"Angry mob, coming through!" a protester shouted as he squeezed his way through the crowd at Freedom Plaza Saturday morning. The march from the plaza to the Capitol—the much-hyped "9/12" protest trumpeted for months by Glenn Beck and organized by the same coalition of conservative groups that backed last spring's tea parties—wasn't supposed to start until 11:30 a.m. But the plaza was so full that by 10 a.m., the police had closed Pennsylvania Avenue and the marchers were off.
A conservative protest is something of an oxymoron—partly because the biggest protests in recent memory (Vietnam, Iraq) involved liberal kids challenging conservative policies. But also because conventional wisdom says that conservatives don't go stirring the pot. After all, it's hard to agitate in favor of the status quo.
Then again, maybe it's easier when the Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. In that case, the conceptual problem facing Saturday's protesters was different: Everyone was against the president, but no one could really agree why. Dave Johnson, who traveled from Woodstock, N.Y., for the protest, didn't necessarily think this was a bad thing. Gesturing toward the parade of signs, he noted that the message of the anti-war movement was simple: "Get out of Vietnam. This is cap-and-trade, taxes, czars, redistribution of wealth," he said. Saturday's protest, therefore, was "richer in terms of mental involvement."
That's one way of putting it. Another word for it is simply confused. Part of the reason is that many of the protesters were new to the whole mass-demonstration thing, and in some cases, it showed. While most of the chants fit accepted rhythmic structures—"Common sense! Common sense!"—some did not. "First Amendment! First Amendment!" one protester cheered. It took a couple of rounds to realize the phrase didn't quite scan. Others got the hang of it quickly. One marcher, spotting the words of the First Amendment carved into the side of the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue, pointed and started chanting: "Read that sign! Read that sign!" Some chants were lifted directly from liberal rallies, namely "The people united will never be divided." At one point, I inquired about a "Power to the People" sign. Its owner, Dana Thomas of Reston, Va., explained to me that John Lennon was really a conservative. "Have you listened to the words to 'Taxman?' " (Actually, that was George's song, though John did write this one, which could be interpreted as opposing the public option.)
Just as Obama's inauguration was hailed as a historic moment, the tea partiers saw themselves in equally world-historical terms. "It's great to be part of history," said Nick Gingric of Freeberg, Pa. "I think this is the biggest crowd ever to march on Washington." Another man, marching nearby, agreed: "I think this is the greatest American outpouring I've seen in my life." The size of the crowd was a point of debate. An organizer at one point announced that ABC News estimated the crowd at 1.5 million. Yet the article on ABC News' Web site—as well as the New York Times and other news sources—said "tens of thousands."
Historical analogies abounded. One woman's T-shirt showed the Founding Fathers with the caption "Right-Wing Extremists." Hitler moustaches adorned Obama posters. The tea-party analogy, initially a cute metaphor for conservatives upset about the stimulus package and auto bailout, has become a battle cry. Protesters marched in white wigs tricornered hats. "Don't Tread on Me" flags were outnumbered only by the Stars and Stripes. During the rally in front of the Capitol, a video compared Obama's policies to those that incited the Revolutionary War. Now, according to the deep-voiced narrator, "Lady Liberty faces her greatest challenge."
Most of the themes of the protest were familiar. Demonstrators were upset by TARP, or the stimulus, or health care reform, or cap-and-trade. But some gripes were new. I was especially struck by the tea baggers' obsession with czars. Everyone knew the number of czars Obama appointed: 37. And nobody was happy with them. "They're socialist radicals," said Davy Reeves of Kalamazoo, Mich. "I don't like the idea of all these czars," said Geri Shea of Leesburg, Va. "It's unconstitutional."
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, speaking at the rally, picked up on the theme. "It's people, not czars, that run this country!" Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, too, reminded the audience that "nowhere in our Constitution can you find the word czar." The rally's introductory video pointed out that Obama has appointed "more czars in his first six months than in 300 years of Czarist Russia." Conservative hip-hop artist Hi Caliber, who performed at the rally, managed in one song to rhyme czar with Bill Maher. One sign even delivered its anti-czar message in Cyrillic.
