Trying to Find the Tea Party at its 10th Anniversary Rally

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, addresses a crowd of activists outside the U.S. Capitol Building on September 19, 2019. (Photo: Jared Holt)

Fewer than 200 Tea Party activists gathered on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building on Thursday for a rally declaring socialism its top enemy.

Yesterday’s event was meant to celebrate the Tea Party movement’s 10-year anniversary. In September 2009, tens of thousands of protesters marched under the Tea Party banner in Washington, reported Fox News at the time; the Tea Party’s “Taxpayer March on Washington” demonstration was the conclusion of a “34-city, 7,000-mile bus tour” that began in California. But the size of the crowd at yesterday’s rally in front of the U.S. Capitol was a tiny fraction of the turnout the movement mobilized a decade ago.

​Said to be born​ of a now-infamous on-air rant  by CNBC ​personality Rick Santelli ​in which he criticized plans ​for​ ​federal funding for the refinancing of home mortgages in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis, the movement rallied a decade ago on libertarian-styled calls for less government intervention in the economy. ​Tea Party ​adherents opposed President Barack Obama and his administration’s agenda, particularly on the issues of healthcare and the government response to the economic crisis. Tea Party ​rallies were also notable for the racism ​expressed by some participants in response to Obama’s presidency.

As The New York Times reported in depth, Tea Party ​leaders organized followers around an agenda that included reducing the national debt and deficit and limit​ing the government’s involvement the areas of the economy that ​lawmakers and the Obama administration were attempting to resuscitate. The Tea Party was a major force ​in ​local and national politics, helping to elect dozens of politicians  to Congress ​in the 2010 midterm elections. But in the Trump era, the Tea Party has joined the rest of the GOP in a choir of pro-Trump sycophancy. The Trump-GOP tax bill dramatically increased the debt, but conservative activists​, including those once part of the Tea Party, largely supported it.

“We’re not going anywhere. We’re here to tell the President of the United States, ‘Stand strong, keep on the fight, [and] we back you, because you stand between us and them,’” Mark Levin, a prominent conservative political commentator and the headline rally speaker, said during his speech.

Tea Party activists rally at the U.S. Capitol Building on September 19, 2019. (Photo: Jared Holt)

Rally speakers yesterday made no mention of the blooming national debt under the Trump administration, massive spending bills passed by GOP-controlled Congressional bodies, or the fact that the Trump administration has offered huge subsidies to American farmers. Instead, the rally borrowed its namesake and message from a line that President Trump declared during this year’s State of the Union address: “America will never be a socialist country.”

As The Intercept noted at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Republicans have been explicit in stating that their strategy heading into 2020 is to frame the general election as a vote between capitalism and socialism, despite the fact that only one Democratic Party presidential candidate has used the word “socialist” to describe himself and that none have called for the abolition of capitalism. Right Wing Watch has documented numerous instances of the socialism-scare strategy being adopted and deployed in right-wing organizing spheres, including among the religious right.

Morgan Zegers of Young Americans Against Socialism (Photo: Jared Holt)

On the mic, Morgan Zegers, founder of a new youth organization called Young Americans Against Socialism (YAAS), recounted her experience as a lifelong Republican who had a roommate in college who claimed to be a communist  to explain her organization’s plan to produce viral videos to turn young people away from socialism. (Polling has shown that young people are more open to socialist policies than prior generations.) YAAS is advised by Bill Montgomery, ​co-founder and senior advisor of Charlie Kirk’s conservative youth group Turning Point USA, which has taken a similar tone opposing ​what it paints as widespread socialist organizing in the United States.

Zegers said that she believed her communist roommate was well-intentioned, but misled. Zegers said she was confused why someone who had been educated in America would have in her room a poster depicting communist leaders, of which Zegers’ description sounded familiar to a​ mass-produced poster parodying the “Communist Party.” In a direct message on Twitter this morning, Zegers confirmed that poster she was describing was a similar parody poster.

“My generation was raised on participation trophies, so we lack those values of hard work. We went through the education system, where we weren’t really taught about the dangers of socialism and communism,” Zegers said. “So, we’ve got to do something about it.”

