The best part of this video for the Tea Party Patriots—if you’re going to make me choose—is the way it goes from dystopian fantasy to informative commercial in the last three seconds. The second best part is everything else. From the evocatively-named Development Party, with its eerily familiar emphasis on “progress,” to the vaguely Palin-esque woman gazing contentedly at the shores of liberty before she is kidnapped, this trailer captures everything the Tea Party is about. Specifically: a fantasy of persecution and revolt.
The title card at the end is pure bathos. After images of people standing numbly in line to pay their daily taxes and black bags snapped over heads, “fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited governments, free markets” is disappointingly modest. Secret meetings to light a torch of freedom it ain’t. Herein lies the Tea Party’s problem. The rhetoric is so spectacular that the policy could not possibly live up to it.
One is reminded of those Droid commercials implying that getting a new phone is tantamount to altering your DNA, or the massive policy failures of the Dance Dance Revolution. The great strength of the Tea Party is that it harnesses the fundamental marketing message of our time: society is a crushing wave of conformity that you resist by purchasing/joining/consuming Product X. The great weakness of the Tea Party is that it harnesses the fundamental et cetera etc.
It’s one thing to liken your personal computer to a revolutionary political movement. It’s another to liken your political movement to a revolutionary political movement—the rhetorical equivalent of wearing navy blue and black. The problem with presenting the Tea Party as a revolt against overwhelming oppression is that you can’t quite say what is figurative and what is literal.
Figuratively, President Obama is a tyrant—except some people literally believe that. Literally, the Tea Party wants to reduce taxes and cut domestic spending, which moderates describe as figuratively revolutionary—except many proponents of those policies believe they are literally revolutionary. The resulting discourse is constitutionally unable to distinguish among degrees of change; modest tax cuts and deregulation are called radical, and incremental growth of the welfare state is called tyranny.
That’s a bad strategy for attracting people to your political organization, since the terms of engagement mean something different to the people on the inside and the people without. If you’re currently attending Tea Party meetings in Wapsie Valley, it’s thrilling to speak it terms of restoring democracy to a tyrannized United States. If you’re thinking about getting into Republican politics, it’s terrifying.
The insular quality of the Tea Party’s rhetoric is evident in the sheer number of dog whistles that Movement On Fire packs into two minutes. As early as the :08 mark, we get the phrase “shining city upon a hill,” a biblical expression first used politically by the Puritan John Winthrop in 1630. In 2013, it is an epithet among evangelicals for Christian government. The effort to shoehorn this phrase into the video has resulted in the whole dystopian fantasy taking place in a city rather than a nation, necessitating the problematic organs of a city Senate, city secret police, city ID cards, et cetera.
Those cards are the signal instrument of Development Party government, echoing the long-held libertarian fear of a national ID. At :53, we get a shot of the dreaded Obamaphone. At various points in the video, we encounter that terrifying word “progress,” now synonymous among hardcore conservatives with fascist oppression. The sum effect of all these viewer-dependent signifiers is a video that reads as dystopian fantasy to outsiders and mild exaggeration to the Tea Party faithful.
That makes for a problematic recruiting tool. The intended purpose of A Movement On Fire is presumably to encourage CPAC attendees to get involved, with the secondary function of setting up The Daily Show for a poop joke. It’s hard to imagine anyone who feels ambivalent about the Tea Party Patriots deciding to join up after watching this video, though. Like so much of what the Tea Party produces, it seems less seductive and more self-aggrandizing.
Maybe that’s the idea, though. This year’s CPAC finds the practical expression of conservatism in America, the Republican Party, at a low ebb. They’ve just lost another presidential election and failed to retake the Senate, and many insiders are talking about how to change their operation. That’s glum work. It’s way more fun to talk about how to change dystopian America by continuing to do exactly the same thing. For all its spectacular production values, this video from the Tea Party of 2013 evokes nothing so much as the Tea Party of 2009. It’s the same warning against the brutal repression of a liberal regime, except all that stuff already happened, and it wasn’t so bad.