"We're Republican by registration, but I'd even vote for a communist right now if they would start to change the way we're running the country." [Tea Party Volunteer Norman] Halfpenny said, adding he thinks Democrats in power are leading the nation towards socialism, a Tea Party lament.
- Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 27, 2010
I had been down this road before. Past the mega resorts of Las Vegas, through the sprawl of Henderson, a right turn on 95 just after Railroad Pass, and about 30 miles though empty desert lies Searchlight, NV. On that drive, you stare into a barren landscape, surrounded only by Joshua Trees and shrubs clinging to life and the occasional industrial site.
Searchlight is the epitome of a boomtown gone bust -- nearly 90 years ago. Working for Harry Reid, I traveled to Searchlight on several occasions. On your first trip down that dusty highway, the isolation is shocking. Less of a town and more of a collection of houses in the middle of the desert anchored by the Searchlight Nugget Casino. ("Casino" is a bit of an overstatement; think a diner with slot machines and a few gaming tables.)
Normally, traffic on this road is light, but on Saturday, six miles outside the city, it came to a standstill. Three miles out I joined other drivers, left my car on the side of the road, and hiked to the Tea Party site.
Walking into the event, surrounded by thousands of Tea Party activists, you could feel a mix of excitement, anger, and (ironically) hope. Men handed out signs reading "Dump Harry Reid, Shellie Berkley and Dina Titus." Cars were decorated with messages promoting the event, disparaging Democratic politicians, or supporting Republican candidates.
The rally site was about 2.5 miles outside of town. Taking into account the difficulties of reaching Searchlight, the fact that what looked like between 8 and 10 thousand people were packed in was astonishing.
The protesters were no longer focusing on issues (such as health care), but rather turning their attention to November and the election of conservative candidates. Though speakers from the stage gave the obligatory head nod to independence from any political party, the message was clear: they must work to defeat Democrats in November.
This was made apparent when one speaker asked if any Democrats were in attendance. Silence. Next there was a call for Republicans, which prompted cheers. The sequence ended with the speaker asking if any Americans were in attendance, which, of course, received the loudest applause.
Shortly after noon, Sarah Palin, the event's headliner, took the stage. The crowd hung on every word of her stump speech, cheering in all the appropriate spots. ("How's that hope-y, change-y thing workin' out for you?" etc.) But a funny thing happened when Palin completed her speech.
Many in the crowd, who had made incredible efforts to get there, fled -- seemingly uninterested in the rest of the event. Before Palin's speech, the areas in front of the stage and on the media risers were packed tightly. Afterward, you could walk around freely. By the time second-tier headliners like Andrew Breitbart, Joe the Plumber and Chuck Devore took the stage, it looked as though less than half the crowd remained.
As the speeches continued, I walked through the crowd and conversed with other attendees. Simply put, they are angry. They feel disenfranchised by a societal structure that, in their view, has ignored their needs. Therefore, they are left to believe the only solution is the elimination of that very structure. To a person, they cast their blame on Obama, Reid, Pelosi, and Republicans, who they primarily blame for allowing Democrats to take power.
They throw around words like socialism, communism, and fascism. And, frankly, they follow the lies of conservative leaders who cynically take advantage of their rage. (While claims of death panels have been thoroughly debunked, they were alive and well in the crowd and on stage.)
References to the founding fathers and the perfection of the original draft of the Constitution permeated the crowd. Many told me that most of the actions of our federal government are unconstitutional. A few of the people I spoke with talked about the repeal of the seventeenth amendment (direct election of Senators) as crucial to recapturing "our freedom."
Their anger stems from the feeling of being disenfranchised by the system -- something many progressives can sympathize with after the last decade. They cast blame for this on the government, powerful Washington interests, and in more then a few cases, at "New York" bankers. They have worked hard their entire lives and want to be rewarded for their efforts. They believe everyone else is getting ahead while they are falling behind. Their issues are nothing new for the conservative movement: low taxes, less regulation, lower immigration, and more personal freedom -- except, of course, for abortion and same-sex marriage, which should be outlawed.
Talking to the Tea Party activists, I couldn't help but realize that instead of the villain they make Harry Reid out to be, he should be their hero.
