Victory Lap

06.13.13

Tea Party on NSA Snooping: We Told You Not to Trust Big Government!

As NSA news keeps coming, the government-fearing right is taking a victory lap.

As if Tea Partiers needed any more evidence that Big Government is out to get them, along come Edward Snowden and operation PRISM.

It was bad enough that the tax man had been yanking their chain: Everyone knows the IRS is a bunch of jerks. But the NSA combing through people’s phone calls and emails? That’s a whole different level of sinister.

“I read threads all day long by Tea Party people nationwide. I talk to dozens and dozens of people on a daily basis,” says Ken Crow, the Iowa-based editor of the Tea Party Tribune and cofounder of the activist hub teapartycommunity.com. “They’re all afraid.”

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Not surprisingly, Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party darling, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NSA surveillance programs. Here's what rankles him so.

The mood among Tea Party Patriots is equally tense, reports the group’s cofounder Jenny Beth Martin. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, we seem to trending much more toward a police state than we ever imagined.’”

For a political movement largely driven by the specter of government run amok, the NSA snooping news is, to borrow a Bidenism, a big fucking deal, a smoking gun akin to Donald Trump unearthing Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate.

Indeed, Tea Partiers’ reaction to the news of late may be best summed up in four words: We told you so! “They say that those of us in the Tea Party wear tin foil hats and we’re out there and all that,” says Crow. “But take a look around!”

“This is definitely not an isolated thing,” says Jackie Bodnar, communication director for Freedom Works. “It’s part of a huge list of Fourth Amendment violations that have been happening for years.”

But almost as outrageous to many Tea Partiers as the NSA snooping itself has been the lack of outrage by Republican leaders. Even as a sprinkling of folks like Rand Paul and Glenn Beck decry the government’s assault on the Constitution and declare Snowden a “hero,” most party players have been more in tune with Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who have been quick to remind people of the hard realities of fighting terrorism, and Speaker John Boehner, who called Snowden “a traitor.”

“We’ve given up on McCain and Graham,” says Crow. “It’s obvious to us that they are not going to carry the banner of freedom and liberty.” As for the speaker? “A marshmallow,” says Crow. “With a lot of these scandals, there is overwhelming evidence of perjury by senior officials in the administration—overwhelming evidence that criminal activity transpired. Nothing is being done, and we want to know why!”

Not that Tea Partiers expected much more from a GOP elite that many members have long held in disdain. “The political establishment voted to allow these things to happen and for government to get this large and out of control,” says Martin, adding sadly, “At this point, very little surprises me.”

“We’ve given up on McCain and Graham,” says Crow. “It’s obvious to us that they are not going to carry the banner of freedom and liberty.”

This does not mean, however, that the Tea Party intends to take this insult lying down. Far from it. Various groups are rallying members to express their displeasure through calls and email petitions to Congress on any number of issues. “We have a lot of different calls to action on our website,” says Bodnar. (“Demand Lois Lerner’s resignation from the IRS”; “Stop the NSA seizing of Your Phone Records”; “Tell Your Senators to cosponsor Rand Paul’s S. 1037, the Fourth Amendment Preservation and Protection Act of 2013”; “Keep IRS Away From Your Health Care”…)

More broadly, groups are scrambling to juice up education efforts. Next month, Freedom Works will launch a new civil-liberties training program at its Free the People weekend in Salt Lake City. “It’s been something we’ve been trying to make happen and something that activists have wanted for a while,” says Bodnar. The NSA mess is simply “the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has been a big uptick in the demand for education programs like this.”

With a little luck, such programs won’t merely galvanize existing members but also recruit new ones. “The phones are blowing up with people who want to know how they can get involved,” reports Bodnar. In addition to longtime activists, she says, “there are also a lot of people who are brand new saying, ‘I didn’t know about you guys before, but I can’t just sit at home and yell at my TV anymore.’ ”

It remains to be seen whether this latest dust-up can reenergize a movement that has been struggling for a couple of years to recapture its early mojo. Still, at the very least, the events of this spring have provided a shot of affirmation and adrenaline to loyalists. Crow in particular is looking forward to a long, hot, combative summer. He chuckles, “It’s fun fighting for liberty and freedom!"