Political Theatre

08.10.14

What I Saw at Iowa’s So-Co Circus

With 2016 just around the corner, GOP presidential hopefuls turned out in droves at Iowa’s Family Leader conference.

The annual Family Leader conference of social conservatives in Ames, Iowa, which was held Saturday this year, is a unique—and, in some ways, uniquely peculiar—event in American politics.  

There were reality television stars talking about how difficult it is to maintain their Christian values in the face of the secular establishment running basic cable. There were presidential candidates lambasting the Obama administration, and innumerable speakers urging Christians not to give up their defense of traditional marriage in a state where gay marriage was legalized in 2009.

But it wasn’t really a political rally, despite the presence of nearly a half dozen presidential hopefuls. And it wasn’t a revival meeting, despite the fact it had more preachers than a seminary faculty. Instead, it often played out like a group therapy session for frustrated conservatives to share their dismay over the direction of the country.

Some of the rough edges of years past had been smoothed out. In 2013, Rev. David Noebel, the author of the 1965 classic “Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles” spoke about the threat to “American Judeo-Christian capitalism” from UNESCO and Bill Gates. This year featured more contemporary right-wing personalities, like Josh Duggar, of the TLC show “19 Kids And Counting”, who talked about his sympathy with the plight of the Duck Dynasty family, and Alveda King, a conservative relative of Martin Luther King Jr., who sang the hymn “How Great Thou Art” from the podium. 

Regardless, you still didn’t have to go far to find men in American flag button down shirts, or T-shirts that proclaim its wearer’s intention to “vote the Bible.”

And there still was plenty of fire and brimstone, though perhaps less than some of the Democratic operatives attending the event would have hoped. One speaker said, “God will bring his judgment” on any nation that “engages in dividing the land of Israel”, and another spoke against the liberal values of “counterfeit marriage, social reengineering and a deliberate loss of religious liberty.”  

Perhaps the most virulent, red meat-tossing speech was that of Rafael Cruz, the Cuban-born pastor father of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who railed against the social gospel and social justice. These, he insisted, were harbingers of the twin plagues of socialism and secular humanism. 

Cruz also argued that the end of prayer in schools led to a dramatic increase in violent crime and teen pregnancy, both of which are actually on the decline in America. And while the Cuban-American preacher got a great reception from the crowd, the impact of his speech was blunted by the fact that he constantly had to say “next slide” to get someone to advance the Power Point accompanying his speech.

“The overwhelming tone of most of the speakers was a sense of fear and trepidation that America itself was somehow slipping away because of Obama.”

But the complaints about the current administration did sometimes come with a spoonful of sugar, or at least a cornball of humor. Louisiana Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal alternated between complaints about a president who had committed so many “dangerous and destructive” actions with anecdotes about his wife giving birth and tales of growing up with his father. It amounted to a speech that was one part Dinesh D’Souza’s America and one part Everybody Loves Raymond.

Rick Santorum, meanwhile, went out of his way to say he wouldn’t attack Obama during his speech. Although it was “easy, satisfying and fun to just come up here and pound the president,” he said he wanted to focus on the broader issues of why people were struggling, tired, angry and just plain stressed out about the future of the country.

The overwhelming tone of most of the speakers was a sense of fear and trepidation that America itself was somehow slipping away because of Obama. Mike Huckabee, for example, proclaimed the need for spiritual transformation, and said America was starting to be more and more like communist China. 

Yet for all that angst, some conservatives comforted the crowd by vanishing into a soothing alternate reality where Republicans routinely outmaneuver Obama’s Democrats.

Ted Cruz listed the seven victories that he said conservatives had won since Obama was re-elected. Needless to say, all involved Cruz playing a central role. The final victory, said Cruz, was “laying the groundwork to repeal every single word of Obamacare.” The Texas senator said he had done this through the government shutdown, which, in his opinion, finally revealed to the American people that, “Obamacare is an albatross around [their] necks.” 

But while Cruz may have been trying to present his achievements through rose-colored lenses, his warped sense of recent political history was nothing compared to conservative activist Sue Lynn’s Palin revisionism. A Michigan resident, Lynn had taken a ferry across Lake Superior to her friend’s house in Wisconsin and then driven hours to Ames to man a booth for the “Sarah Palin Earthquake Movement”. 

The “Earthquake Movement” is an independent group of Palin supporters who had volunteered their time printing up brochures and bumper stickers in an attempt to convince Sarah Palin to run for president. They circulated petitions and shared their case with the conservative attendees. Lynn said Palin’s conservative leadership and her willingness to take on the establishment, both on the left and the right, inspired her.

If Palin, who resigned as Governor of Alaska halfway through her first term to pursue a career as a Fox News pundit and reality television star, didn’t run, Lynn had a second choice for 2016: Allen West, the polarizing one-term Florida congressman turned conservative media star.

But feeling out presidential candidates isn’t the only reason people show up to Family Leader. In fact, almost all the attendees said they had no idea who they would support in 2016, and many were hard pressed to even remember whom they caucused for in 2012.  Instead, like Justin and Joy Kirchoff from Humboldt County in northern Iowa, they came just to spend time with fellow likeminded conservatives and find some inspiration from the speakers. 

After all, 2016 is a long time away, and in the meantime they need ways to cope with the detested Barack Obama in the White House.