SEARCHLIGHT, Nevada — “You won’t make us look bad, will you?” asks Scott McDaniels, who drove 501 miles from Sparks to stand with 8,000 others in unity against the government during last weekend’s Tea Party event here. He would have been one of thousands holding signs that day, but the 30 mph winds forced him to leave them in the car. And they were good, he said—two of his favorites being “Re-elect no one!” and “8 percent—Harry, what were you thinking?” in reference to the Senate Majority Leader’s recent poll numbers.
As for McDaniels and his wife, Sheila, well, let’s just say they don’t fit the mold of people you would expect to be hurling racial and homophobic insults at senators, as some Tea Partiers were reported to have done during the height of the health-care debate. He’s a general contractor and she’s a non-union teacher. Educated as hell and courteous to boot.
But yes, they fully believe we currently have a socialist government, and that the best solution is to vote out Reid, the nation’s most powerful senator. “Everyone thinks we’re country bumpkins [in the Tea Party], but we know what’s going on,” says Scott, who has been everything from a member of the Peace and Freedom Party to a Republican, and who, along with his wife, is currently nonpartisan.
“I don’t trust state or local government,” Sheila says. And while both came primarily to hear Sarah Palin speak at today’s event, neither feels she will run for president.
No, I tell them, I have no intention of making them look bad—I’m just here to write about a movement that’s engendered as much scorn across the country as it has respect, one whose members are sincerely passionate, but some would say not necessarily informed. This is Ground Zero for the Tea Party Express, and I’m here, for better or for worse.
“Stay to the right and pray,” says the first guy I’ve seen this morning wearing the blessed yellow colors symbolizing traffic control. He’s clearly as stressed as the drivers who have been waiting hours to travel less than a mile to enter the dirt lot where today’s rally is to take place. I can’t help but wonder if his instructions are the same for the Tea Party itself.
My two-hour wait to travel 0.7 miles is made slightly more entertaining by the endless stream of Tea Partiers getting out of their cars to hawk tchotchkes, from small yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to Sarah Palin buttons to political toilet paper. Scatological humor would prove to be a recurrent theme, with signs on Port-A-Potties reading “Dump Reid” and “Harry Reid Donation Center.”
Many gave up the fight to enter and parked along U.S. 95, including the “California Tea Party Gospelbomb Express,” which, according to one of many thousands of stickers, indicated it was the Guinness record holder for the most stickers on a motor home. It says much about the ostentation at this event that such a bus blended in almost unnoticed. There was simply too much to look at elsewhere—a guy wearing a flag as a cap; a kid playing “America the Beautiful” on bagpipes as another kid carried a sign alongside him, “Make Your Harry Ass Reid the Constitution”; guys knocking on my window to hand out either bumper stickers reading “No vote, no voice,” or flyers explaining what a “fair tax” is. (Just FYI: “IRS and the 16th amendment—GONE!”)
The weather—48 degrees without the wind chill—did not deter spirits or attendance. Organizers had said they expected 10,000, and their numbers weren’t far off. The throng—including thousands of senior citizens, it seemed—braved the elements, some carrying lawn chairs. In what must have made organizers happy, Saturday’s wind was perfect for flying flags—in fact, I’ve never seen a flag fly straighter. As I passed one booth, a T-shirt vendor, noticing my obvious discomfort (I neglected to wear a coat), said, “Hey, it’s warmer if you layer that shirt with another shirt.” Wonder how many sported Tea Party shirts that day for comfort? I declined and moved on.
America might be completely under the thumb of a socialist government that uses the media to keep the populace stupid, but damn, people sure come up with some creative signage. In some cases, too creative. I’ll forever be trying to figure out what this one meant: “Harry Barry & Sugarbritches, keep your hands off my nuts!” In other cases, a level of ignorance that staggers the imagination: “If you love graffiti, you’re gonna love immigration reform!”
“Are you the only one selling Palin?” a woman inquired of one of the numerous booth operators. “That I’ve seen, yeah,” the vendor countered. I walked a few more feet, only to see more Palin stuff two booths over. Hey, all’s fair in love and capitalism. And there was plenty of money to be made at this event. “Fight back with bumper buckshot,” one booth’s sign read. They even had a carved-signs booth (so future generations can know that, at one time, you were really pissed off).
“Have you guys seen Joe the Plumber?” one excited woman asked my group. She was nonplussed at my friend’s suggestion that perhaps he was working on the Port-a-Potties. Another man could be heard saying to his friend, “I have no idea where the hell we’re going. I think we were supposed to be down on that end.” I briefly looked around for an organizer for this poor man to talk to but, sadly, was kind of lost myself.
