What crashed the tea party in Los Angeles was the wind--icy, salty gusts from the Pacific that swooped up sand and flung it into eyes, pockets, and hair. Dockweiler State Beach, a three-mile strip of shoreline beneath the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport, proved an inhospitable host. But several hundred protesters still showed up and, huddling closely like penguins in an Antarctic storm, voiced their objections to taxation, Barack Obama, Congress, Tim Geithner, deficits, Ben Bernanke, stimulus plans, the Federal Reserve, illegal immigration, fiat money, the media, the Rothschilds, labor unions, Barney Frank, bailouts, government surveillance, and Woodrow Wilson. Or that was what I managed to pick up while I was there. I couldn’t interview everyone.
I would say more about the speakers, but I could neither see them through the dense crowd nor, for the most part, hear them over the roaring winds. I know that one spoke in Spanish for a couple of minutes before some audience members began to chant, “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” (The master of ceremonies quickly engineered a transition to the next speaker.) I perceived that radio host Tammy Bruce, who recently caused a stir by referring to Michelle Obama as “trash,” was trying to harness the roiling ocean to her message: “Let Congress look at that water and know that we’re exactly in the same mood!” But I didn’t sense that Congress was going to look at the water, and the spot where I was standing was extremely cold, at least by Los Angeles standards. So I placed myself on the other side of the crowd and turned instead to figuring out what was motivating those who showed up.
Nathan Mintz, a young brown-haired engineer and “disgruntled Republican” from Redondo Beach, was the lead organizer for the event. “I’ve been working 60, 80 hours a week, trying to get ahead,” he explained. “I finally said, ‘You know what? I have to do my part, I can’t keep yelling at the TV anymore.’” Mintz said he adhered to Austrian economics and “was just as angry at Bush as I am at Obama.” In Mintz’s view, “All Obama is doing is extrapolating on Bush’s bad policy.” Along with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the White House was just adding to the problem by trying to encourage consumption. “Sure that’s what causes the velocity of money to pick up,” Mintz said, “but what causes wealth in this country is production. It’s savings. It’s investment.”
A generation or two ago, Mintz’s views would have attracted more support from the Los Angeles establishment, perhaps sparing the city’s Republicans from being relegated to the beaches. In 1932, The Los Angeles Times urged voters to “Hold on to Hoover!” and warned of “debased currency,” “printing-press money,” and “pork in needless public works” should Roosevelt take office. (“Shall we change generals on the very eve of victory?” fretted the paper.) Such conservatism is now long gone, and Wednesday an op-ed by liberal pundit Marc Cooper that dismissed the tea parties as “collective insanity” more accurately captured the prevailing sentiments of the city. Supporters of the rebellion tended to come from Republican strongholds like the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a verdant outcropping of ocean-view estates just above the equally Republican Orange County.
Unlike Nathan Mintz, who had a fairly circumscribed answer for why he was there, ordinary protesters in the crowd were more expansive. The people to whom I spoke were invariably friendly and cheerful. They teased me for being in the “media.” They weren’t offended when I teased them back. Their behavior was unthreatening. And they were braving punishing winds to be there. These were not slick operatives. But whether they were doing much to advance their cause--if something that clear really existed--was another question. Most, it seemed, had come primarily to let out a collective “No” to everything that has happened in the past year--no to the wreckage of George W. Bush, no to the great recession, and no, above all, to the policies of Barack Obama.
When I asked about George W. Bush, most preferred to change the subject. “Let’s be fair,” said Delma Blough, a 47-year-old flight attendant who wore a tee-shirt with the face of Ronald Reagan depicted in the style of the now-famous Obama “Hope” portrait. “It started with Roosevelt, and it snowballed. It just so happens that Obama’s an extreme left person, a left radical.” Blough reminded me that Obama was friends with Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. “William Ayers is running your school now,” she continued. “Did you hear that? Did you know that?” Come on, I said. William Ayers isn’t running my school. “Yes he is. Go look it up. He’s infiltrating our children.”
