Meanwhile, tea partyers were putting themselves forward as America’s last hope. PRAY FOR TIME, said Margie Souder’s sign in Scranton. What did that mean? It’s a prayer that the movement will not go away before the country is lost to Obama’s godlessness, she said. Well, he prays, too, doesn’t he? “To Allah. Or somebody,” she said, and on the stage, Deborah Johns, one of the movement’s more prominent figures, said, “I do not want a president that bows to the king of Saudi Arabia.”
GO GET EM GLENN, said another sign, referring to the leader of the new movement, pink-faced neotenic Glenn Beck, the Fox talk-show host who was famous for crying and laughing in rapid succession, and exhorting his watchers to prayer. Beck claimed to be bi-partisan—or bipolar, Jon Stewart joked—but his bi-partisanship was that of the period just after September 11, when all but a minority of Democrats supported President Bush. Limbaugh, with his sharp-elbowed political attacks, may have been the de facto leader of the Republican Party, but Beck’s impressionistic style made him the prince of this new dream politics. Beck went non-linear, anti-factual, mixing the Empire State Building in with the Freedom Tower. He merged the community organization ACORN with the Democratic National Committee, suggesting that America had been taken over by a socialist virus that real Americans had to oppose. He was fearful, overwrought, oddly childlike, an unlikely movement father figure. “Our freedom and liberty is so fragile right now, we should whisper her name because too loud of a voice could shatter it,” he said in July.
Nuts. Yet what did that word even mean now? “In the early sixties, you had the John Birch Society saying the same kind of nutty things. It never made it into the mainstream,” says Robert Shrum, the longtime political consultant. “The editors of the New York Times or L.A. Times or Washington Post decided what was going to appear.” Reporter Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org says, “We used to be gatekeepers, back when there were gates. But now you see elected officials standing up and echoing some of the most bizarre, weird, false information we see on chain e-mails.” The left blogosphere spent a lot of energy refuting the crazies—but even as they refuted them, their alternative reality grew, and maybe their power too.
The birther question has been pressed by about a dozen imaginative activists over the last year—chiefly Orly Taitz, a California dentist, Phil Berg, a Philadelphia lawyer, and World Net Daily, a right-wing online publication. Each built large, and apparently lucrative, followings on the web, and the Republican Party needed the birthers too much to throw them under the bus. Republican identification was near historic lows, 21 percent, and of that number, a goodly percentage were only too willing to accept the worst claims about the president. A Daily Kos survey in midsummer said that 58 percent of Republicans nationwide questioned whether the president was born in the United States. That finding—by a left-wing blog, but still—was echoed by a Public Policy Polling survey of last week saying that 33 percent of New Jersey Republicans believed that Obama was not a citizen—and 14 percent thought he was the Antichrist. “This is nothing new,” says Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, pointing out that “folk conservatism” has been a force in American politics at least since Andrew Jackson.
Joe Wilson wasn’t the only Republican congressman in sync with that culture. Spencer Bachus, Jean Schmidt, Trent Franks, and the inevitable Michele Bachmann, even Chuck Grassley. Few were willing to contradict the birthers. The party simply didn’t have any other engine. At the September 12 rally in Washington, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, clad in flannel, said he was more comfortable with the people in the crowd than he was with his fellow senators. He stood not far from signs with swastikas, and DON’T TREAD ON ME signs with coiled rattlesnakes. Meanwhile, news reports said death threats to the president were up 400 percent from the Bush years.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, the conventional wisdom was that the movement’s influence would be in inverse proportion to its insanity. Centrist intellectuals like David Brooks, David Frum, and Sam Tanenhaus worried that by attaching itself to a fantasy politics, the Republican Party would forfeit its claim to be able to govern in the real world. It is not the first time that argument has been made. Two generations ago, during the Goldwater campaign, Columbia political historian Richard Hofstadter watched angry and suspicious minds gathering in reaction to the civil-rights movement and the nuclear-test ban and said that “the paranoid style in American politics” was a distraction. The American process works through “consensus” and “comity,” while these folk falsely understood history as a vast conspiracy or a “moral melodrama.” They were never coming in, Hofstadter said—and joked that they should be shipped to mental asylums.