A bad novelist likes nothing better than to bend the weather to suit artistic needs. A writer with a grudge against the Tea Party would happily have shivered through the April 13 rally on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn.
Advance materials for the rally said that the Tea Party and the conservative movement in general have been “blacklisted” by the media since the 2010 elections. That word drew my eye and also, apparently, the eyes of The Billings Gazette and Channel 2, who both had representatives at the rally.
But precious few others were there on a bone-chilling early spring afternoon. Perhaps two dozen people dotted the Courthouse lawn when the rally began. The number swelled to around 50 at the peak, then slowly diminished to a couple of dozen at the end, after most at the rally decided that weather trumped politics.
Many carried signs with messages such as “Stop waste,” “Bankrupting Our Kids Is Taxation Without Representation,” “It’s My Money, Not Yours” and “Keep Your Kool-Aid I Drink Tea.” A small child bore a sign saying “Keep Your Hands Out of My Piggy Bank.”
A handful of booths provided information. One was for Montana Shrugged, the Billings branch of the Tea Party, which claims some “5,000 patriots” and was named after a novel by Ayn Rand, the noted atheist who loved reason and hated government.
The Bozeman chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed political group based in Virginia, also had a booth. The chapter is worried enough about the health of the movement that a recent headline on its web page read: “Is the Tea Party Movement Dead?” The article’s answer – “Heck, No” – wasn’t entirely reassuring.
But AFP’s Henry Kriegel said at the rally that he wasn’t worried.
“Our numbers are reduced,” he said. “That’s OK.” The Revolutionary War, he noted, was won with far less than total public support.
But the dearth of politicians cannot have been good news. I saw a sign for Ken Miller, a Republican running for governor, and a man in a Ken Miller T-shirt, but I identified only two actual politicians: Clayton Fiscus, a Billings businessman who is running for House District 46 in the Montana Legislature; and Kathy Haman of Columbus, who is running in HD60.
The John Birch Society had a booth, and the group’s field coordinator for Montana, Michael Boyle, was there in suit and windblown tie. After a burst of notoriety in the 1950s, the Birchers fell out of favor in the 1960s when its founder, Robert W. Welch Jr., accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist.
Mr. Boyle declined to give membership numbers for Montana, but the group seems to have made a comeback in recent years.
Conspiracy theories, apparently, still thrive. Deg Hanson, who was manning the booth, said communists can be found at all levels of government, from local to the national, but he was unable to name any communists involved in local politics.
Mr. Hanson also blamed government for rising healthcare costs. I pointed out that all other major industrial nations offer some form of universal healthcare, yet we in the United States have by far the highest healthcare costs in the world.
“Do we?” he asked in a tone that sounded a little, well, conspiratorial.
The invocation that preceded the speakers included the first attack on the Federal Reserve I have ever heard in a prayer. In honor of my own Tea Party roots, I declined to join in the Pledge of Allegiance. My fundamentalist upbringing turned me against the Pledge when the words “under God” were added in 1954, which we viewed as a blasphemous attempt to enlist religion in a rote exercise aimed at promoting a secular cause.
In opening remarks, Montana Shrugged’s Eric Olsen acknowledged some decline in Tea Party ranks, blaming it in part on the distraction of social issues in recent months. The deficit, he said, remains the most important issue, but taxes seemed to weigh more heavily on his mind.
“I tell everybody to protest property taxes every year,” he said.
Obamacare was on the mind of Janice Linn, who attacked the Independent Payment Advisory Board, an agency created by the act to control Medicare costs, as a “death panel.” She warned that the future of healthcare in America could be similar to England and Canada, where, she said, the governments save money by “letting people die.”
“Don’t expect the Supreme Court to stop Obamacare,” she said, “because the people who are forcing it on us are lawless.”
As speaker after speaker droned on, none answered the questions I had: If not Obamacare, then what? Fifty million uninsured and the highest healthcare costs in the world, with the rest of us picking up the tab whenever a poor person goes to the emergency room?
And how do you balance cutting taxes with cutting the deficit? Just assume, as one speaker did, that tax cuts always increase revenues? And if we return to the Constitution as the founders envisioned, what do we do about slavery?
The day was getting no warmer, and neither were the answers to my questions. As Williston, N.D., radio host Bella Dangelo rambled on about something or other, I wandered to the sidewalk, where a man in a tri-cornered hat was holding a sign saying “Honk for Freedom.”
Quite a few people did, as they sped by on North 27th Street. Whatever the popularity of the Tea Party, I suppose, there still is a constituency for freedom, as long as it doesn’t involve getting out of the car.