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I had less fun than Voltaire and am not a philosopher but a certain curiosity found me at a dinner a few evenings ago held by the Albuquerque Tea Party featuring as guest speaker the right’s own aging billy goat, David Horowitz. Flim flam man, wannabe Borscht Belt entertainer and pint-sized demagogue, Horowitz held forth for two hours in a room at the Albuquerque Convention Center, thoroughly teabagging the credulous crowd of middle-aged and older white folks, ordinary Americans justifiably outraged at the mendacity, hypocrisy and sheer elitist arrogance of their own government, whether Republican or Democrat, and who, to their credit, are actively seeking avenues for a redress of grievances.
The gathering was overwhelmingly white—no African Americans and very few even moderately brown faces. Unusual was a tall young man who looked Central Asian, a Pakistani, or Indian, maybe, certainly not a Muslim. Horowitz expelled half his verbal gas hatefully excoriating the Muslim religion, which the crowd seemed to accept routinely and in some cases with vociferous approval. The vibe in the room when Horowitz talked about immigration and the “corrupt culture” of Mexico (“culture,” not “system,” or even “culture of corruption”) was palpably ugly. Our waiters and waitress were mostly brown skinned people who served us impassively. When Horowitz praised the “great governor of Arizona” the crowd cheered heartily.
I sat at a table with five others, all white, middle class, elderly, perfectly nice people. The guy on my left, Dan, was a retired electrical engineer from Sandia National Labs who moved to Albuquerque in 1953 when many of the city’s main streets were still unpaved. I tried engaging him but he was so tight-lipped that after a while I gave up. Maybe it was the years working in the labs. He was a lifelong Republican and not normally active politically but moved by the present situation to check out the Tea Party. The guy on my right, Tony, was a long time Albuquerque resident, originally from Corning, New York, home of Corning Glass Works, the folks who brought you Pyrex. Tony was an affable, remarkably fit guy for someone in his mid seventies, more interested in talking sports than politics. Next to him was his wife, Joan, demure and pleasant-looking, probably 20 years younger than Tony, the most outwardly political of the group. Her main concern was education and the leftists who control it, a big theme of Horowitz’s.
This was a pretty dull table and a pretty dull gathering but there were pockets of true believers scattered around the room, including one woman near me who intoned loud amens as Horowitz spoke and one large, powerful-voiced woman who, during the Q & A, vowed to defend the country from progressives. It takes a lot to get the older set worked up, which is one reason fear of the Tea Party is likely exaggerated. No flesh-rending Brown Shirt brigade this group, though younger, more passionate recruits remains a possibility.
At the end of the function I asked some questions of one of the event’s organizers, a pleasant middle-aged man a bit uptight in his responses, which he formulated carefully. One of the founders of the Albuquerque Tea Party (which, by the way, has one of Jasper Johns’ flag paintings as its website background, a curiosity), his main concerns were the wastes of taxation, which he sought to prove in a brief mental exercise taught by one of his economics professors, government intrusion on privacy (he disliked the Patriot Act, which he thought Obama would eliminate or at least weaken, alas) and the strengthening of the free enterprise system, which he felt was under unrelenting attack by progressives. When I asked him to define progressivism, he said it was the most dangerous of all movements, lumping socialism, statism, Nazism, fascism, FDR and Woodrow Wilson together in a toxic brew lapping at the shores of liberty. He was nervous throughout, asking at one point if I was recording his words. Only up here, I said, pointing to my head.
The main attraction though was Horowitz, the awareness and pleasure of which he barely concealed standing in front of the silver-haired rubes gazing in polite if not rapt attention. He is a man comfortable with his notoriety and reputation as one of the right’s leading intellectuals, especially in front of a crowd he obviously feels superior to. After all, this was Albuquerque. He hammered the Democratic Party relentlessly, a pathetically easy target, deservedly despised by sensible people for their mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. But for Horowitz the evil of the Democrats lies much deeper. Forget liberals, he said, waving his arms, these guys are communists. Communists! Collectivists whose dangerous messianic beliefs control academia, the media and even the Pentagon! Surely, I thought, as Horowitz carried on, the guy can’t be serious. Islam is the only religion, he railed, that makes martyrs out of mass murderers. The males go to heaven and consort with 34 Virginians. Virginians! Was he making a joke? Does he know something about Virginians that I don’t? Maybe.
Horowitz is a curious cat. A guy who was raised by communist parents and spent his youth involved in leftist causes who now goes at it with equal fervor from the other side. He is probably not a self-hating Jew, but he could be a self-hating communist. Nothing, certainly not facts, will deter him. Nidal Hasan killed 39 people at Fort Hood, he said. The number, still horrific, was 12. Maybe he was confusing him with Baruch Goldstein, but then, that was only 29. There was nothing in Palestine except “three strips of desert” and the scattered remnants of a dead Turkish empire when the state of Israel was created in 1948. “There were no Palestinians!” a woman in the audience shouted when he said this. “Amen!” said the woman at the table next to me.
Horowitz assured the audience repeatedly that he knew what was really going on with the communists because he’d been there and seen the light—a special envoy, as it were. He and a few others were “second thoughters.” He talked about the Manichaeism of the Democrat/communists and how they saw the world in dangerous, simplistic, religious terms. Earlier in his talk, to get things warmed up, he’d said the Democrats were the serpent in the Garden of Eden, wanting to be as gods. The audience loved this. His two great enemies are the Muslim world, determined to wipe Israel and the United States off the map, and the Democrat/communists, infiltrating every corner of American life. Horowitz seemed genuinely passionate about the communist stuff but he didn’t look as menacing as McCarthy. No firm numbers on the infiltration either, though liberal academia, another bête noire, is filled to the brim.
The Tea Party is not a dangerous or powerful movement but, as others have pointed out, prone to capture or influence by venomous oddballs like Horowitz with more clearly delineated right wing agendas. There is too much muddled thinking, lack of focus and old age to solidify into a strong independent movement. What likely will happen is that their angry, confused energy will be swallowed by an increasingly right wing Republican Party, the Patraeuses and Palins, resulting in a stronger, deadlier version of business as usual. The Teabaggers have at least one thing right: our present government is an enemy. But like any gusher without real direction, they’ll likely as not get swept away by a stronger, loopier current.
RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org