters. He expanded on his discussion of the black vote, offering the explanation that African-Americans “will vote their hearts” in the anonymity of a polling booth, but will not tell a pollster on the telephone that they are voting against the first black president. “I don’t believe the polls, because blacks feel intimidation. [Intimidation] is a tactic of the Democratic Party,” said Cain. Cain also asserted that “raising taxes does not raise revenue.” He’s right about one thing: the election certainly presents two very different visions of how to govern the country and balance the budget. It’s clear that Romney is not deeply loved by the Tea Party, nor is he willing to make their vision the centerpiece of his convention. But Tea Partiers hate Obama so much that they are willing to set that aside.