“You know we’ve got so much to get through, ah think we’ll just skip the last chapter,” said Evan, the breezy woman at the front of the class. Standing beside an overhead projector, with three ranks of eager students attending to her every word, Evan was a tall Texas drink-of-water, with a Farrah hairdo, a long s-xy drawl, and a red rash going from her neck and down her chest. Curiously, she wore a plunging blouse.
The blemish and the accent gave her an extra dimension, the wounded vulnerability of a Tennessee Williams heroine, interest, backstory. She had seen and suffered much. She was here for a serious purpose. Today, that purpose was voter fraud, the prevention thereof, and she cast a steely eye over the ranks, 30 or so potential recruits for True The Vote, the utterly non-partisan, unquestionably entirely independent voting supervision outfit that was started by a Texas Tea Party outfit, and has now spread through the country, based on nothing more than commitment, hard work and nearly a million smackeroos from DC-based right-wing fundraising outfits.
They’re focused on swing states, and especially those states — Ohio, Colorado and the like — that they allege to be hotbeds of voter fraud. They aren’t; individual at-the-poll-place identity fraud is vanishingly small, and True the Vote has been accused of running strong-arm tactics to intimidate voters who’ve created technical breaches of enrolment (misspelling their address, failing to re-register on changed address, and the like, all of which are more likely to impact on voters oriented to voting Democrat). Now they’re building a national organisation, and that’s why there’s a half-day session in the basement of the Independence Institute, a two-storey pebbledash building in the middle of nowhere. There’s fake wood panelling and a fishtank in the hallway, the faded air of a bad guy hangout from a 70s Bond film.
The class only half-fills the basement, an all-beige affair, with a table of litteratoor in the back, and steaming bain maries, filled with enough lasagne to make a carbo-raft from. Evan has been running the class for about 10 minutes when I come in. She has the air of Tea Party leaders everywhere — brisk, but friendly, knows her audience because she’s from them, but now with the added sheen and suavity of intensive training. When the Tea Party was supercharged by Fox News in 2009, it had elements of a grassroots movement, and those leaders that did emerge were super-angry at the Obama administration for reasons fair and foul.
Freedomworks and others scooped many of them up, put them through intensive workshops well within the beltway, and sent them back into the field, to sharpen the organisation. Those who never got the training can be seen instantly, because they can’t organise their anger. Evan and others have been inculcated in the dark arts, trained to steer the inchoate mass of white people in the flyover states, to a higher purpose. Here, the task is to get them to first of all shut up — and then to try and drill the basics of electoral law into them. We’re at chapter two — “how is a polling place run” — and Evan is trying to explain the difference between an affiliated observer and an election official. It’s necessary but boooooring, and the audience are as restless as any crowd of people downloading free lasagne can be.
“Ma’am last year I found a house where 23 people were registered — “we’ll uh get to that in, uh, five chapters,” says Evan, glancing at the overhead projector. “Let’s save the question to the end mmmk?” Looking around, the audience is for the most-part middle-aged white women, at the lower-end of the middle-class spectrum, judging by the chain store clothes, and bargain spectacles. They are, as a class, the backbone of the Tea Party everywhere, and they’re particularly well-represented in the “True the Vote” movement. Hard to know why that is. Perhaps it is the unheroic nature of the activity, standing at Gerald Ford Middle School in Duff Plains throughout the polling day, quibbling because a voter who lives in motels neglected to change their address from the Knights Inn to the Gold Key.
“True the Vote was pinged as a right-wing outfit from the start, and it rapidly acquired an ugly reputation in its foundational area, Harrison County …”
Men in the Tea Party, I’ve noted, are somewhat more enthusiastic about standing around in tricorn hats and waving “don’t tread on me” flags, than in doing the slow work of modern politics. The only people in the audience who look out of place are me, in hornrims and three-day growth looking like a Jewish ACLU lawyer with a great bebop LP collection, and a young, curly-headed man in a calico top who may as well have “Democratic Plant” tattooed on his forehead. Evan has glanced at both of us more than once, a little archly. Perhaps she’s conflicted — we are, after all, the only ones taking notes.
