Over a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon in a back room of the Nugget Casino in Pahrump, rural Nevada, shortly before the midterm elections, the talk among some forty men turned to the most propitious moment for armed insurrection.
"The government needs to know that we will use [our arms] if they continue down the path they’re on. We’re not even ready. We need to get ready."
Another, fearing this could give a visiting journalist the wrong impression, insists that few in the room would agree with such a ridiculous view.
But it turned out that quite a few did. "Look how much damage Barack Obama and his socialist Congress did in eighteen months," bellows another. "It could take us ten years to undo this crap. And you say we can’t consider using weapons."
They call it the Old Farts Club: a gathering of elderly conservative men that has been meeting every Friday morning for the past five years at the Nugget for breakfast and a bull session that ranges from judges—one man calls for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to be removed from the Supreme Court—to the fate of a local park.
A straw poll reveals that none think Harry Reid can beat Sharron Angle without stealing the election.
Four days later, in a plush suite at the Aria Hotel, the Tea Party Express watched Harry Reid win fair and square. They’d chosen the Aria because they wanted to taunt Reid, who was holding his election-night event there. Despite the open bar and the catered treats, it was a tough one to swallow.
Those two scenes—at the Nugget and the Aria—illustrate two distinct faces of the Tea Party. The first, at the base, is a very loosely affiliated group of like-minded people who may "identify" with the Tea Party but have no connection beyond that. The second, purportedly at the helm, is a series of well-funded competing organizations that pose as leaders of that base but in fact have no control or even link to it outside the media. Politically speaking, neither really exists. Or at least not as billed.
Where the base is concerned, there is no structure, leader or membership that links it to a bigger movement. Beyond "small government" and Obama-bashing, it’s not clear what the various groups would agree on. Some, like the Old Farts Club, meet regularly and, while they may get their talking points from Fox News, are nonetheless independent.
To those who dismiss the Tea Party as nothing more than "astroturf" (fake grassroots), such activity poses a challenge. The country has a long history of grassroots conservative activism. Indeed, one of the problems with the Tea Party label is that, far from describing a new phenomenon, it depicts an old one—the hard right—that happens to be enjoying an episodic resurgence. These people didn’t join it; it joined them. But even following Republicans’ midterm victories, the nature of that resurgence can be overstated and misunderstood.