AP Images
Demonstrators holds up banners during the taxpayer rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, Sept. 12, 2009.

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.

While much of the rhetoric and ideology was recycled, the event was different and more successful than past efforts thanks to the dual involvement of corporate interests and Fox News. For example, parked on the edge of the National Mall was the “American Energy Express,” a bus on a “town hall tour” launched by the American Energy Alliance (AEA), a recent outgrowth of the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank that has received funding from ExxonMobil and Valero Energy. AEA’s director is a former registered lobbyist and Tom DeLay staffer, while other alliance employees have Republican Party and oil industry connections.

Fox News, perhaps the most vociferous anti-Clinton advocate in the late 1990s and Bush-booster over the past eight years, had parked its mobile unit just a few yards away from the Energy Express, and a small crowd had gathered around with supportive signs. Throughout the day, I met people who complained bitterly about the lack of media presence, about the “Communist Broadcasting Service” and the “Communist News Network.” But the crew members from Fox News were heroes, and the greatest hero of all was Glenn Beck. For them, Beck was the only truth-teller among the communist infiltrators, exposing the sinister work of ACORN, the Czars and FEMA “death camps.” Sure, FreedomWorks had organized the event, but Beck had selected the date, hoping to “bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001…united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.”

During the event, Matt Kibbe, a FreedomWorks organizer, went onstage to announce that ABC News had estimated the crowd in attendance to be 1 to 1.5 million strong–a claim which Michelle Malkin and other conservative bloggers inflated to 2 million by day’s end, and which ABC News took the rare step of denying. Looking at the assembled crowd, this was a truly insane claim to make: the masses hardly stretched past Third Street; 1.5 million would have covered an additional ten blocks.

Yet, as I walked around after Kibbe’s announcement, I heard people coming up with even higher numbers. “Two million, at least,” one man shouted into his phone. Another, borrowing a phrase from Beck, proclaimed, “We really do have Washington surrounded!” Online, pictures of old rallies (missing buildings that are currently on the Mall) were distributed as proof the mainstream media was downplaying the real crowd and widely reposted on conservative blogs. Glenn Beck went on Fox & Friends on Tuesday morning and claimed that 1.7 million had assembled, citing a “university study” from a university he was unable to name. On the train home, the protesters sitting around me were in a celebratory mood–they felt they had assembled an impossibly large crowd and brought their message to Washington in an unprecedented manner. The politicians had no choice but to listen, to ax climate change legislation, to stop healthcare reform, to give them their country back, they said. There’s no harm in this illusion, really, so long as it is clear that it is only the reactionary fringe that harbors it.