The Tea Party: A Long Geritol Commercial Interrupted Occasionally by the Banning of Guns

I fancy myself something of a collector of conservative paranoia. As a kid, I remember reading the lurid fantasies about one world government, the Gay Agenda™, and Clintonian schemes to propagate the Mark of the Beast in the pages of Texe Marrs newsletters and John Birch Society rags.

This tradition has continued with the various conservative listservs I subscribe to, most notably the American Family Association and the venerable Human Events (founded 1944). Their messages feature screaming subject headings and paragraphs of multicolored, bolded, italicized, and underlined text about the insidious deeds of Barack Hussein Obama. I’ve been saving the particularly juicy ones for several years.

We at Tropics of Meta have decided to survey these messages to give a sense of the demographics and ideology of the Human Events crowd. Though this is certainly not a gauge of sentiment among rank-and-file conservatives, it does allow us to take the temperature of the Tea Party underground.

Certain themes are readily apparent. A constant sense of siege from familiar enemies (lawyers, Muslims, unions); breathless predictions of imminent doom; tips to protect one’s “wealth” from destruction; and advertisements for a variety of cures for old age ailments. Below is a run-down of some our favorites.

Tbe Shocking and Misleading

One might be surprised to learn that the Pentagon is burning Bibles, but that is what I discovered in my inbox last May. (“Pentagon burns our soldiers’ Bibles,” 5/17/09.) Likewise, it was surprising that the Senate had banned gun sales (6/5/09), at a time when the NRA and the Supreme Court were making huge strides toward dismantling all gun control regulations, and Democrats refuse to touch the issue with a ten-foot pole.

Given news like this, one can understand why your aunts and uncles and grandparents might get the impression that a radical, God-hating, gun-confiscating dictatorship is in control of the country.

Perhaps less surprising is the conservative media’s habit of describing normal procedures of democracy as unprecedented power-grabs. The prototypical example is the phony outrage, whipped up by Fox News, about Obama’s “czars” – a silly term invented by the media years ago to describe various officials in the executive branch.

Likewise, we learned in June 2009 that “Obama stacks Supreme Court” (6/5/09) – this is their way of saying that a democratically elected president had his choice for the Court affirmed by the Senate, as per the Constitution.

Human Events also told us that Obama planned to “make private insurance illegal” (7/25/09), even though every Democratic reform bill has been designed to preserve the private insurance system. And just this month I read that “Obama Imposes HealthCare Edict on America” (3/6/10).

What was this “edict” that our shameless despot issued? Why, of course, it was passing a bill that had been approved by 60 out of 100 Senators. That’s an “edict,” in Tea Party speak.

You Keep All Your Money in a Big Brown Bag, Inside a Zoo

Another frequent genre of conservative emails involves imminent threats to the bank accounts of hard-working and/or well-heeled Americans. Often, stock tips from Dick Morris are involved. Obama’s election heralded terrible things for the investing class (11/25/08), and a year later, Human Events cautioned, “The Worst Is Still Ahead… Protect Your Wealth Now” (10/18/09). They also forecast a “Black October” that never came (8/31/09).

One of my recent favorites addresses a reasonable fear that we all experience from time: “Is Somebody Secretly Planning To Sue You This Year? Protect Yourself Now…” (3/14/10).

The Usual Suspects

The allusion to sneaky lawyers and wanton litigation brings us to the familiar cast of conservative villains – a wonderfully madlibby resource for filling in the subject headings of emails. In this category, we learn:

Who Bankrolls Jesse Jackson? (7/18/08)

Liberals and unions bosses working to “beat” us (3/15/10)

At first glance, it is hard to say whether the “beat” is meant to quote the liberals and union bosses, or if it is just another example of people who don’t know how to use quotation marks. (Like the local store where a handwritten sign says, 50% Off “Sale” Today!)

Then, of course, there are the Muslims. I have repeatedly received a message declaring that “Islam Will Conquer Rome” (6/7/09, 7/20/08, 6/12/08) – as if secular Europe is going to trade its shopworn and half-hearted Christian tradition for radical Islam, as hordes of Muslim immigrants dot the Vatican City skyline with minarets. Another perennial email promises, “PROOF: The Koran is no ‘Book of Peace.’”

“Are you ready for a new Dark Ages?” (1/17/08) is another classic of the genre. In this case, Human Events is hyping Mark Steyn’s book on the biological and cultural threat Islam poses for the West. “The Western world’s demographic collapse and mass Muslim immigration means that much of the Western world as we know it will not survive the 21st century.” Oddly, the book also promises to be “laugh-out-loud funny.”

In a related vein, plenty of conservative emails appeal to latent racism by inveighing against “politically correct” history, reminding readers that the South’s “secession was legal” and Stonewall Jackson was kind enough to help teach slaves to read (“The Civil War: Reality was different,” 12/11/08.)

Most persuasively, we learn that “if the South had won, we might be able to enjoy holidays in the sunny Southern state of Cuba.” Meddlesome Northern aggressors!

All Your Base Are Belong to AARP

But the most striking pattern may be the endless marketing of geriatric products to the Human Events reader list. One email promises to “Slow Your Aging Clock by 50%” (4/29/08) and another offers “8 Easy Heart-Saving Diet Tricks.” I unfortunately deleted many messages that were hawking various contraptions to assist the elderly, but I have received many such sales pitches.

I don’t get emails like this from MoveOn.

The most curious of all may be the following: “Isaac Hayes Killed by a Treadmill” (9/16/08). It had something to do with cholesterol, “heart attack causing hormones,” and supplements that prevent cancer. The overall idea, as with so many health gimmicks, was to ward off the effects of old age without making any effort: “Throw Away Your Jogging Shoes and Beat Heart Disease in Just Minutes a Day.”

Given that the market research for Human Events clearly skews elderly, you can imagine that Sarah Palin’s “death panels” canard was a big hit. Last August the magazine demanded to know why AARP was “lying” about the healthcare bill’s “euthanasia” policies (8/16/09), and declared “Grandmas and Babies Exterminated by Obama ‘Health’ Care Plan” (8/9/09).

One wonders why the senior citizens’ organization would support a plan that involved killing off its dues-paying members. But that is a conversation for another day.

What do we have, in total? Human Events is hardly the full scope of the Tea Party movement. Surely some evangelicals, Ron Paul libertarians, and small businesspeople are also powering its apocalyptic politics — people who don’t belong to an arthritic class of terrified white retirees.

But what we do see from an organization that is pushing every angle of Socialist-Muslim-baby-killing racial paranoia is an interesting profile: an elderly person with some money in the stock market, worried that his savings and guns will be confiscated by a ruthless demagogue who sees no Constitutional safeguard that he wouldn’t love to shred.

“Know thine enemy” is a command that the Tea Partiers have taken up with great zest – and a fair amount of imagination. Those of us who believe that the President is not, in fact, a radical dictator would be wise to develop a clearer sense of who our opponents are than the view they have of us.

Alex Sayf Cummings