The GOP Revolt

John Avlon reports from the scene of New York's tax-day "tea party," where some of the craziest elements of the right were trying to find their voice. And look, it's Newt Gingrich!

Al Behrman / AP Photo

John Avlon reports from the scene of New York's tax-day "tea party," where some of the craziest elements of the right were trying to find their voice. And look, it's Newt Gingrich! Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

A kaleidoscope of the modern conservative movement lined both sides of Broadway beside New York’s City Hall Park last night. There were libertarians, traditionalists, free-marketers, middle-class tax protesters, the more-patriotic-than-thou crowd, conservative shock jocks, frat boys, suit-and-tie Buckley-ites, and more than a couple of requisite residents of crazy-town. And Newt Gingrich.

The tea parties on Tax Day offered a perfect confluence for conservative populism: a Founding Father-sanctioned rebellion against big government combined with the age-old frustration of paying taxes, especially during a recession. Compared with the average G-20 or WTO protests, the New York rally was a model of civil disobedience. Instead of anarcho-punks leaving broken windows in their wake, there were American flags, country music, and repeated reminders to pick up trash before leaving the site.

Some signs were unexpected, such as “Obama = Bush lite.” When I asked about the underlying logic, a man explained, “Obama was elected with the promise of change and then pursued the same failed policies of Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility.”

But there was a righteous, unhinged anger beneath it all. Conservatives are already having a mass Howard Beale moment—they are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. And it’s only the 86th day of Barack Obama’s presidency.

A sampling of the signs seen in the crowd: “What’s the Difference Between Obama and Chavez?” [Answer: “Nothing.”]; “IRS: Treat me like you treat Geithner”; “Ali Obama and the 40 Thieves”; “Free Markets not Free-Loaders”; “Hitler was a Socialist Too.”

There were whole families on parade, such as the father carrying the American flag with an image of John Wayne emblazoned on it, followed by three children with pint-size “Don’t Tread on Me” flags (a sentiment which also doubled as a crowd-control notice).

Some signs were unexpected, such as the Ron Paul-ite whose sign read “Obama = Bush lite.” When I asked about the underlying logic, he explained, “Obama was elected with the promise of change and then pursued the same failed policies of Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility.” At least he kept the chronology consistent.

But when I saw the giant placard which read “Hussein = Commie,” the time had come for some counseling. The guy holding the sign looked like he could have come over on the subway from Williamsburg, wearing a hoodie, sunglasses, and an iPod. I asked him if the sign was serious. Oh, yes. “Every time he opens his mouth he spouts textbook Marxism, communism, socialism,” said the man who initially gave his name as “Barry Soetoro”—Obama’s name when he lived in Indonesia as a child. After some prodding, it turned out the protester was named Ted Houvouras, a Manhattan real-estate executive with a degree in economics from Georgetown. The pedigree didn’t make his analysis any more persuasive, but it hammered home one point clearly: Hating President Obama has already become a cottage industry for a hard-core fringe, as it was for Clinton après-Monica and Bush after the invasion of Iraq.

Despite the president’s broad popularity, the hyper-partisan fever that has afflicted our nation for more than a decade has not yet broken. It is being pumped up in the self-segregated partisan echo chamber every day—and in the search for political purpose or just an outlet for economic anger in a recession, a narrative has taken hold that the Obama administration is dedicated to overturning bedrock principles of American culture. Against this backdrop, weeping warnings about how we’re drifting toward tyranny and the need to “take our country back” start to make sense to some folks.

When speakers extolled the virtue of “individual responsibility,” the crowd roared—the billion-dollar bailouts having trumped any memory of the president’s call for a “new era of responsibility” in his inaugural address. But plenty of strawmen were evident in the tea party speeches as well—when one radio host asserted “we are told that if the few prosper, the many will suffer,” he was riffing off still potent anti-communist playbooks, not current White House policy. And when Christian conservative radio personality Jordan Sekulow decried “cutting funding for our troops,” it seemed like he hadn’t bothered to read the budget he was attacking.

But liberals who want to dismiss yesterday’s tea parties do so at their peril. They should remember the Gandhi line their protest leaders often quote: “First they ignore you. Then they mock you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Ignoring these tea parties didn’t work. We are now in the mocking phase—but for all the “Astroturf, not grassroots” asides, these crowds across the country were home-grown. They may have been pumped up by partisan interests but they were not purchased. Never forget that America was founded in part by a tax revolt. Now there is a real and predictable anger brewing at both big government and big business. This is bailout backlash. The 2008 election was not a liberal ideological mandate, and soon Main Street Americans will demand a return to fiscal responsibility.

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The conservatives organizing these events kept studiously repeating the apparently poll-tested line that these rallies were not about Republicans or Democrats, but their appeal is self-evidently partisan. It’s part of the “patriotic resistance” recruitment drives that started popping up online days after the election. It brings to mind loaded old slogans like Nixon’s “silent majority.” And when the president is cast as somehow un-American, there is a rank ugliness to the sentiments that are being stirred. It may be good for ratings, but it’s bad for the country.

For all the invocation of American history, there was a stark lack of historic perspective in yesterday’s protests. First, we are a world away from “taxation without representation”—the closer truth might be found in one woman’s hand-painted sign: “taxation with crappy representation.” Rolling back the Bush tax cuts—however unwise in a recession—does not put us on the road to socialism, let alone communism. Finally, there is the deep irony of conservatives playing the mirror image of the liberals they mocked a decade ago, portraying a popular election as an unconstitutional usurpation of power. Comparing President Obama to George III (or Chavez or Stalin) in this tea-party re-enactment is as idiotic as liberal protesters in 2004 comparing President Bush to Hitler.

In his closing remarks to the New York rally, all-but-announced 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich hopefully pointed out that the tea parties of 1773 were just a beginning. But for these Tax Day protests to have any lasting positive effect, they will need to widen their targets to a repudiation of the Republican Party’s Bush-era contempt for balanced budgets, their pork-barrel spending, and first-round TARP bailouts. They will need to be willing to work with President Obama and centrist Democrats if the promised move toward entitlement reform emerges. Any credible transpartisan movement to restore a sense of generational responsibility to our politics first needs to prove that is not the puppet of partisan ambitions. That’s a modern declaration of independence our Founding Fathers might smile upon.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for The New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter for then-Mayor Giuliani.