Photo Gallery: Storm in a Teacup


The Right-Wing Revolutionaries Tea Party Movement Mirrors a Deeply Divided America

US President Barack Obama came to power promising to unite the nation. Now he has divided it even more than his predecessor George W. Bush. The burgeoning conservative Tea Party movement is calling for Obama to be removed from office.

The auditorium in Tulsa, Oklahoma is silent for a moment, as the Walkers, a happy couple in their mid-50s, walk onto the stage. They manage an electronics store in the area, and they say that after being married for decades, they still love each other just as much as they did on the first day. They are here to demonstrate that love to the audience -- with a passionate kiss.

It's meant to be an homage to the old, forgotten America, the land of high-school sweethearts and beauty queens, where honesty, decency and loyalty still meant something. A land where the promise of the American dream -- that anyone could make it to the top -- still reigned supreme. There are 5,000 people -- ordinary people -- in the audience, including Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The Walkers are seated on two folding chairs, placed a respectable distance apart -- the old America was a chaste place, after all. They kiss a few times to the sound of country music. Then, suddenly, it gets very loud in the room.

Radio and TV talk-show host Glenn Beck is standing on the stage. He has just arrived from the Doom Room, which is what he calls the studio where he records his broadcasts. From there, he spreads a message of fear and dread of a new America, a place that no longer has anything in common with the land that the Walkers know and love. It is a country of poverty, deprivation and an omnipotent government, a cross between the Soviet Union and Hitler's Nazi Germany.

'I'm a Guy Just Like You'

People believe what Beck says. Beck is their hero, savior and guru. He has made millions by capitalizing on people's fears of the future. "Tulsa," he shouts into the cheering, grateful crowd, "I'm a guy just like you."

He now has two shows, a weekly radio show that airs on more than 300 stations nationwide, and a television show on Fox News, "Glenn Beck," which has 3 million viewers. He weeps, raves and yells on these shows. Every day, he warns his listeners and viewers that America has moved yet another step along the road to becoming a socialist dictatorship. His enemies are the "progressives," or the American left, who see Europe as their role model, says Beck.

The Europe he means is currently celebrating the reinvigorated US president, who achieved two historic victories in the space of a few days. After the controversial healthcare reform bill, which President Barack Obama recently managed to push through Congress, he signed a treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons in Prague last Thursday, a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed in 1991. It was a step that its signatories pledged would make the world a safer place.

It is a double triumph for Obama, in both domestic and foreign policy, and yet he has met with more hostility in his own country than almost any other president in history. According to a Gallup poll conducted in late March, Obama's Democrats have dropped to their lowest approval rating in almost two decades. Some 60 percent of Americans believe that America is on the wrong path and is headed for decline. What unites the world is dividing the country.

America's Choice

Beck, who knows this, has taken a piece of chalk and drawn two paths of Western civilization on the blackboard, the American path and the European path. The word "God" is written on the American side, and the words "Marx, Stalin, Hitler, Nietzsche" on the European side. These are the two alternatives America faces today, he says. "And I ask you, which road should America take?"

He draws diagrams, explains the Constitution, talks about American history and plays the part of the wise, understanding teacher helping his students to understand the world. Until now, he says, the ones who did well in school, the nerdy high achievers who went on to attend Harvard University, have been running the government in Washington. They have always felt that they were better than us, he says, but that's changing. He tells his audience that these people may be smart, even real smart like Barack Obama, but in reality they don't have a clue.

The first three words of the American Constitution are written on the wall above him: "We the people." These three words have become the rallying cry of a new mass movement directed against the country's elites, and against people who no longer notice that something is going wrong, like someone who doesn't notice that a criminal is living in his neighborhood, says Beck. "But the dog knew," he says. "How did the dog know? The dog had the same gut feeling you have."

Beck gives a voice to the powerless rage of the people in the room, a rage directed against the architects of the new America, the bankers who are once again paying themselves bonuses and the government that is wasting taxpayer money. And he turns this rage into a party. Two country music stars are attending the event, and so is former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the star of the disenfranchised.

'Do You Love Your Freedom, Oklahoma?'