“I’d like to remind everyone that if you want to be a pollwatcher you must be affiliated to a party or a candidate,” says Evan. “Now lissen up y’all! We cannot arrange that for you. We are a non-partisan independent group!” She will say that three or four times throughout the afternoon. True the Vote was pinged as a right-wing outfit from the start, and it rapidly acquired an ugly reputation in its foundational area, Harrison County, centred on Houston, where they browbeat and harassed election workers on any pretext. Having taken guidance from pro right-wing outfits, they saw the light — they didn’t need to be nakedly partisan. They simply advertised on Tea Party websites, and got the people they wanted. The old-fashioned tactic of bullying and scaring poor and minority voters in historically racist states yielded to anther tactic — simply enforcing voter suppression laws enacted by Republican state legislatures. It’s the old Mafia switch, from shaking down businesses to owning them. Legitimacy is the greatest crime of all.
The teaching materials reflect this, made as boring as possible, a series of black and white minimally animated chapters — how voting works, who can supervise, how to register a complaint, etc. Like much of American instruction these days, it goes at about half-speed because, unmistakeably, average Americans have simply become slower on the uptake than people elsewhere, ever so slightly, amiably stupid, a mix of a failed education system, cable TV and carbs. Evan has dampened down any red-meat red-neck race-baiting from the audience, but Democrat boy and I are waiting for the final chapter, tantalisingly displayed on the projected homepage as “a call to arms”. At that point Evan looks at us, looks at her watch, and says “wahhll I guess we’re gonna have skip the last chapter …”.Afterwards, milling around, as people load on more of the lasagne and pink lemonade, the would-be pollwatchers talk more openly. It’s shop-talk about Democrat nefariousness of course. I listen, not speaking. Who knows, there might be something to it. Large sections of the Democrats have been run by gangsters for decades after all. But the talk among the volunteers is largely recirculated. “I heard of one place, nine people were registered when they went there it was a vacant lot.” “Did you report it?” says someone else. “Well, it was a friend who told me about it.” “Last time around,” Jan, a teacher, subsequently laid-off, tells me, “the Democrats narrowly took this state, that’s why I’m doing this.” I ask: “And you think it was stolen?”
She looks at me vaguely surprised there could be any doubt; “well I certainly hope so! There were six districts we were really worried about where there was a lot going on … a lot!” I say: “So are there any news reports I can check back for these?” “Oh no, you won’t find anything …”.
After a dozen or so Tea Party events, I know the drill by now. “The liberal media?” I say, in a neutral but mildly sympathetic tone. “Exactly!” she says. Later, she will be cross that I do not know New Zealand’s leading right-wing blogger, and it takes everything short of anatomically-correct dolls to explain that there is no country called “Australasia”. “People are so unengaged that’s why this country is on the wrong track.” “Yeah but in Greece everyone’s engaged and they’re not doing so well either.” “Oh yes, but they’ve got centralised government”. Round and round it goes, the Tea Party mindset bubbling away in the bain marie, in the beige basement of right-wing resentment and dismay.
Three weeks ago, everyone stopped paying attention to this malarkey, as Obama gained a clear lead, and the votes that might be disqualified were of no concern. Now, with the election back on a knife edge, True the Vote has come back front and centre, with an energy that the left cannot match — because it comes from a deep, foundational disquiet that their fantasy America does not match the real one. The country has been stolen from them, and now they want it back, and if that means some practices on the ground that are less than fully honest, well, that is in service to the higher America, the real one, that exists in their imagination, the way out of the basement.
While black caterers with small bowties and their names on their shirts clear up the dead pasta, Evan gathers up her materials, and prepares to leave. “I wanna thank y’all for comin’,” she says to me archly, the y’all here meaning, I think, pesky Jews or jewalikes, or other liberals. Wounded, wounded people trying to make things right, outside and in.
Should they lose, again, to Obama, what will they be cooking up in the basements next year?
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.