Blue skies over the town, with a trace of cloud moving fast across the sky. At the edge of a large field, away from the Home Depot and Arby’s on North Dupont Highway, there’s the Delaware Agricultural Museum & Village, housed in a copy of a traditional red barn. Nine times the size of the real thing, it makes itself strange, like a Claes Oldenburg. To one side, there’s a mini-colonial village, three or four reconstructed houses and a general store.
Out the front, Steve, a beefy guy, whose every item of clothing, from baseball cap to belt, advertises a major agricultural manufacturer, is setting up a small pavilion tent at the car-park entrance. SpendingRevolt.com is on its side as he fits the poles together. Folks are already arriving. Everyone knows everyone else.
“Gonna be a big one Steve?” someone asks, passing through.
“Naw,” he says, a little downcast, “it’s too windy.”
Welcome to the Tea Party, Delaware-style. Although this isn’t an official Tea Party event. It’s a stop on the road of the SpendingRevolt bus, yet another of the hundreds of organisations that have sprung up, after some pretty extensive irrigation, over the past 18 months — and particularly since the January citizens united Supreme Court ruling. The bus, a red, white and blue behemoth, covered in graffiti garnered at each stop on its nationwide progress from California (“Who is John Galt?” “Take our country back”), sits outside the museum, forming the backdrop to a makeshift stage.
The car park is filling with people, farming types and military retirees, attached to the nearby air force base. About 80 all told, mostly senior citizens, all white. Comfortable, sprawling in cheap shirts and slacks, they are on the way to being outnumbered by foreign press, about 20, young people in dark suits and jackets, all mistaking each other for the tour organisers. At the side of the podium there’s three or four sharp local types — well-dressed men, and two women in tan and beige, faux leopard-print scarves holding their hair in, saucer-size shades hiding the crow’s feet.
The music cranks up, as the crowd swells towards low triple figures, “Don’t stop believin’,” “Walking on sunshine”, ancient pop-rock that’s become the house music for these events. The harassed press officer, fending off queries from Le Monde and Asahi shimbun as to whether Christine O’Donnell would be appearing, nods to a large woman, who responds in a deep, southern accent.
“We gonna start this?”
“Let’s start this.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “I’m Jennifer for Americans for Prosperity and welcome to the revolution!”
There’s a cheer.
“Now I’d like to introduce Ted Turner.”
“No, it’s Jim Martin from Sixty Plus.”
A lean, mustachioed man gets up, “a veteran” (cheers), to announce that he ain’t Ted Turner, he’s from Sixty Plus, the insurgent retirees organisation, “…we ain’t the AARP, which is now a multibillion dollar insurance combine, an organisation which made Harry Belafonte their man of the year, a supporter of Hugo Chavez.” Boos, but then Jim notices the press scribbling furiously, and thinks quick.
“Not that Harry ain’t a great entertainer, but our patron is Pat Boone, who has five children and I dunno how many grandchildren!” Cheers.
Jim sets out the argument, “…We’re takin’ our country back, we’ve had enough of being taxed by an unrepresentative government…” But we’re all only waiting for one thing.
“I know you’re only waiting for one person, and here she is, the next Senator from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell!”
There’s a flash of blue and here she is on stage, the Republican candidate from one of the smallest states in the union, suddenly world famous, a sign of the Tea Party rising, a certified Palin Mama Grizzly, a Biblical literalist, and a former part-time witch.
“How y’all doing, Delaware?”
There’s a cheer. She’s their gal. She’s their gal because Sarah has anointed her. Because she is Sarah now, more or less. She was always like her. Now the likeness is deliberate and uncanny, the mannish suit, the chestnut hair, dyed to look natural.
“We’re going to take our country back!”
There it is again, that notion that not merely power, but their whole national being has been taken from them. She launches into her opponent Chris Coons, a central-casting liberal mild-mannered and lacking in vim. “He’s raised taxes 54%, he almost sent New Castle county broke, like all Democrats he spells taxes F.E.E.!”
That gets a huge laugh. She launches into the estate tax — i.e. death duties — which, for obvious reasons the TP is playing up.
“Yesterday I heard a sad story … about a sick old man who is literally praying to die before January 1, so that he’ll be able to pass on the money he earned before the IRS ‘redistributes’ it. Well send me to Washington and that won’t happen. We’re behind in the polls, but we’re catching up, so keep fighting keep doing it and we’ll get there.”
Enormous cheers, and already with a touch of the regal Palin air, she sweeps off the stage, surrounded by professional political types who’d been hiding from the cameras behind the stand. Barrelling through the press, they enter the barn through a side entrance.
There’s other speakers, the official Tea Party rep — “…if we don’t prevail in 2010, there won’t be a 2012”, and Glen Urquhart, the Reps candidate (Delaware is a sole district), who is famous for claimin’ that the separation of church and state was invented by Adolf Hitler. But the mood went with Christine and a few people drift off.
The press are all at the back, vox popping either the most hickish-looking types they can find, or the tan-clad leopardines, Republican silvertails, one of the half-dozen families that have run Delaware since it was a plantation on the river. I look for someone who might give an informed view from the inside, but he finds me first — Ron, a stocky redhead, cheap-dressed too, but indoor gamer, not back-of-a-tractor style.