“That’s the future of America,” one crowd member remarked to another during Zegers’ speech.

Rep. Mo Brooks (Photo: Jared Holt)

Numerous elected officials joined Tea Party activists in front of the Capitol. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama appeared and told the crowd that free enterprise was partly responsible for making the United States “empirically” the best country in the world and that Democratic Socialists, he claimed, were infiltrating government at every level to destroy America.

“There is a conspiracy amongst the socialist Democrats to take our own government from us by allowing non-citizens to [vote to] control our future as a country. That is wrong and we have to fight for our republic,” Brooks said. “The socialist Democrats are an amoral party. They are undermining traditional moral values on a daily basis.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said that “those Democrats are all about socialism,”​ claiming that the American free-enterprise system was the greatest enemy of poverty. He urged activists to oppose socialism by adopting cheerful attitudes in contrast to an allegedly joyless left-wing enemy.

“This is all about partisan leftists undermining the Constitution and undermining the Bill of Rights, which means we need to explain why liberty matters,” Cruz said. “Contrast the joy of freedom, of America, with the angry intolerance of the socialist left.”

Rep. Jody Hice (Photo: Jared Holt)

Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia reminisced about the major Tea Party ​march in Washington 10 years ​ago, remarking that it “shook our entire world.” He told activists that Democrats were disregarding the Constitution, citing a hearing earlier in the day in which some Democrats argued for the District of Columbia to become a state. He instilled a sense of urgency in combating what he characterized as a socialist insurgence in America.

“Never, ever, ever, would I have imagined, nor would have you imagined, that we literally would be facing a genuine obstacle, a genuine opponent, trying to force socialism down our throat,” Hice said. “We need another grassroots movement of leaders right now more than ever before.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas told activists that billionaires are funding socialist causes because they believe that they’ll get to be part of a special ruling class after socialism is implemented, but were doing so to their own demise.

“The billionaires don’t understand. They keep giving millions and millions to turn us socialist. They think they’re going to be part of that tiny little ruling class where all the rest of us are minions,” Gohmert said, going on to warn that billionaires are often put in prison or graves after socialist rule is implemented.

Gohmert also compared the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to Abraham Lincoln​’s Emancipation Proclamation​, which the Civil War president issued despite strong opposition.

Mark Levin (Photo: Jared Holt)

Levin, who rally participants referred to as “The Great One,” implied that every Democrat seeking the presidency in 2020 was aligned with socialism. Levin went on to cite the food selections available at many grocery stores, airplane travel, and air conditioning as triumphs of American capitalism and constitutional values.

“Socialism is the opposite of liberty. Under socialism you surrender your heart, your soul, and your mind to Elizabeth Warren, to Bernie Sanders, to Cory Booker, and all the rest of them,” Levin said.

He also told activists that journalists in America are actively working against liberty, and said that the press “is supposed to be free to support our principles, our founding principles, which are not hard to support.” The rally was notably ​covered by ​a gaggle​ of BlazeTV employees, but seemingly few reporters from other ​national outlets. (BlazeTV merged with Levin’s network CRTV last year​, and Beck was one of the Tea Party’s most prominent voices during his tenure as a primetime host on Fox News Channel.)

Throughout the rally, echos ​were heard of the Tea Party’s reputation for ​harboring racists and ​activists ​who embrace more extreme right-wing ideologies. Randy Corporon, a longtime Tea Party activist in Colorado, spoke about his work with far-right political columnist Michelle Malkin and anti-immigrant activist Tom Tancredo in his state against left-wing protesters calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Corporon said that law enforcement had given their plans for a counter-protest rally ​this weekend a​t a location ​used by ​opponents of the Trump administration’s punitive policies against immigrants for political demonstrations at an ICE facility in ​what he described as “very leftist” Colorado​.

During an aside in his speech during which Levin argued in favor of military action against Iran, an audience member hoisting ​a copy of Levin’s latest book above his head yelled: “They’re subhuman cockroaches!”