|Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Money Museum|
Nosing around for something relevant in the vault, I came across this visit to the Tea Party eight years ago. A reminder that Donald Trump was a product of our brokenness, not its cause. And that we liberals, if not guilty of summing it up, then certainly misread the warning signs, as my lack of alarm at the end of this column amply illustrates. The original headline was "Tea Party 'revolt' looks like a pity party to me."
"Chicago Tax Day Tea Party," read the colorful card handed to me as I emerged from Union Station into the soft, summery day Thursday.
"Liberty" it continued, in spidery, colonial-era script. "Constitutional Principles. Fiscal Responsibility." Then, in bright-red type -- the blood of patriots, no doubt -- "Repeal it! Replace Congress." And finally: "Chicago. Daley Plaza. 12:00 Noon."
Oh, right, I thought, sadly realizing that, though I'd love to toddle off to Gene & Georgetti as planned, I was duty-bound to cancel lunch -- another sacrifice on the altar of freedom! -- so as not to miss this moment in history. I'm sure guys were sheepishly telling their grandchildren, "No, Johnny, I was not at Lexington & Concord. But I was quite near -- the Spooner Tavern, two miles down the road, sharing a potato pie with Jim Griswald . . . "
Can't have that.
I entered Daley Center Plaza. Elvis' "It's Now or Never" burbled muddily from loudspeakers. There seemed about . . . and this is sensitive, so I'll tread carefully . . . 500 protesters, though the Tribune estimated 1,000 and the Sun-Times called it "thousands." So let's say 2,000, but if you want to make that 20,000, be my guest. I sure didn't count them, but took my place in the crowd.
Radio host Cisco Cotto led singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Or tried to. The response was a murmur, and I turned to look around -- most mouths were set in a grim line. One speaker said this was a happy movement, but they sure didn't look happy.
"Keep it respectful" read a yellow sign a lady carried, and there was obvious effort to rein in the excesses of previous Tea Party rallies across the country, despite the taunts of counter-protesters.
"Keep the rich rich!" chanted some young men. "Take my freedom!"
A round man in a straw hat carried a sign: "We Gave Peace a Chance and We Got 9/11" with "Peace" crossed out and replaced with "Hope" and "9/11" replaced by "Ft. Hood."
"So you don't think the Fort Hood massacre was the isolated act of a lone disturbed individual?" I asked, by way of starting conversation.
"No, I do not!" he said, fleeing. A common reaction. They want media attention, so long as it is not on themselves personally. I drifted over to a counter-protester, a young man in an aluminum foil hat.
"I've used tinfoil hats as metaphor," I said. "But I've never seen anyone actually wearing one . . . "
"Why don't you talk to the actual Tea Party members!" demanded another man, swooping in.
"OK," I said, trying to disarm him with my boyish smile. "Why don't I talk to you? What would you like to say?"
He turned and fled, at a trot.
Onstage, less tax, less tax, less tax. Clear enough. Though sometimes it seemed the partiers hadn't actually thought about what they were saying. Someone began reading an analysis of the Pledge of Allegiance that has circulated on the Internet for years.
"I," he read. "Me; an individual; a committee of one."
"Pledge; dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity . . . "
I looked around. Nobody here seemed willing to dedicate even some, never mind "all" of their worldly goods, and self-pity was the operative emotion.
"We want our country back," they said. But who has taken it? There were taxes and debt before. What is different is Barack Obama, and his central difference. . . .
"I don't give a damn that Obama is black," read a sign held by a man in a Soviet greatcoat. "It scares the hell out of me that he is red."
What to make of all this? Of the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and tri-cornered hats? I could probably work up indignation at the co-opting of revolutionary icons. Our founding fathers were risking their lives, signing their names boldly across acts of treason, and these guys can't even put their names behind their vague complaints.
But, to be honest, I found the whole thing harmless. Just because they've adopted the self-inflating rhetoric of revolt that so inflames every Saturday afternoon Young Communist League pep rally doesn't make them a genuine threat to anybody.
My feeling was, heck, if staging public gripe fests gives these people something to do, then great. It's outside. It involves handicrafts, the making of signs and costumes. It's like Scouting for irked middle-aged white people.
As to whether this is an actual grass-roots moment, or a sham orchestrated by larger interests, well, after the rally I pulled out that large card I had been handed when I got off the train. Stiff cardboard stock. Four-color. Glossy. Expensive, like something J.B. Pritzker printed up when he was running for Congress. A real grass-roots movement would use colored copier paper from Kinkos.
Despite all the talk of the American Revolution, the era of history they really evoke, at least to me, is the America First, the isolationist organization started in Chicago in 1940. Like the Tea Party, the America First was also conservative, nativist, at odds with both parties, since Democrats and Republicans wanted to help the English stand up to Mr. Hitler, which America First found a waste of our beloved money. Like the Tea Party, the America First gloried in huge rallies, featuring its own populist star, Charles Lindbergh, and mistook these displays for actual significance. America Firstism vanished on Dec. 7, 1941, and was promptly forgotten.
And while I would never be so bold as to predict the same fate for the Tea Party, it wouldn't surprise me either.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 18, 2010