Palin is the last to step onto the stage. Men in the audience shout: "Sarah, we are in love with you." She waves to them, with a saucy, girlish look in her eyes. She is wearing a black sequin dress over jeans, and her hair is tied back. "Glenn Beck is the best," she says. "Do you love your freedom, Oklahoma?"

Palin has been the butt of many a joke: for not being able to tell Iran and Iraq apart, for saying that on a clear day she could see Russia from Alaska, and for writing notes on her hand like an elementary school student. She mentions all of these things in her speech in Tulsa, and the more she talks about it, the angrier her audience gets. She says that no one is going to tell her not to write things on her hand -- the "poor man's version of the teleprompter," as she calls it.

And then, a couple of sentences later, she is already on the topic of US President Barack Obama: "Mr. President," she says, "we can do without your policies. You can keep your change."

Making People Feel Inferior

Obama has been president for 15 months now, and for a while it seemed as if he were having trouble gaining a foothold in his new office. His environment policy fell by the wayside, he avoided taking a clear position on military reforms, and he couldn't bring himself to finally close the Guantanamo prison camp. The change he had promised was a long time coming. But now some things do appear to have changed after all.

And yet, the more assured of success Obama becomes, the angrier are the protests. Obama embodies everything the people in the Tulsa convention center hate: power, superiority, intelligence and worldliness. He doesn't speak the language of ordinary people, and whenever he appears on television, he makes most people feel inferior -- as if they didn't have enough problems already.

"Depending on where you stand," writes  Frank Rich in the New York Times, Obama "is the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan, Hitler, Stalin, Adlai Stevenson or Nelson Mandela."

Obama came into office with the goal of uniting the country, but now the divide is even wider than it was during the Bush years. "We are caught in a pendulum swing of hyper-partisanship," writes John Avlon in his book "Wingnuts," his word for the lunatic right-wing fringe. Now that America has fought a war against extremism abroad, the war against extremism at home is just beginning.

'Obama Is Raping America'

Obama is likened to Hitler and called a communist in the same breath. Republican Congressman Paul Broun said: "We can't be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany."

"Obama is raping America. Obama is raping our values. Obama is raping our democracy," says radio host Michael Savage, whose talk show has an audience of about 9 million listeners.

In some Evangelical churches, congregations are even praying for Obama's death. In Tempe, Arizona, Baptist pastor Steven Anderson delivered a sermon called: "Why I Hate Barack Obama." He accused him of violating the Constitution and throwing away a part of the country's 240-year history. "Break his teeth, O God, in his mouth," he prayed, in an altered version of Psalm 58. Obama, Anderson said, calls abortion a woman's right to choose. "He thinks it's so wonderful," he continued. "He ought to be aborted."

When Congress was set to vote on Obama's healthcare reform, thousands of activists from the Tea Party movement came to Washington to demonstrate against the reform, holding up signs that read "Kill the Bill." They spat on members of Congress who intended to vote for the bill, and they berated them using the words "faggot" and "nigger." Several politicians received death threats. Last Wednesday, the FBI arrested a man who allegedly made threatening phone calls to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives and a key proponent of the reforms.

The Birth of the Tea Party Movement

It has been 14 months since Rick Santelli went on air and launched the Tea Party movement. It was Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009, and Santelli was on camera, just as he had been on every trading day for the last 10 years. He is an analyst with the financial network CNBC who works on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, the largest futures exchange in the United States, where he reports on the prices of gold, copper, zinc, butter and pork bellies.

The daily morning show was running on CNBC, and Santelli was on air. It was 7:10 a.m. The show's topic on that morning was the president's bailout package, and his plan to help homeowners who had gotten into debt during the years of the boom and had been part of the irresponsible consumption binge that plunged the entire global economy into its biggest crisis since the Great Depression in 1929. Santelli's reports had always been matter-of-fact and to the point.

But on that morning everything changed. Instead of talking, he shouted into the camera. He asked the traders sitting nearby: "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" The traders around him stood up and applauded, as if they were ready for a revolution, and then Santelli shouted into the camera: "President Obama, are you listening? We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July."

