The tea-party movement has no leader. But it does have a face: William Temple of Brunswick, Ga. For months, the amiable middle-aged activist has been criss-crossing America, appearing at tea-party events dressed in his trademark three-cornered hat and Revolutionary garb. When journalists interview him (which is often—his outfit draws them in like a magnet), he presents himself as a human bridge between the founders' era and our own. "We fought the British over a 3 percent tea tax. We might as well bring the British back," he told NPR during a recent protest outside the Capitol.
It's a charming act, which makes the tea-party movement seem no more unnerving than the people who spend their weekends reenacting the Civil War. But the 18th-century getups mask something disturbing. After I spent the weekend at the Tea Party National Convention in Nashville, Tenn., it has become clear to me that the movement is dominated by people whose vision of the government is conspiratorial and dangerously detached from reality. It's more John Birch than John Adams.
Like all populists, tea partiers are suspicious of power and influence, and anyone who wields them. Their villain list includes the big banks; bailed-out corporations; James Cameron, whose Avatar is seen as a veiled denunciation of the U.S. military; Republican Party institutional figures they feel ignored by, such as chairman Michael Steele; colleges and universities (the more prestigious, the more evil); TheWashington Post; Anderson Cooper; and even FOX News pundits, such as Bill O'Reilly, who have heaped scorn on the tea-party movement's more militant oddballs.
One of the most bizarre moments of the recent tea-party convention came when blogger Andrew Breitbart delivered a particularly vicious fulmination against the mainstream media, prompting everyone to get up, turn toward the media section at the back of the conference room, and scream, "USA! USA! USA!" But the tea partiers' well-documented obsession with President Obama has hardly been diffused by their knack for finding new enemies.
Steve Malloy, author of Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Ruin Your Life, kicked off the first full day of conference proceedings by warning that Obama and his minions are conspiring to control every aspect of Americans' lives—the colors of their cars, the kind of toilet paper they use, how much time they spend in the shower, the temperature of their homes—all under the guise of U.N. greenhouse-gas-reduction schemes. "Obama isn't a U.S. socialist," Malloy thundered. "He's an international socialist. He envisions a one-world government."
I consider myself a conservative and arrived at this conference as a paid-up, rank-and-file attendee, not one of the bemused New York Times types with a media pass. But I also happen to be writing a book for HarperCollins that focuses on 9/11 conspiracy theories, so I have a pretty good idea where the various screws and nuts can be found in the great toolbox of American political life.
Within a few hours in Nashville, I could tell that what I was hearing wasn't just random rhetorical mortar fire being launched at Obama and his political allies: the salvos followed the established script of New World Order conspiracy theories, which have suffused the dubious right-wing fringes of American politics since the days of the John Birch Society.
This world view's modern-day prophets include Texas radio host Alex Jones, whose documentary, The Obama Deception, claims Obama's candidacy was a plot by the leaders of the New World Order to "con the Amercican people into accepting global slavery"; Christian evangelist Pat Robertson; and the rightward strain of the aforementioned "9/11 Truth" movement. According to this dark vision, America's 21st-century traumas signal the coming of a great political cataclysm, in which a false prophet such as Barack Obama will upend American sovereignty and render the country into a godless, one-world socialist dictatorship run by the United Nations from its offices in Manhattan.
Sure enough, in Nashville, Judge Roy Moore warned, among other things, of "a U.N. guard stationed in every house." On the conference floor, it was taken for granted that Obama was seeking to destroy America's place in the world and sell Israel out to the Arabs for some undefined nefarious purpose. The names Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers popped up all the time, the idea being that they were the real brains behind this presidency, and Obama himself was simply some sort of manchurian candidate.
A software engineer from Clearwater, Fla., told me that Washington, D.C., liberals had engineered the financial crash so they could destroy the value of the U.S. dollar, pay off America's debts with worthless paper, and then create a new currency called the Amero that would be used in a newly created "North American Currency Union" with Canada and Mexico. I rolled my eyes at this one-off kook. But then, hours later, the conference organizers showed a movie to the meeting hall, Generation Zero, whose thesis was only slightly less bizarre: that the financial meltdown was the handiwork of superannuated flower children seeking to destroy capitalism.
And then, of course, there is the double-whopper of all anti-Obama conspiracy theories, the "birther" claim that America's president might actually be an illegal alien who's constitutionally ineligible to occupy the White House. This point was made by birther extraordinaire and Christian warrior Joseph Farah, who told the crowd the circumstances of Obama's birth were more mysterious than those of Jesus Christ. (Apparently comparing Obama to a messiah is only blasphemous if you're doing so in a complimentary vein.) To applause, he declared, "My dream is that if Barack Obama seeks reelection in 2012 that he won't be able to go to any city, any city, any town in America without seeing signs that ask, 'Where's the birth certificate?'"
Many of the tea-party organizers I spoke with at this conference described the event as a critical step in their ascendancy to the status of mainstream political movement. Yet with rare exceptions, such as blogger Breitbart, who was reportedly overheard protesting Farah's birther propaganda, none of them seems to realize how off-putting the toxic fantasies being spewed from the podium were.
Perhaps the most distressing part of all is that few media observers bothered to catalog these bizarre, conspiracist outbursts, and instead fixated on Sarah Palin's Saturday night keynote address. It is as if, in the current overheated political atmosphere, we all simply have come to expect that radicalized conservatives will behave like unhinged paranoiacs when they collect in the same room.
That doesn't say much for the state of the right in America. The tea partiers' tricornered hat is supposed to be a symbol of patriotism and constitutional first principles. But when you take a closer look, all you find is a helmet made of tin foil.
Jonathan Kay is the managing editor for comment at Canada's National Post newspaper. His book, Among the Truthers: 9/11 Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, will be published by HarperCollins in 2011. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.