I asked a few protesters how Obama's czars are different from the unelected advisers every president appoints. "Every president does have advisers," said Kelly Grillo, Northfield, N.J. "But Obama has way too many."
Van Jones, who resigned recently over comments he made about Republicans as well as a petition he signed alleging government involvement in 9/11, was singled out for special derision. But so, too, was constitutional scholar and recently confirmed "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein. The reason, said Davy Reeves of Kalamazoo: rats. "He thinks rats should have the right to an attorney, to sue humans," Reeves said. "Rats have no right to live in my house."
Attendees were also adamant that members of Congress read legislation. Betsy McCaughey, after being introduced by the MC as "the woman who started it all by actually reading the bills," appeared at the podium toting her usual binder containing the House health care legislation and proceeded to read from it. (Her claims were similar to ones she made in a New York Post op-ed in July. They have been largely refuted.) "I think Congress should read the bills, but I'd be happier if some of them read this a little more often," said Rep. Pence, brandishing the Constitution.
Unfortunately, reading bills rarely resolves anything. Witness this exchange between me and a young man from South Carolina.
Him: "Have you read the House health care bill?"
Me: "Yes, parts of it."
Him: "Do you think it covers illegal immigrants?"
Him: "Then you haven't read it!"
The protesters I spoke with did not seem especially interested in negotiating with Obama. They weren't there to haggle over whether health care subsidies should be set at 300 percent or 400 percent above the poverty level. What did they want Obama to say? "I quit," said Jack Gillies of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Gillies organizes a group of tea partiers back in Ft. Lauderdale where, every week, 50 to 60 people show up on a corner to wave signs. I asked him if there was any room for compromise. "Zero," he said. "Everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie."
The protest also made clear how quickly Rep. Joe Wilson has gone from obscure South Carolina congressman to conservative hero. "Joe Wilson, Truth Czar," read one sign. Another said, "Joe Wilson Should Have Thrown His Shoes." Protesters largely agreed that Wilson was right to call Obama a liar and should not have apologized. Others took a more nuanced view. "He should have explained the rationale behind it," said Wayne Pearson of Duncan, in Wilson's home state. "Maybe he should have apologized for breaching protocol, but not for the content."
If Joe Wilson was the star of the show, Fox News was a close second. I approached a woman carrying a sign reading, "Fox News—America's Only Media!" As a member of the media, I said, I was offended. "Fox News and Slate!" she kindly corrected. She was Kathy Johnson of Woodstock, N.Y., wife of Dave. I asked what brought them there. "You got an hour?" she said. Dave said it was everything: health care, taxes, socialism. He warned me of what he called "DDA": the deliberate destruction of America. He then made a prediction. As the deficit grows, people are going to divest from the U.S. dollar—"currency flight"—forcing the government to either raise taxes or print money. He has already begun to pull his money out and transfer it to foreign investments. "I'm betting against the U.S.," he said.
Nearby, a group of well-dressed men and women, calling themselves Billionaires for Wealthcare, who waved signs—"Less Health, More Wealth," "Let Them Eat Advil," "Do No Harm … To Our Bottom Line"—and sang songs about how health care reform would destroy their posh lives. Not everyone realized it was a joke. One protester sang along with the song, sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which had the chorus, "Let's save the status quo." Another protester was baffled. "They spin everything you say!" she said to me. "You think they're on your side, but then they're not!" One volunteer for Tea Party Patriots was convinced they were on his side. "They're for us," he told me. "They're wealthy, so they're thanking everybody for coming."
That was the closest thing to a counterprotest I saw. At one point, I spotted what looked like an Obama campaign slogan. Two men were wearing T-shirts with "Fired Up!" on the front in big block letters. I was approaching them to get a closer look when one of them turned around. On the back: "You Lie!"