NY Times Goes to Idaho to Explore Paranoid Tea Party Movement

Beware those Tea Party wackos! The front page of Tuesday morning's New York Times was dominated by investigative reporter David Barstow's 4,500-word foray into the Tea Party movement - focusing on a local group in Sandpoint, Idaho,"Lighting a Fuse for Rebellion on the Right - Loose Alliances of Protesters Join Under Tea Party Umbrella."

Barstow made sure to mention claims of Idaho groups "stockpiling food and survival gear, and forming armed neighborhood groups," though he doesn't present evidence that's actually occurring in significant numbers. He also sidled up to allegations (from a "civil rights activist") "of a puzzling return of racist rhetoric and violence" to the region, before letting the activist admit "it would be unfair to attribute any of these incidents to the Tea Party movement." So why bring it up in the first place?

The article was a huge long-term individual project - no other contributors are listed. Barstow's last Times byline was July 2009, suggesting this piece consumed a large chunk of time and effort.

Barstow's choice to focus on Idaho (where anti-government types aren't exactly thin on the ground) certainly made for a facile linkage of Idaho Tea Party activists, some of whom certainly exhibited anti-government paranoia, to local extremists from the past, like Randy Weaver and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler. But Times readers rarely if ever read similar stories in the Times when the left was ginning up 9-11 and "blood for oil" conspiracy theories in their mass marches and meet-ups.

Far from it, the Times actually subsidized such groups, offering a deep discount rate to an inflammatory full-page anti-war ad submitted by the far-left Move On.org in September 2007. The ad's incendiary headline, referring to Gen. David Petraeus, then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

Barstow began:

Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.

But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated - even manufactured - by both parties to grab power.

She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots. She did not know a soul, yet when they began electing board members, she stood up, swallowed hard, and nominated herself for president. "I was like, 'Did I really just do that?' " she recalled.

Then she went even further.

Worried about hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement....These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

Bartstow is following in the well-worn footsteps of Richard Hofstadter, author of "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," his famous 1964 essay on what he saw as dangerous right-wing conspiracists like the John Birch society.

Fair enough. Yet left-wingers with truly outlandish conspiracy theories (like Bush either knew the 9-11 attacks would happen or caused them himself) have received a respectful hearing in the Times. This June 2006 story by Alan Feuer featured a text box that summarized: "Some participants see an American tradition of questioning concentrated power." The Times was rarely if ever motivated during the Bush years to probe the paranoid psyche of left-wing groups like International ANSWER, the Stalinist organizing force around early anti-Iraq war protests.

In many regions, including here in the inland Northwest, tense struggles have erupted over whether the Republican apparatus will co-opt these new coalitions or vice versa. Tea Party supporters are already singling out Republican candidates who they claim have "aided and abetted" what they call the slide to tyranny: Mark Steven Kirk, a candidate for the Senate from Illinois, for supporting global warming legislation; Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, who is seeking a Senate seat, for supporting stimulus spending; and Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor in California, for saying she was a "big fan" of Van Jones, once Mr. Obama's "green jobs czar."

Barstow left off the fact that Van Jones was forced to resign from the Obama administration after being revealed as a supporter of the 9-11 Truth movement.

Tea Party leaders say they know their complaints about shredded constitutional principles and excessive spending ring hollow to some, given their relative passivity through the Bush years. In some ways, though, their main answer - strict adherence to the Constitution - would comfort every card-carrying A.C.L.U. member.

But their vision of the federal government is frequently at odds with the one that both parties have constructed. Tea Party gatherings are full of people who say they would do away with the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax and countless agencies, not to mention bailouts and stimulus packages. Nor is it unusual to hear calls to eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. A remarkable number say this despite having recently lost jobs or health coverage. Some of the prescriptions they are debating - secession, tax boycotts, states "nullifying" federal laws, forming citizen militias - are outside the mainstream, too.


In the inland Northwest, the Tea Party movement has been shaped by the growing popularity in eastern Washington of Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, and by a legacy of anti-government activism in northern Idaho. Outside Sandpoint, federal agents laid siege to Randy Weaver's compound on Ruby Ridge in 1992, resulting in the deaths of a marshal and Mr. Weaver's wife and son. To the south, Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations, preached white separatism from a compound near Coeur d'Alene until he was shut down.

Did Barstow lack space in his 4,500-word piece to mention the origins of the Tea Party movement? They don't involve Randy Weaver or Aryan Nations. As summarized by the news magazine The Week, most posit the origin of the movement to Seattle blogger Keli Carender, aka Liberty Belle, who called for a local protest in Seattle in February 2009, and a rant a few weeks later on CNBC by analyst Rick Santelli. Barstow briefly noted the "organization muscle" of "an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks," while admitting the movement is comprised of loosely affiliated groups. So why the focus on Idaho?

A popular T-shirt at Tea Party rallies reads, "Proud Right-Wing Extremist."

It is a defiant and mocking rejoinder to last April's intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security warning that recession and the election of the nation's first black president "present unique drivers for right wing radicalization."

"Historically," the assessment said, "domestic right wing extremists have feared, predicted and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States." Those predictions, it noted, are typically rooted in "antigovernment conspiracy theories" featuring impending martial law. The assessment said extremist groups were already preparing for this scenario by stockpiling weapons and food and by resuming paramilitary exercises.

The report does not mention the Tea Party movement, but among Tea Party activists it is viewed with open scorn, evidence of a larger campaign by liberals to marginalize them as "racist wingnuts."

Barstow quoted "Tony Stewart, a leading civil rights activist in the inland Northwest," who took the report seriously, and who fears the Tea Partiers.

When the Tea Party uprising gathered force last spring, Mr. Stewart saw painfully familiar cultural and rhetorical overtones. Mr. Stewart viewed the questions about Mr. Obama's birthplace as a proxy for racism, and he was bothered by the "common message of intolerance for the opposition."

"It's either you're with us or you're the enemy," he said.

Mr. Stewart heard similar concerns from other civil rights activists around the country. They could not help but wonder why the explosion of conservative anger coincided with a series of violent acts by right wing extremists. In the Inland Northwest there had been a puzzling return of racist rhetoric and violence.

Mr. Stewart said it would be unfair to attribute any of these incidents to the Tea Party movement. "We don't have any evidence they are connected," he said.

Still, he sees troubling parallels. Branding Mr. Obama a tyrant, Mr. Stewart said, constructs a logic that could be used to rationalize violence. "When people start wearing guns to rallies, what's the next thing that happens?" Mr. Stewart asked.

And this (unlabeled) liberal activist sounded like the mirror image of a white person who fears venturing to Harlem at night, except the Times concern was greeted with sympathy, not scorn:

Rachel Dolezal, curator of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene, has also watched the Tea Party movement with trepidation. Though raised in a conservative family, Ms. Dolezal, who is multiracial, said she could not imagine showing her face at a Tea Party event. To her, what stands out are the all-white crowds, the crude depictions of Mr. Obama as an African witch doctor and the signs labeling him a terrorist. "It would make me nervous to be there unless I went with a big group," she said.

Barstow concluded as he began, with ominous warnings from Pam Stout:

Mrs. Stout said she has begun to contemplate the possibility of "another civil war." It is her deepest fear, she said. Yet she believes the stakes are that high. Basic freedoms are threatened, she said. Economic collapse, food shortages and civil unrest all seem imminent.

"I don't see us being the ones to start it, but I would give up my life for my country," Mrs. Stout said.

She paused, considering her next words.

"Peaceful means," she continued, "are the best way of going about it. But sometimes you are not given a choice."

- Clay Waters is the director of Times Watch, a division of the Media Research Center.