If there’s one common theme to this event, it’s ethnicity—several speakers, including Palin, would insist that the Tea Party isn’t racist. But except for one black man selling roadside merchandise to captive drivers, there’s only one other person of color I see in this entire crowd, sitting calmly behind the photographer’s podium. His name is Sir F. Cooper, and he’s a Las Vegas-based talk-radio host who attended to “get the real story about the Tea Party, as opposed to what’s on TV.”
“It’s so hypocritical,” Cooper says. “This party is splitting not only the Republican Party, but America itself. The majority are against health care reform, but I’ll bet you the majority here today are on Medicare, and they’re cheering against their own best interests.”
He adds he was “disgusted to see a black man” selling merchandise, “a house brother cheering against his own interests.” As he speaks, a woman wearing sunglasses nearby glances my way, shakes her head with a disgusted look, and looks away.
On the stage, various candidates speak for a few minutes, then make way for the next. Some audience members can be heard murmuring, asking who is speaking. The usual answer is a shrug.
Suddenly, someone up there is murdering “New York, New York” with substitute lyrics, including, “This socialist nightmare ...,” as women behind him form a chorus line. Based on pageantry I’ve seen at other Tea Party-organized events, I’m a bit disappointed at how muted this all seems. Besides this strange stage show, the only other bit of theater I’ll see all day is a group of men in historical garb, beating drums and marching along with flags. It’s the first and only time I’ve seen the “Join or Die” flag, which has been far outnumbered by the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
Meanwhile, in the sky, planes are skywriting “Tea Party Express,” “We the people,” “Vote Reid out” (I would have opted for “Surrender, Harry Reid,” but that’s just me), “No new taxes” and “No bail outs.” Up to now, it’s the loudest applause I’ve heard all day.
That changes quickly, shortly after Gov. Jim Gibbons makes way for Sarah Palin. But the excitement quickly gives way to cries of “Louder!” and “We can’t hear you!” Palin eventually becomes audible, after which most of her speech consists of sound bites from earlier speeches (“How’s that hopey-changey thing going?” and “It’s not a time to retreat, it’s a time to reload!”), all the while rebuking the media for not getting it right: We’re not racist. We don’t promote violence. The planes reappear, writing, “Thank you Sarah Palin” multiple times. It occurs to one of my compatriots that these planes have just written nearly the equivalent of a Twitter post. A very expensive Twitter post.
Pete Monette, a small business owner in the Four Corners area of New Mexico who drove 600 miles to be here, is among those heading to his car after hearing Palin. He called her speech “very inspiring,” adding, “To get this many people together in the middle of nowhere is inspiring.”
Monette’s sure Palin will run for president (although he’s not sure he’d vote for her), but he made sure to point out he’s here because of “the failure of government to listen to the wishes of the people.” I ask him exactly what he’s referring to, aside from health care. He turns and asks his wife, after which there’s a brief pause. Then he lets loose: “Israel, energy cap and trade, immigration ...” I ask him who he’ll be voting for in upcoming elections. “Any candidate who believes in the Constitution.”
So most of the current Congress doesn’t support the Constitution?
“No, they either don’t support it or ignore it completely,” says Monette, an independent. He adds that his rental- housing business has been hurt by the current administration. How? I ask. “Not directly, but because of fear. A lot of businesses in our area have not moved forward because they don’t know what to expect next,” he claims, referring to energy companies who feel Obama is hurting the energy industry.
There are many speakers left, but the crowd is beginning to thin, many getting in their cars to head to Henderson, where Ann Coulter will be speaking on behalf of the Tea Party Express.
Tempers flare a tad on the way out, however, mostly because it’s taking most three hours to do so while the Nevada Highway Patrol stops traffic on 95 to allow Tea Partiers to get out. Drivers in a car and truck in front of me are sniping at one another, with the car eventually lurching in front of the truck, cutting it off. The truck driver sticks his thumbs to his ears, giving the universal “nah-nyah-nah-nah-nah” sign. Hey, guys, where did the unity go?
It’s while waiting in my car that I get to see perhaps the most memorable T-shirt of the day, courtesy of a guy who couldn’t wait in his car anymore and had to hit the Port-A-Potties one last time: “Michael Moore ate Osama bin Laden.” Didn’t this guy get the memo that today was all about bashing Reid, Obama and Pelosi? Maybe he just likes fat jokes.