Trying to figure out what this whole "Tea Party" phenomenon is all about is a lot like trying to peer into the bottom of a muddy pool. The "mainstream" news media has accepted them as a legitimate, powerful force in American politics, as evidenced by CNN's so-called "Tea Party Debate" for the Republican presidential candidates on Monday night. A group that did not exist three years ago suddenly has enough clout to rate a television banner and a chunk of prime-time coverage.
But who are these people, really?
Clearly, they are made up of what used to be quaintly called the "GOP base." In large part, they are the people who voted for George W. Bush twice, and would have happily pulled the lever for him a third time had he been on the ballot in 2008. They struggled mightily with John McCain's nomination in 2008, thanks to McCain's occasional political heresies against Mr. Bush, and their reticence to get behind McCain is a sizeable part of the explanation for why his campaign chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. No matter how galactically absurd the decision to tap Palin turned out to be, it was a calculated gamble because GOP base voters - now reborn as "Tea Party" voters - absolutely adore her. McCain needed those votes, and chose to roll the dice.
Ergo, these people have real muscle, at least within the party. Few voting blocs are as reliable as the GOP base, and they always turn out en masse for presidential primaries and caucuses. Thus, they are coddled and catered to, even by candidates who don't necessarily share their orthodoxy on far-right conservative issues.
After the 2008 election, that GOP base was transmogrified into the "Tea Party," thanks in large part to massive financial assistance from people like the Koch brothers, who have been using their vast financial resources to undercut the Obama administration and congressional Democrats at every opportunity. Their money helped to organize "Tea Party" rallies, as well as the much-documented bedlam that broke loose at a variety of health care town halls around the country. The "mainstream" news media fell in love with the spectacle, and all of a sudden, this new thing became all the rage (pardon the pun) on the nightly broadcasts.
There's more than a bit of sad irony in this. "Tea Party" people like to think of themselves as a grassroots "movement" born of, so they believe, a national sense of horror at the fact that Barack Obama is president. They peddled the farcical idea that Mr. Obama's birth certificate didn't exist, that he is a secret socialist fascist communist Muslim Islamist terrorist mole...but in the main, they are nothing more than useful idiots following the beat of drummers who couldn't care less about them at the end of the day.
And yes, "idiots" is the proper word. We've seen it often enough by now: the astonishingly poor spelling on protest signs carried by pear-shaped blivets wearing ill-fitting camouflage gear while packing rifles and pistols to public rallies, best personified by the brain donor who proudly held up a placard reading, "Keep Your Damned Government Hands Off My Medicare." It's like a zen koan. The dizzying stupidity represented therein literally stops the mind.
Whatever else these "Tea Party" people are, they are most definitely White Christians, with a strong strain of the evangelical, due in large part to the GOP-base DNA most of them share.
And that's where things get really interesting.
During the GOP debate last week, Rick Perry burnished his law-and-order credentials by bragging about the 234 executions - at least one of which took the life of an innocent man - he has presided over while governor of Texas. The GOP crowd at the debate went absolutely wild, cheering and hooting their approval of the taking of so much life.
On Monday night, candidate Ron Paul was given a hypothetical about providing health care to a dying man who lacked health insurance. Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the debate, asked Paul, "Are you saying society should just let him die?" Before Paul could cobble together an answer, the "Tea Party" audience again erupted, this time yelling "Yes!" in answer to Blitzer's question.
These "Tea Party" people profess to be representatives of average Americans, despite being a complete creation of the 0.1% wealthy elite. They claim government is too big, even as many of them hail from states (think Texas) that would utterly collapse without federal funding. They bring guns to public rallies. They like Medicare, until they are reminded that Medicare is a government program.
And they are Christians, members of the faithful, who enjoy executions and who think uninsured people should be left to die.
Correction: they are "Christians," because it is impossible to build any kind of bridge between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs these people espouse at the top of their lungs.
They are not Christians, but are in fact a death-worshipping cult. The best response to the vile display broadcast by CNN on Monday night was provided by former Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, who has had more than a few go-rounds with this particular breed of cat. "What you saw tonight," said Grayson, "is something much more sinister than not having a healthcare plan. It's sadism, pure and simple. It's the same impulse that led people in the Coliseum to cheer when the lions ate the Christians. And that seems to be where we are heading - bread and circuses, without the bread. The world that Hobbes wrote about - 'the war of all against all.'"
Thanks to the "mainstream" news media, to ardent yet covert supporters like the Koch brothers, and to the sweaty intensity of their own deranged ideals, these "Tea Party" people have emerged as a true force in American politics. What we saw last week, and on Monday night, is a glimpse of what the world would be like if these people achieve the supremacy they seek.