A new movement had been born, and within hours a new Web site,, was online. It was a clear message, and ironically it was coming from Chicago, the president's hometown. Soon there were tea parties everywhere, from Virginia to California, and from Texas to North Dakota.

Third Political Force

Since then, the events have grown into a nationwide, right-wing street protest movement, a kind of right-wing Woodstock. On April 15, 2009, the tax-filing deadline in the United States, two months after Santelli's comments, some 300,000 people across America took to the streets. There were Tea Party protests in 346 cities, with 15,000 people attending the event in Atlanta alone.

The number of Tea Party supporters is now estimated at 8 million, including a surprisingly large number of people who were never politically active in the past and who describe the recession as their "wakeup call." The Tea Party is in the process of establishing itself as a third political force, in addition to the Republicans and Democrats. There are still various umbrella organizations, but they are expected to coalesce soon.

It is a movement that embraces the entire country, something that hasn't been seen since the 1960s. The goals of the right-wing revolutionaries are surprisingly similar to those of revolutionaries on the left: to get rid of the elites and destroy the establishment. The New York Times columnist David Brooks christened the new rebels the "Wal-Mart hippies."

The Tea Party movement's protests are directed against the president's environmental policy, the economic stimulus program, the bank bailouts, healthcare reform and the government deficit. The Wal-Mart hippies are calling for the abolition of all government institutions, most notably the country's central bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Internal Revenue Service. They want the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and they want to see all welfare programs eliminated. They are against Democrats and Republicans, against business and politics, and against Obama. But they are also against John McCain, Obama's adversary in the last election. It is a protest against a world that has become more and more complex.

Deep Contradictions

America has always been a country of deep contradictions. There was affluent America, which lives a life of excess, in Beverly Hills and on Wall Street, and there was the America that struggles to survive. The differences between the two worlds were enormous, bigger than in any other highly developed, industrialized country.

But the contrasts were perceived as more of an incentive than a disadvantage. The wealth of others was proof positive that anyone could make it, and it was seen as motivating people to work harder. Until not too long ago, close to 40 percent of Americans still believed that they could become millionaires during the course of their lifetime.

But now it seems as if "two national economies" were developing as a result of the financial crisis, as New York-based economist Max Wolff writes . There are the "upper tiers of the economy," which include the big-city elites who have recovered from the crisis and have emerged relatively unharmed. And then there are the "bottom 80 percent of Americans," who are "suffering."

There is no longer a connection between these two worlds. America is an anxious, divided country.

Falling Below the Poverty Line

In 2008 alone, the first year of the recession, an additional 2.5 million people fell below the poverty line. Tent cities populated by the homeless are growing outside of major cities. People are camping out in the yards of their foreclosed houses, while long lines form in front of soup kitchens. In its 2009 annual report, the Department of Agriculture mentions the rise of food uncertainty. In 2008, almost 50 million Americans didn't have enough to eat at some point in the year, an increase of more than a third over the previous year. Today, one out of eight Americans uses government food stamps, and 20,000 new recipients qualify for the program every day. "It's like we are living in a Third World country," Vicki Escarra of the aid organization Feeding America told the Washington Post.

For the first time since the global economic crisis more than 80 years ago, questions are being raised about America's success model, the principle that this country without a welfare state has always been more successful than Europe. It has made the United States the world's strongest economic power. The country has never had to pay attention to its poor and to the people who had lost their jobs, but now the poor can no longer be ignored.

What's at stake is nothing less than the future of the US, a country with white, Protestant roots that knows that non-whites will most likely constitute the majority by the middle of the century. Latinos are taking the jobs that once went to whites, and a black man is in the White House. The blue-collar workers with posters of pin-up girls in their lockers aren't just losing their jobs, but also their special cultural status in society.

Promise of a Second Chance

The middle class feels robbed of its livelihood. For the first time, Americans are confronting the reality that things can't just continue as before. Long-term unemployment was virtually unheard-of in the past. But now there are over 6.5 million long-term unemployed, the largest number since records were first kept in 1948.

