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Tea Party's roots lie in backlash against Obama

By Will Bunch, Special to
  • Will Bunch: Fear of increased diversity was a key factor in discontent that led to Tea Party
  • He says election of first black president increased anxiety of those fearing change
  • Majority of Tea Party supporters don't think Obama was born in the U.S., according to polling
  • Bunch: Support from anti-tax billionaires helps to provide Tea Party organizational framework

Editor's note: Will Bunch is author of "The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama," published by HarperCollins, and of "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future." He is senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and writer of its Attytood blog, and a senior fellow for Media Matters for America, a progressive research center monitoring the media.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- The first time I saw Christine O'Donnell in action, there were no bright TV lights and no talk of "dabbling in witchcraft" or her offbeat views on masturbation.

It was the regular meeting of the rural Sussex County chapter of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots back in November 2009, and O'Donnell -- a long-shot possible U.S. Senate candidate still months away from becoming a nightly cable news sensation -- wasn't what brought 100 souls out to the Bowers Beach firehouse on a foggy Wednesday night.

They listened politely to O'Donnell's 20-minute spiel that touched on issues like health care reform, but really they'd come out on behalf of their muse -- "Morning-Zoo"-jock-turned-political-avatar Glenn Beck -- to express their anger and unease over the rise of President Barack Obama and their contempt for politicians who might dare go along with Obama's agenda, such as moderate GOP Rep. Mike Castle, the man O'Donnell would knock out in a nationally watched primary earlier this month.

Before their meeting, I sat down in a diner with three leaders of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots and over heaping plates of pasta or meatloaf, I asked them how they came to form their group, the state's largest among what many now call the Tea Party movement.

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Real-estate agent Theresa Garcia told me of how candidate Obama made her "uncomfortable" the first time she watched him on TV, while her husband, Alex, tried to convince me that the overwhelming win in Delaware in 2008 by Obama and native son Joe Biden wasn't legitimate because their majority came from "the handout people" in Wilmington.

The leader of the 9-12 Patriots, retired trucker and Vietnam vet Russ Murphy, said he'd been energized by reports on Fox News playing up Obama's contacts with '60s radical William Ayers and told me that Obama was "fundamentally not American," questioning his credentials to serve as commander-in-chief.

The increasing federal debt and the growth of big government? That issue barely came up.

In reporting my new book about the rise of the anti-Obama backlash movement, I spent a year traveling from Arizona to Georgia to Massachusetts asking the same questions that many Americans are just now asking themselves in the wake of O'Donnell's upset win in Delaware and other political muscle-flexing from the far right: Who exactly are these Tea Partiers, and what do they want?

Movement leaders and some friendly political pundits insist that this conservative uprising is nothing more complex than a spontaneous combustion of anger -- sizable, independent and focused solely on the size and scope of the federal government and on doing something about the growing national debt.

But that was not the Tea Party that I found as I ventured to places like the gunpowder-tinged Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky, where vendors openly sold Photoshopped pictures of Obama getting a back rub from Adolf Hitler and attendees insisted the president would confiscate their weapons, to a swank Nashville, Tennessee, ballroom where Sarah Palin netted a cool $100,000 from the masses of Tea Party Nation, pledging she would give it back to the cause.

Indeed, people miss the entire point about the backlash when they try to define it strictly through a political prism. At the end of the day, the Tea Party movement is mainly rooted in a cultural revolution, whipped by winds of anxiety and fear -- not just about the loss of so many middle-class jobs in America, but also about sweeping demographic and cultural change in America.

The roots of rage on right-wing talk radio came before Obama's election -- with angry rhetoric about undocumented immigration, fueled by experts reporting that whites would be a minority in America by the middle of the 21st century. The arrival of the first nonwhite president in 2008 in the person of Obama was like a lightning bolt, creating not only the "uncomfortable" feelings of future Tea Party joiners like Garcia but also inspiring theories that the new president is not an American citizen or is a secret Muslim.

Today, these ideas remain embedded in the DNA of the Tea Party, with polls showing nearly 60 percent of adherents say they don't think Obama was born in the United States or responded with no answer or "don't know."

While the initial protests targeting government spending did spring up just weeks after Obama signed the $800 billion economic stimulus bill, there's scant evidence of many future Tea Party protesters taking to the barricades in fall 2008 over the $700 billion Wall Street and bank bailout, a massive spending program launched by Republican George W. Bush.

Nor did they protest the billions in debt wracked up during the Bush years for two wars, a tax cut tilted toward millionaires and billionaires and a pricey Medicare drug program. That suggests the Tea Party is less about preventing big government than about preventing government by Barack Obama.

To the extent that the Tea Party has an agenda, it is a top-down affair, hatched largely in the studios of Beck and Rush Limbaugh -- figures who unite and animate their culture much as the Beatles and Dylan uplifted the 1960s counterculture. Money from billionaires like Charles and David Koch of oil-rich Koch Industries with a pro-business -- and anti-populist -- agenda helps to provide an infrastructure for their protests.

The result is a unified movement that is indeed wielding enormous influence on the U.S. body politic, as the Tea Party movement -- supported by no more than 25 percent of Americans, according to most polls, has all but pulled off a leveraged buyout of the Republican Party.

The GOP's new "Pledge to America," is not only a sop to the anti-Obama backlash -- especially in fiery language that speaks of "an arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites" -- but embraces its political contradictions -- repeatedly criticizing the federal debt while increasing it by $700 billion to fund tax cuts for billionaires like the Koch brothers -- a prime example of financial interests hijacking this cultural rage.

This comes on the heels of the movement's success in pushing one-time Senate dealmakers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to the far right and scuttling any hopes of immigration or energy reform.

The dissonance of the Pledge to America went unheard by the Tea Party. Ten months after that first encounter in a Delaware fire hall, I found myself in the same place as O'Donnell, Beck, Palin and 100,000 diehards from the anti-Obama backlash, at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

There was no talk of the jobs crisis facing America or governmental solutions, but the throng embraced the TV star's message that the poor in America don't have it so bad and that the rally "[has] nothing to do with politics, everything to do with God." That wasn't far off. This was indeed a quasi-religious Woodstock moment for a movement that is reshaping American politics -- even as it's really about preserving a culture instead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Bunch.