Abandoned mines pockmark the hills surrounding the rally site, where men journeyed underground in search of fortune. As a child, Harry Reid would crawl into these holes in the ground to watch his father work as a hard rock miner. Reid himself began working before he became a teenager, and by the time he finished high school was employed as a truck driver, a gas station attendant, and in a bakery, among other odd jobs. Hitchhiking 45 miles to high school on the same route that many of the Tea Party attendees drove, he earned a scholarship to college, married his high school sweetheart, and worked his way through law school as a Capitol Policeman.
Reid then built a successful law practice and political career, all while raising five children. He was given nothing, and fought (sometimes with his fists) for everything. Reid still attends church every week, and was even at an event with NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre on the day of the rally.
In the end, Reid's goals are the same as the Tea Partiers want -- the ability for everyone to find their American dream: to have the opportunity to go from a house built out of railroad ties, with no indoor plumbing, in the middle of the desert, to the Majority Leader of the United States Senate. (Their beliefs on how to make that possible obviously differ.) The Tea Party attendees were too blinded by anger and too whipped into a seething rage to see the connection they had with a person they despised.
Without exception, each time I asked members of the audience, what they thought of Harry Reid, the answer was, at the nicest, "vote him out" and at the other end of the spectrum, it was "communist scum."
The truth is the biggest downfall of the Tea Party movement was a lack of vision, from both participants and speakers on stage, about how to create the America they want. Those I spoke to envision an economically libertarian utopia. With the staggering naiveté of a college campus communist, they believe their limited government vision is the answer to all our problems. Of course, the implementation of their goals would create a world in which the powerful interests they claim to despise would be at an incredible advantage over the entire population, Tea Partiers included.
Like Tea Party volunteer Norman Halfpenny, who is quoted above, they desperately want change, yet are confused about what that means. They believe the America they love has been taken from them and they want it back. And that is where the ties between the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement will ultimately fray.
The demands I heard expressed on Saturday cannot be delivered, mainly because they are simply illogical or politically impossible. There is no way, even if they controlled every branch of government, Republicans could live up to their expectations.
For example, when I confronted California Senate candidate Chuck Devore with the question of whether he supports allowing insurance company rescissions (since he wants to repeal "Obamacare"), he responded affirmatively, backing his claim up by proclaiming the need for a "moral hazard."
If Republicans run for Congress on a platform of protecting insurance companies by making sure the American people have a sufficient moral hazard when making their health care decision, Democrats will win in a landslide. This is why some Republican Party leaders are running away from the idea of a full repeal as fast as possible. Yet, that is the action Tea Party activists demand.
Tea Partiers are not a new group in American politics. They are Rush Limbaugh's audience from the mid-nineties who helped bring about the "Republican Revolution." They are the gun rights voters who were scared Al Gore would take away their weapons. And they were the anti-immigration protesters from 2007.
This time around, a group of conservative leaders have once again found a way to corral these protesters with a cynical mix of lies, innuendo, and propaganda. At both the health care rallies outside the Capitol and the Showdown in Searchlight, speaker after speaker inundated the crowd with myths that had been debunked months ago.
The lies protesters are being fed by their leaders create an environment where it is absolutely impossible to have vital policy debates. For example, conservative leaders could try to make a cogent argument about why the federal government should not provide a social safety net. This could spark debate and conversation. But screaming about death panels ends that conversation. Questioning whether or not a cap-and-trade system is the appropriate vehicle to solve the climate crisis is healthy. Questioning the very fact that our planet is warming shuts down the ability for those on both sides of the ideological spectrum to engage eachother.
These lies, combined with calls hearkening back to the red scare of the 1950's, have whipped the Tea Party movement into a frenzy. The question as to what end this anger will lead is still open.
Leaving Searchlight, I couldn't help but feel conservative leaders are clearly using tea party attendees, for money, fame and power. (I fundamentally refuse to believe these experienced political and conservative media hands are as naive as they act.)
Their goal is clearly victory in November. Whether or not they achieve it remains to be seen. However, even if they do, the Tea Partiers will be disappointed by the result, forcing their leaders to double down on the invective, lies, and propaganda they are currently spreading to their base. And this in the end could have catastrophic results for our country.
Follow Ari Rabin-Havt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/arirabinhavt