Something that was holding this society together has been lost: the promise that everyone gets a second chance. It was because of this promise that the country could require more sacrifices from the individual than other societies. It could expect more flexibility, because there was always the hope that things would work out better the next time, or the next time after that. That was the myth.

More than 8 million jobs have been lost since the beginning of the recession, and experts fear that many of those jobs are gone forever. The official unemployment rate is at almost 10 percent. But if the figures are adjusted for people who want to work but have given up looking for a job out of frustration, or have resigned themselves to working part-time, the real unemployment rate is closer to 17 percent.

Until now, Americans, particularly the president, believed that they were facing at most two or three bad years. The government has extended unemployment benefits again and again. There has also been good news on a number of fronts: The recession is officially over, the financial system has been stabilized and growth figures are on the rise again. But few new jobs are being created.

Grim Prospects

America is experiencing a "jobless recovery." Edmund Phelps, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics, argues that dynamism in the US has been in decline for a decade. He believes that the unemployment rate will not fall below 7.5 percent in the long term.

These are grim prospects. For the first time in 80 years, members of the next generation will be worse off than their parents. It is a deep blow for a country that embodies progress more than any other nation.

The United States has long had one of the highest rates of poverty in the Western world. Until now, however, the worst poverty has been limited to certain places, like the trailer parks of Kentucky, American Indian reservations in South Dakota, Detroit's inner city and the south side of Los Angeles.

But the new poverty is no longer confined to these areas. It has spread to the once-booming regions in the southern part of the country, places like Southern California, Arizona and Florida, where the middle class had settled and was determined to fulfill its American dream, complete with big houses and basketball hoops in front of the garage.

America's Downwardly Mobile

Riverside County is one of the most populous areas in Southern California, stretching from Los Angeles to the Arizona state line. The hills lining the freeways are blanketed with bedroom communities, endless rows of single-family homes painted in earth tones. In the last decade, Riverside County has seen more new construction than almost any other part of the US. And today the county has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

Before the economic crisis, almost 70 percent of Americans owned a home, a significantly higher rate than in Germany, where only 44 percent of citizens own their homes. By 2006, private households had accumulated more than $12 trillion (€16.1 trillion) in debt.

Then the crisis arrived. The average home price in Riverside County dropped from $414,000 to $230,000. The middle class saw the value of its assets cut in half. "For these millions, home ownership has shifted from a source of wealth to a source of poverty," says economist Max Wolff. The number of food stamps issued in Riverside County increased by 262 percent between July 2006 and December 2009.

Many Americans have been abruptly yanked out of their upwardly mobile lives, and many who were accustomed to a three-bedroom house with two cars in the driveway can no longer afford to rent even the cheapest apartment.

Losing Everything

Paul Leon founded the non-profit organization Illumination Foundation two years ago, when America was in the throes of recession, and the first California schools were discovering that more and more homeless children were sitting in their classrooms. Since then, the foundation has put up 129 families in the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, an old motel in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. It was once a place where tourists stayed on their way to Disneyland.

Now there are children's bicycles in front of the motel, and school buses pick up students in the morning. Dozens of families live on the two floors of the building, sleeping in bunk beds, sometimes with up to five people sharing one room. They all have the same look on their face. A year ago, these people were living in a house, or at least a large apartment, and they had jobs.

Leon's organization pays a portion of the rent, which runs about $900 a month for a room, and helps families search for real apartments and work. Most stay at the Costa Mesa for four or five months. Recently, Leon received 147 calls in a single day from families looking for shelter. He says that the new poor are easier to handle. "They haven't slipped down far enough, and they haven't been down long enough." They still know what a normal life looks like.

The last few remnants of optimism are lost at the Costa Mesa motel. When people move into a room here, they put their belongings into storage at first, hoping that their recent misfortunes will be followed by a new life, and a new house with enough room for their families. "We don't advise people to put their things into storage," says Leon. "They usually end up losing everything, anyway, because they can't afford the storage fees."