Orange-haired, freckled and soft-spoken, he had the demeanour of a man who had spent a lot of time reading Robert Nozick with the drapes drawn against the sun. Behind us, TP lady Donna has set up a call-and-return: “That’s not government!” That’s … TYRANNY! the crowd yelled back.
“Here’s what I’m interested in.”
“You wanna know about the Tea Party?”
His hand was in my hand, shaking it, even before I spoke. It was a couple of seconds before I realised it had his card in it.
“Here’s what I don’t understand,” I continued. “The original Tea Party was a revolt against dictatorial authority …”
“Well it was a revolt …”
“Yeah but it was a revolt against unrepresentative imposition of tax. You’re opposing an Administration you don’t like that’s headed by the 44th representative of the system put in its place. How is it tyranny?”
“Well it’s more that it’s unrepresentative. Congress has accrued to itself powers that aren’t in the Constitution and they are passing unconstitutional laws. The health care bill is an unconstitutional law…”
“Yeah but that’s what the Supreme Court is for …”
“Mmmmm,” said Ron, “but the Supreme Court, indeed all the courts, have become too liberalised …”
“OK but even if I agreed with that, that’s simply part of the process of selection and confirmation …”
“Yes but some of these justices should have been impeached. That’s what the founders intended. But Congress won’t do it …”
“That’s the question,” said Ron. “That’s why we want different Congressmen. Y’see it’s all the fault of the Senate. The 17th amendment is when we really departed from the Founders intent. The states should select Senators to represent them, they shouldn’t be directly elected.”
“Yeah, but no one gets up and talks about the direct election of Senators. They talk about tax, as if it were tyrannically imposed …”
“Well it is because the Senate …”
Round and round it went for half an hour. I should have been spending time trying to find a birther who would talk about fluoridation, but Ron was giving me what you rarely get in the media, the rational version, agree with it or no, of the Tea Party’s case.
On stage, the official Tea Party rep was losing the crowd, telling them how the FDA was ruining her health food business by capricious inspection of goods, “…and this has been going on since they used 9.11 to put in all sorts of laws we don’t need.” Nine-eleven? Pretext? Unnecessary laws? The crowd didn’t like that. They were silent, down-mouthed.
Dover Base is where the troops come home through, the living and the dead, flag-draped coffins coming out of cargo holds in the early-morning dark. It’s not a place to air sentiments anti-military, however attenuated. Jennifer looked on concerned. When Donna launched back into a more fruitful vein — “I’m not going to be taxed out of existence,” Jennifer piped up. “I’m not either, how ‘bout you?” “NO WAY!” the crowd roared back.
Ron had finished laying out his argument — that national power equals bureaucracy, bureaucracy is by definition unrepresentative if derived from unconstitutional power.
“So it is tyrannous?”
He glanced over at the old homesteads.
“Yes, I think I would say tyrannous.”
They’d ended with John Martin, from Sixty Plus, the provisional AARP, announcing that Christine O’Donnell had been chosen for an award by … Pat Boone! It was bizarre, the emphasis on Boone who made his career rerecording black hits for white audiences, having judiciously removed all the rhythm. He is of ancient vintage, even for this crowd. It was a nostalgia for prior nostalgia. French TV was interviewing the tan ladies before an enormous American flag, as people signed the bus. “We’re not going to take it!” the Beastie Boys announced from the PA.
Back at the motel, I could hear drumming from the campus of Delaware State U across the lake. It was homecoming weekend, when American students return to college and high school, and huge celebrations occur, a parade in the morning, a game in the afternoon, partying, shots, and s-x on neat lawns through the night. Sarah Palin was on TV, wowing them at a California rally — as today she wowed them in Reno.
Hair-piled high, in the signature red jacket, she powers out her message to near hysterical acclaim. The plastic frame of the TV buzzes with the static bursts of cheering.
“You know so great to be in the state that gave us the great Ronald Reagan, yeahhh. See all the mama Grizzlies out there. You’ve been ridiculed, you’ve been mocked, you’ve been slandered by the left.” Cheering. “Still you didn’t let the big government-loving professional politicians and the complicit left-wing, lamestream media tell you to sit down and shut up. Instead no, you didn’t retreat. You reloaded. And you’ve turned this country around.”
Huge sustained, cheering. Two years on, the know-nothingness has gone, filled out with some solid tuition in conservative libertarianism. “We gotta get back to the American exceptionalism that Ronald Reagan talked about, you know, and once we restore our republic, we restore our free markets, and you know well I can see 2012 from my house!”
Her speeches are brilliantly written, her delivery electrifying, a sing-song, jazzy rhythm half Mama grizzly, half mean girl, dripping with sarcasm and cheap triumph. I have heard nothing like it, ever. This is all either one of the greatest shows of recent times, or the start of something very big.
Out the window, the sun was setting over the lake. Kids were pulling into the motel lot out front, taking rooms to party on in after the official ceremonies. The wind was still up, and the clouds were moving fast.