“Perhaps Time meant it as an insult,” former Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell told the crowd about the title of her new book, Troublemaker, which was inspired by a Time magazine article, “but I took it as a compliment. I think all of us should take it as a compliment.” O’Donnell was promoting her book last week at a Tea Party gathering at the Hendry House, a restored 20th century mansion at Fort F.C. Smith Park in Arlington, VA. But that wasn’t all. The event, “Making Trouble: Flip the Virginia Senate,” was an election rally, book signing, meet-and-greet, and birthday party for O’Donnell, all in one.
Still stinging from a raised debt ceiling and Senator John McCain’s “Tea Party hobbits” put-down, the activists gathered in Virginia were there to prove they weren’t fazed at all by their recent defeat. Indeed, most were only too happy to appropriate the latest instance of spite heaped upon them into a politico-spiritual story of martyrdom and comeuppance. As activist Ann Bunn made a point to note, The Lord of the Rings was a story of right and wrong inspired by Christian teaching, and O’Donnell could be their elf warrior princess. And when it came to 2012, she wasn’t afraid to quote Elrond: “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.”
THE RALLY STARTED with a prayer, led by Helen Blackwell, former chairman of the Arlington Republican Committee. “Father, many of us who love our country are gravely troubled in recent years by the recent direction in which our beloved America is being moved,” she intoned. “In the book of Proverbs, it’s described this way: ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, so should your poverty come upon you like a prowler, your need like an armed man.’”
But there was reason for hope, Blackwell added: “Good Lord, I’m so thankful that the people in this room are not slumbering, and not folding their hands. On the contrary, Father, they are awake and taking action. … May this outpouring of inspired activism flourish and grow to make today’s Tea Party activists increase their ranks and succeed in setting our country back on the path which you intended for us to follow. … In your Holy name, I pray. Amen.” “Amen,” the crowd repeated.
Following some musical entertainment, John Jaggers of the Northern Virginia Tea Party was up next. “We’d like to thank the members of the press,” he began. “I guess you can see now that we’re not all terrorists.” The crowd laughed. “The leader of the Tea Party Federation, Ron Wilcox, is establishing what we call Tea Party 2.0,” Jaggers said. “Tea Party 1.0 was all about protesting and challenging the powers that be. … Tea Party 2.0 is to take care of the folks who didn’t listen and replace them with people who will.”
Each of the candidates running for office in 2012 had a minute to give their spiel. “When I became a citizen, I took an oath,” said Tito Muñoz, who is running for the Virginia State Senate. “And the oath was to defend this country and this nation and the Constitution. And it says very clearly, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I finish this with: I know who the domestic enemies are.” The crowd ate it up.
Ann Bunn, introduced as a “proud mother of two happily married U.S. marines,” had come all the way from Andover, Pennsylvania to speak. “A few weeks ago, America was branded a credit risk because, said the president, you folks, the Tea Party, obstructed him,” Bunn said. The crowd laughed. She reminded them that Vice President Joseph Biden had called the Tea Party “terrorists,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had predicted the Tea Party would soon fade away. But the most notable insult was from McCain: “John McCain’s senate speech, gleefully and endlessly reported by a jubilant mainstream news media, included his worst epithet, the very best punch in our nose that he could think of. He called us a bunch of, quote, Tea Party hobbits, unquote,” Bunn said with delight. “Well now, I rather fancy that, actually, so now you can find us at facebook.com/teapartyhobbits.”
Then O’Donnell took the podium, thanking Bunn for lightening the mood. “Especially after the not-so-nice liberal media going after us once again, we needed that laugh, so really, I was cracking up,” O’Donnell said. Embracing her outsider status, she argued that “we’ve got to remember that ever since the founding of our country and the abolitionist movement, it’s been because of troublemakers, who the establishment patted on the heads and said, ‘Well, that’s nice, you little naïve person, you go ahead and stick to your principles.’” And when she got around to the “establishment,” she didn’t mince words: It’s “an eagerness, a willingness to step on people, to compromise your principles in order to get ahead,” she warned. “It exists in those who have made it and those who are still trying to make it.”
O’Donnell argued that both America and the Tea Party were at a crossroads: The Tea Party was the stirrings of a second American Revolution, as she claimed it had been dubbed in the British press. “Do we want to have the same fate as the first American Revolution, which was very successful, and we endured the struggles to go on to independence?” O’Donnell asked. “Or the fate of the French Revolution, where they just changed one form of tyranny for another?” “Exactly,” someone in the audience replied. “I don’t have a check,” a woman behind me whispered to her friend.
A reporter pressed O’Donnell about her Piers Morgan interview from the night before, when she walked off the show after Morgan pressed her about her views on gay marriage. “Interestingly enough, on Jenny’s Facebook,” O’Donnell said, looking to her aide for approval, “I don’t know if I should say this. We had a lot of, um … can I say…?” “Hey, go for it, say it,” her aide replied. “A lot of lesbian women posting on Jenny’s Facebook saying, ‘He was sexist!’” O’Donnell finally spat out. “It was horrible the way he treated her!”
“I just want to give you guys the head’s up! We have to wrap!” the aide interrupted after two questions from the media, making a tumbling motion with her arms. “We would like to sing happy birthday to you,” one of the organizers said. O’Donnell turns 42 on August 27. The group broke into song. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.” Then one man bellowed above the rest, “Happy birthday fellow hobbit, happy birthday to you!”
Kara Brandeisky is an intern at The New Republic.