Zealots of Every Stripe

The frustration brings together disparate groups of people: zealots of every stripe, including economic liberals, gun enthusiasts, social conservatives and supporters of militia movements. The Oath Keepers, a group of current and former members of the military, are determined to be armed for the next American revolution, and they are about to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives. And then there are the "birthers," people who question whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States and hence his eligibility to be president. "Show us your birth certificate, Mr. Obama," they say.

All of these people come together at Tea Party events around the country. The more groups come together, the more powerful the movement, and the louder, shriller and more radical the rebellion becomes. Even elected politicians are starting to adopt the movement's tone.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has called the Obama administration a "gangster government," and the state's governor, Tim Pawlenty, said: "We should (…) take a 9-iron and smash the windows out of big government." In Michigan, the FBI arrested nine members of Hutaree, a Christian militia group, which allegedly planned to use explosives to kill several police officers and their families, who they characterized as "foot soldiers" of the federal government. Attorney General Eric Holder said that the militia was "conspiring to levy war against the United States."

The Government as Enemy

When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election on a platform of economic liberalism, he called the government the problem. Nowadays many see the government as the enemy and as a parasite.

American politics has always thrived on exaggeration, and on the pendulum that constantly swings between political extremes. In hardly any other industrialized country is there such a broad spectrum of political and ideological views, and even though many elections can be won in America by appealing to the political center, there are exceptions, like George W. Bush in 2004, who won his reelection by mobilizing the extreme right.

This isn't the first time that extremism and rage have taken hold in America and have expanded into a political movement to be taken seriously. Today's populist, right-wing street protests are somewhat reminiscent of the tax revolt in California and the so-called Reagan Revolution. But will the Tea Party movement change the country?

The movement has enjoyed its first political successes: in New York's 23rd Congressional District, for example, where the Tea Party movement opposed moderate Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in a special election, putting her to an ideological "purity test." She withdrew before the election.

'Tea Party-Approved'

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who cultivated the image of a pickup-driving ordinary guy and who once posed nude for Cosmopolitan, declared himself a Tea Party candidate -- and won the Senate seat that had been held by the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy for 47 years.

Even Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele declared himself a supporter of the movement in January. The phrase "Tea Party-approved" has become a seal of approval and a guarantee of capturing more votes.

The right-wing revolutionaries plan to organize a series of national protest events against government debt and healthcare reform. In some states, they are pushing for special laws that would ban compulsory insurance. They are trying to field their own candidates for all kinds of political office and to fill important party positions on the local level. They are also disrupting political events, particularly those of the Democrats, and they are organizing national rallies.

Meanwhile conservatives who hope to win seats in the midterm Congressional elections in November are courting the rebels.

'You Are the Boss!'

In Silver City, a small city in southern New Mexico, former Sheriff Richard Mack is standing at the pulpit in Calvary Chapel, preaching the new hymn of the revolution. He is prepared to defend his country, he says, with force if need be.

Mack is currently traveling around the country like a pop star, a bowlegged hero with a paunch and a repertoire of pithy remarks. He already made headlines in the 1990s when he opposed a federal law. Then-President Bill Clinton had introduced tougher handgun laws, but Mack, who was a county sheriff in Arizona at the time, fought the gun-control law to the Supreme Court and won -- a track record that wins him applause here in Silver City.

He has written a short book, "The County Sheriff: America's Last Hope," which he sells like the Bible. "You will never read 50 more powerful pages in your life," he says. He quotes passages and he lets people flip through the publication. He behaves as if he were pronouncing a higher truth. "I'm just the messenger," he says.

His speech is a tribute to the militia, to the "people under arms." He agitates against the government, members of Congress, the IRS and the federal government. He calls Obama a traitor who, in his opinion, violates the Constitution "two to three times a day." "The people who pledged to protect our Constitution are destroying it," he says. And then he tells his audience to repeat what he has just said, seeking to convince them that they shouldn't let the government tell them what to do anymore. "The federal government," says Mack, "isn't your boss. You are the boss!"

And then Mack starts talking about Barack Obama and the mid-term elections in November. He claims to receive hundreds of emails a day and says he is overwhelmed by his own popularity: "People are begging me: 'Save us! Become president, please!'"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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