Mardi Gras came a few days early to Washington, as Tea Party Patriots from around the nation gathered to celebrate the movement’s fifth anniversary.
The press release touting the event promised a rollicking good time: “Tea Party Rocks Washington.” Admittedly, it wasn’t the sort of party that anyone outside of politics would consider fun: The day’s schedule consisted of eight hours of speechifying, largely confined to meeting rooms in the basement of the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency. But for Tea Party die-hards, the lineup was enough to get hearts a’ thumping: Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz; Reps. Michele Bachmann, Raul Labrador, Steve King, Matt Salmon, Jim Jordan, and Louie Gohmert; the Heritage Foundation’s new chief economist, Stephen Moore; Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin, and radio gas-bag extraordinaire Mark Levin. There was even a former Reagan administration official in the mix!
And that was just the formal entertainment. In between speeches, striving Tea Party candidates rubbed elbows with potential supporters, political reporters chatted up impassioned celebrants about government run amok, and some guy who’d made a documentary about the evils of the IRS kept button-holing folks about attending a one-night-only, limited-release showing of his film on April 15th. (Tax day. Get it?) Best of all, Breitbart radio had set up shop just outside the general session hall, drawing a parade of Tea Party luminaries, who, in turn, drew a crowd of gawkers and photographers. (When I arrived mid-morning, Bachmann was patiently explaining to Breitbart listeners how she had managed to be so successful in Washington.) Not even the announcement that a family emergency had forced Sean Hannity to cancel as the keynote speaker at dinner was enough to dim the carnival feeling in the air.
The program itself was part celebration and part encouragement to keep on fighting the good fight. Martial language flowed thick, and variations on the word “tyranny” were hot, hot, hot. Speaker after speaker lauded the crowd of 300—maybe even 400—patriots for their perseverance in the face of unrelenting abuse by the usual rogues’ gallery of detractors: liberals, establishment Republicans, and the lamestream media.
Both Rand Paul and Mike Lee gently nudged the conversation in the direction of “what next.” As in his State of the Union response, Lee stressed that any reform effort must eventually shift from mere protest toward fighting for a new vision of government. Paul, too, hit on one of his emerging themes of late: the need to come up with a hopeful message that can help make the movement broader, not narrower. (And boy, oh boy, was Paul in his element: loose, laid-back, cracking jokes, leaning casually against the podium in his prep-schoolish outfit of blue blazer, red tie, and tan pants.)
For the most part, however, the day was all about flattering the assembled—even as they were urged to never, ever, ever give up. “Many of you may be wondering if it’s worth it,” cooed Mark Levin. (Message: It is!) Or as Sen. Lee posited, “Many of you may have been told that this is a lost cause.” (Message: It’s not!) Perhaps never have so many bloated political egos professed themselves “honored,” “inspired,” and/or “humbled” to be in the presence of a group of people not named Koch. Levin went so far as to claim special insight into the mind of the Gipper. As someone who campaigned for Ronald Reagan back in the day, he reminded the crowd, “I feel certain he would be enormously proud of you.” (Though that was nowhere near as unsettling as when Breitbart’s Steven K. Bannon announced he felt “the presence” of his old boss, Andrew Breitbart, “in this room.”)
Indeed, invoking Reagan—and specifically, how he was initially derided as too conservative by much of the party establishment—was among the most common inspirational elements on the program. Also highly popular were accounts of historical battles in which scrappy American patriots prevailed against overwhelming odds, as well as personal and historical anecdotes aimed at assuring Tea Partiers that they are not racist. Minority speakers drew repeatedly and occasionally movingly from this well, but it fell to former Reagan political director Jeffrey Lord to launch a heated assault on liberal hypocrisy based on the Democratic Party’s historical association with “slavery, segregation, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and racial quotas.” No matter how often the subject came up, the audience (whose non-white faces could be counted on one hand) whooped appreciatively.
To be fair, pretty much everything the speakers said was met with whooping and cheering and arm waving and even fist pumping. It was that kind of crowd. Whatever growing pains or crises of doubt the movement may be experiencing in the outside world, those in town for the party came fired up. The folks I spoke with were brimming with optimism and confident that the party was still on the rise. Dyanne Weiss, in town from Red Lodge, Mont., was particularly upbeat about the affect the movement was having locally in her state. (Montana only has one House member, she reminds me.) John Perkins and Nancy Driggs, a neat, trim, silver-haired couple from northern Rhode Island, were “gut upset” about the terrible state of the government (a fact Perkins blamed heavily on a clueless, worthless, shiftless media for failing to hold powerful people accountable) but just as passionately upbeat about the impact the Tea Party is having. “I think people are in for the shock of their life in 2014,” predicted Driggs.
Seated next to the couple, Chris from New York was even more outspoken in his horror of what is happening to this country—illegal immigration, the media serving as Obama’s Praetorian Guard, and establishment Republicans acting as a “Fifth Column” were of particular concern. But he too seemed energized rather than disheartened. Similarly upbeat attendees could be heard having similarly upbeat conversations all through the hall.
And, really, isn’t that the point of these events? It’s hard out there for a revolutionary, and even the truest of true believers can use a little love and affirmation now and again. As Driggs told me, zipping her puffy blue coat on the way out to lunch, “I always come out of these things energized.”