In the shadowy trenches of the Tea Party

America’s so-called Tea Party movement has been a fixation of pundits both left and right for many months now. It got considerable credit for one of the biggest electoral turnabouts in a long time. But elusive, it seems, is who or what exactly constitutes this gathering storm of grassroots rage. And is it worthy of serious attention?

If a recent spate of coverage digging deeper is an indication, the answer is yes, although nobody has quite been able to say what the movement portends. Angry populism is an age-old theme in American politics. What is intriguing about the contemporary manifestation is that it seems to be as incoherent as it is alarming.

A Tea Party rally in Washington in September. (Photo: Amanda Lucidon/New York Times.)

In a lightning rod of an Op-Ed this week, Robert Wright pondered whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax crusader who piloted a suicide mission into a Texas office building, could be considered “the first Tea Party terrorist.” He also wondered about how “purely conservative” the Tea Party movement actually may be. “Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts,” Wright noted. “Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives. And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.”

A lengthy dispatch from New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow earlier this month cast light on the rising fringe of the movement: “Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, [President] Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”

Maybe it’s just that tough times in America call for a tough kind of paranoia. As Barstow further considered:

A popular T-shirt at Tea Party rallies reads, “Proud Right-Wing Extremist.”

It is a defiant and mocking rejoinder to last April’s intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security warning that recession and the election of the nation’s first black president “present unique drivers for right wing radicalization.”

“Historically,” the assessment said, “domestic right wing extremists have feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States.” Those predictions, it noted, are typically rooted in “antigovernment conspiracy theories” featuring impending martial law. The assessment said extremist groups were already preparing for this scenario by stockpiling weapons and food and by resuming paramilitary exercises.

(Photo: Lucian Read/MoJo.)

Enter the Oath Keepers faction of the movement, a loose-knit group of military and law enforcement officials who vow to disobey orders they deem unconstitutional — and to mount violent resistance to the U.S. government if necessary. Reporting for the latest issue of Mother Jones, Justine Sharrock trailed the Oath Keepers for months, also encountering a murky organization and ideology. “Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate,” Sharrock explains, “but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion.” Yet, some of the group’s objections to federal power would seem to align them directly with the fiercest critics of the George W. Bush government. Oath Keepers keep a list of orders that they should refuse to obey, according to Sharrock — including conducting warrantless searches and holding American citizens as enemy combatants (e.g. José Padilla) or subjecting them to military tribunals.


“In the months I’ve spent getting to know the Oath Keepers,” she reports, “I’ve toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.”

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