Equally dismayed was Neil Reinhardt, a 74-year-old former member of the 101st airborne and a “retired Fortune 500 corporation supervisor and industrial engineer,” who gave Obama credit for high IQ but low marks for “AQ,” the ability to get things done.
“I’m an atheist-agnostic activist who voted for McCain-Palin because O-Dumb-ah--”
“Use that!” broke in his friend.
“Because O-Dumb-ah--.” Reinhardt’s initial point vanished. “You don’t want to know what I think about him.” Reinhardt went on to explain that he’d been a lifelong crusader for separation of church and state, that he supported having gays in the military and conducting stem cell research. But liberals just didn’t get that the world out there is tough. The war in Iraq was justified for scores of reasons that he offered to email me. “Did you know that Saddam had a torture chamber for children?” he asked. “Did you know that? For me, that alone would have been enough of a reason to go to war.”
When Nathan Mintz passed by, Reinhardt asked him why he hadn’t picked a better location. “Shit happens,” Mintz replied.
In the parking lot, I spoke to Priscilla Regur, a 65-year-old Palos Verdes resident who, with the help of her friend Carol Hunt, had put together signs for the occasion and was passing them out from the back of her station wagon. (“GIVE ME LIBERTY, NOT DEBT” and “DON’T SPREAD THE WEALTH. SPREAD MY WORK ETHIC” were some of the more polished signs I saw in the crowd, although I didn’t ask Regur which ones she had created.) Congress had passed the stimulus bill without reading it, Regur said. “That was a real wake-up call.” And its authors had added stealthy, irreversible provisions that no one would notice until later. “They set it up so that you couldn’t put in one word.” Carol Hunt saw the dawning of French-style health care in the new stimulus bill. “My daughter lived in France for two years, and health care is not good there,” said Hunt. “I don’t want to have France’s health care.”
The lack of a polished message among tea party organizers has contributed to what, outside of conservative news outlets, has been almost uniformly disrespectful coverage of the effort. MSNBC has made abundant use of the term “teabagging,” weaving double entendres into just about every sentence, apparently confident that some jokes do not age. The New York Times archly noted that “organizers insisted they had created a nonpartisan grass-roots movement,” but that “others argued that these parties were more of the Astroturf variety”--that is, faux-populist events coordinated by Fox News and prominent Republicans. Non-conservative journalists and commentators, alternately bemused and puzzled by the ideological vagueness of the movement, have mostly shrugged at it.
But what was happening on Wednesday felt not at all like Rove Republicans pulling strings or setting talking points. The lack of message coordination seemed to result precisely from their absence. Elected Republicans may have showed up for the events, but rarely were they shepherds. They were instead shepherd aspirants, hoping to regroup a flock that’s running wild. In Sacramento, event organizer Mark Meckler invited California GOP chair Rod Nehring onto the stage and then, according to a delighted Michelle Malkin, berated him for going soft on taxes.
Such disarray on the right offers liberals a chance to realize a number of important policy ambitions, which is generally good. Still, having a reasonable opposition party would be better. Let’s be honest, huge deficit spending is scary, or at least it should be. Geithner’s bank plan is dismaying, or at least it should be. And proponents of the Austrian school, however kooky at times, have made some undeniably accurate calls, warning about the real estate bubble as it inflated and predicting the collapse of major banks. (That most economists dismiss the Austrians as “creationists” only increases my fear of experts who implicitly view themselves, by extension, as “scientists.”) But you can’t defend George W. Bush fiscal policy one day and propound Ron Paul fiscal policy the next and expect to be taken seriously.
In the meantime, the conservatives I’ve spoken to seem happier to be liberated than to be on message. Nathan Mintz said he was delighted to have anyone sign up for the tea party and promote pretty much any ancillary cause desired. “The tea party movement has bred all sorts of cottage industries,” Mintz said. “It’s beautiful. It’s what America is all about.” The day had been satisfying, apart from the weather. “The wind,” Mintz sighed, “was a downer.”
T. A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly and an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation.
By T.A. Frank