The Tea Party's sad, nostalgic reunion tour

Glenn Beck leads a throng of wacky people wishing it were 2010 again -- the last time they were taken seriously

Published June 20, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

Glenn Beck                                      (Jeffrey Malet,
Glenn Beck (Jeffrey Malet,

Remember way back to 2010? When the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" was tearing up the charts and a hot new upstart political movement called the Tea Party was striking fear into socialists everywhere? What began on Tax Day in 2009 hit a high-water mark just 18 months later with a massive rally on the National Mall organized by Glenn Beck (which later proved to be the beginning of the end of the Tea Party's purpose for existing: massive anti-government rallies of colorful, flag-waving patriots). There's no question the conservative revival in the GOP has remade the party inside Washington, but the Gadsden flags were rolled up and the tricorn hats put away as the outsider movement honed its insider game.

Until today. For one day only, the Capitol has been consumed by what feels a bit like a single-night stand reunion tour for a band that had one good album that mostly gets played for nostalgic reasons today. The event was billed as "the largest demonstration of Tea Party support since 2010," and while it may have succeeded on that count, it also underscores how much the movement has slipped since that year of its glory.

Taking in the scene on the West Lawn of the Capitol Wednesday feels like looking at a time capsule of early 2010. There are hundreds or possibly thousands of (mostly white, mostly older) people decked in "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirts, sitting in folding camping chairs and waving yellow flags. Classic Tea Party signs like "hands off my healthcare" are joined by newcomers like "Waterboard the IRS" and "We Want Truth Benghazi."

Credit: Jeffrey Malet.

In two separate rallies on either side of the Capitol, one focusing on immigration reform and the other on the IRS, the whole gang got back together. There was Michele Bachmann and Steve King and Louie Gohmert and all the lesser Tea Party lawmakers, radio hosts, activists and hangers-on who became fixtures of the big rallies in the Tea Party's glory days.

"The two rallies are bigger than the sum of their parts, however. They mark the return of Tea Party activists to the national political stage," Breitbart's Mike Flynn promised. "When the Tea Party started in 2009, the idea of government growing out of control was a theory. Today, it is a fact."

Credit: Jeffrey Malet.

But the main event was Glenn Beck, who helped organize the anti-IRS rally. As skilled an orator as ever, the former Fox News host delivered a sprawling and classically Beckian 35-minute barn-burner that incorporated, among other things, Frederick Douglass, geotagging, the Arab Spring, an allegory about slavery and elephants, Woodstock, Hollywood, "the hippie culture," MLK, Gandhi, the Bible, Las Vegas, the liberal media, Foxconn, "homosexuals who are being stoned to death in Egypt," Jews, Jesus, sex trafficking, border security, government spying, and the proclamation: "We are not racist."

The trust of Beck's speech was that the people standing before him were engaged in an epic holy war against the people inside the Capitol building behind him, who are trying to "enslave mankind." "We have chosen sides, and we chose God's," Beck said to rapturous applause. "Those who wish to use unrighteous dominion over mankind are not enemies of ours, they are enemies of His. And I have a sneaking suspicion he's not going to be silent much longer either."

Credit: Jeffrey Malet.

"The mainstream media will mock me," Beck said, but we can trace this fight "all the way back to Moses," via Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. "I am a man and I demand to be treated as such," he added.

Beck updated his fare for the current times, weaving in references to fears about the surveillance state -- "information and data gathering ... is evil, it is un-American, it is wrong" -- but the message still felt of a 2010 vintage, aspiring for a new conservative dawn that seemed so much within reach a few years ago, only to slip back over the horizon by the end of 2012.

And like a reunion concert, the rally showed all the fraying edges of passing time and spoiled potential, underscoring how the Tea Party has become a shadow of what it was in its more hopeful youth. Some people couldn't be with us today. Allen West, Joe Walsh, Jim DeMint are all gone from Congress. Bachmann, the Tea Party Caucus chairwoman herself, is retiring. Beck is off of Fox News and is today more of a sideshow than the guy who once struck so much fear into the heart of the Obama White House that they wouldn't even let a falsely accused USDA employee finish driving home before firing her, for fear of ending up on his blackboard.

Credit: Jeffrey Malet.

Still, there are green shoots for the movement. Sarah Palin is back on Fox. The Obama "scandals" have incited the conservative base. But 2013 feels very different from 2010.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

MORE FROM Alex Seitz-Wald

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