It hit me about halfway through the Texas Nullification Rally.
Several hundred tea-party types had gathered at the State Capitol on a sunshiny Saturday to wave U.S. and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, brandish handmade signs with slogans like “Guns and Ammo/Be Ready,” and holler about the evils of health care, President Obama, illegal immigrants and government in general. I was listening to the keynote speech by John Stacy, a bespectacled, suit-wearing, squeaky-voiced youngster from Dallas who’s organized an anti-health-reform group called Not in Texas. He had just called for cutting off Social Security and Medicare for all Americans born after Jan. 1, 1980—why that date? why not?—and was working himself up to a full-throated finish, screeching, “I don’t care if all 49 other states and every country in the world socializes their medicine, Texas ain’t gonna!”
As I squinted into the bright winter sun, watching the working- and middle-class white folks who’d come from Waco and Waring and Texas City to cheer such sentiments with all their hearts, I suddenly realized: Moser, you are surely the only openly gay, government-loving, socialist health-care-supporting, gun-hating member of the media in America who gets his jollies from hanging out with people who loathe everything you stand for.
It’s a sickness. What can I say? But I simply adore a good tea party, and can’t help wishing its denizens well. Maybe it’s the anti-establishment streak that makes my spirits soar whenever people of any stripe gather together to spit in the face of power. Maybe it’s the fact that when I go to these functions, it’s like attending a family reunion back in North Carolina, where I grew up among folks who were partial to George Wallace because, as my daddy said, “He might be a nut, but he’s a working man’s nut.” (Which was true enough, I guess, if your idea of a working man was limited to the white, segregationist kind.)
But as with family reunions, I always leave these rallies feeling simultaneously envious and bummed out. Envious because my kind of anti-establishment folk—those on the populist left—have turned into a tame, passive, MSNBC-watching bunch by comparison. Bummed because I always come away thinking, Why can’t these people make a lick of sense?
To my mind, there’d be nothing better for America—or for Texas—than an ongoing, free-for-all debate between those who hold a consistent set of small-government ideals and those of us who believe in the social contract and good government and a more perfect union. I’d much prefer to slug it out with thoughtful states’ rights libertarians than with the followers of mealy-mouthed corporate flacks like Rick Perry or George W. Bush, who make their political hay by giving lip service to true believers while serving no one but the wealthy. (Partly, I’ll admit, this is because I’m convinced that the left would have a much better chance of winning an open and honest debate.)
But to my constant dismay, there is no set of consistent ideas on the tea-party right—only a jumble of half-baked notions, conspiratorial hobgoblins and inchoate anxieties stoked to a fever pitch by the specter of an African-American president who is not Clarence Thomas. Take the Nullification Rally. It was supposed to have a clear, though quixotic, purpose: calling for a special session of the Texas Legislature to vote on nullifying all future laws passed by Congress—health-care reform, most pressingly—until they’ve also been approved by Texans. But the messages were all over the map, and they tended to be both dimwitted and self-contradictory.
Exhibit A: Republican state Rep. Leo Berman, who started his oration by saluting military veterans (including himself), went on to declare Obama a “fraud” and a “socialist” whose health-care bill will force Texans to “spend $2 billion a year for the next 10 years to give Medicaid to illegal aliens”—and then piously quoted, with absolutely no sense of irony, from the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”). The crowd ate it up.
Unlike many a liberal, I’m not deeply offended by the people who show up at these rallies wearing T-shirts depicting Obama as Stalin or Hitler. I don’t really give a hoot if somebody yells out, as somebody did at the Nullification shindig, “Kill Obama!” What truly depresses me is that there’s nothing at the bottom of all this fist-waving fury but a mess of nonsense. That, and the fact that the only fist-waving, spit-at-power, publicly protesting folks in contemporary Texas are on the far right.