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This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Don’t jump to conclusions — this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Obama-loving account of his life and presidency. But trust us, you won’t see it on any Fox News bestseller list either. Alter delves into President Obama’s campaigns and his presidency with the help of well-placed sources close to the center of power in both Washington and Chicago. The Center Holds provides a candid account of the many ups — and countless downs — of this president’s tumultuous tenure. 

You can purchase the book here.

Significant political change in the United States is usually the result of social movements that work their way into the political realm. The years 2009–12 saw the emergence of an angry reactionary movement that will be best remembered for the part it played in the 2010 midterms and for the severe political dysfunction that flowed from that election. Its racial and ethnic undertones were subordinated to a brilliant marketing pitch: the old whines of even older white conservatives bottled as a refreshing new tonic for anxious voters.

At bottom, the Tea Party—the fastest growing political brand of the modern era—was more a temperament than a specific agenda for change. Its unifying idea was visceral opposition to the left in general and to Barack Obama in particular, especially to Obamacare and what conservatives considered the “socialistic” expansion of government. The movement was animated by a sense of foreboding that the survival of the nation was on the line, with opposition to immigration and Islam bringing together disparate elements of the coalition. Obama’s “otherness,” his not-from-here quality, became a euphemism for race and fueled absurd conspiracy theories.

At first it seemed as if the Tea Party was a godsend to the GOP. The energy it brought to the conservative movement helped its five pre-existing wings get along. The economic establishment wing (deficit hawks), the neoconservative wing (foreign policy hawks), the antigovernment libertarian wing, and the Christian right wing all worked together with the help of the Murdoch-owned media wing: Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the New York Post.

One of the achievements of the Tea Party was to convince social conservatives to embrace an economic agenda. To Rob Stein, one of the founders of the liberal Democracy Alliance, this was an important moment in recent political history. Stein figured the billionaires subsidizing the conservative infrastructure must have experienced “orgiastic joy” when they found out the Tea Party could be the arms and legs of libertarianism and turn it into a grassroots movement. The result was that one strain of conservatism, an ideology of enlightened selfishness, took center stage.

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It wasn’t clear if the energy behind the movement would translate into genuine power on the ground, where the Republican gap with Democrats seemed to be shrinking. Unions, once the backbone of the Democratic Party, had slid from representing 35 percent of American workers in 1954 to 11 percent in 2012 (and only 7 percent in the private sector). Labor still had plenty of bite, especially when it came to the use of union dues for political campaigns. But the left trailed the right in building party infrastructure. It had no comparable network of closely linked organizations and no feeder system for the young. The progressives’ best training ground and alumni association was the 2008 Obama campaign.

The Tea Party was born three weeks after Obama took office, when a libertarian business reporter for CNBC, Rick Santelli, lit into the new administration on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade for making Americans “pay for [their] neighbor’s mortgage [when he has] an extra bathroom and can’t pay the bills.” In fact Obama had unveiled a modest foreclosure relief bill that week but never endorsed a full housing bailout; he and his advisers thought it would have been political suicide to rescue every homeowner facing foreclosure. But Santelli’s call for a “Chicago Tea Party” resonated, and within hours twenty conservative activists using the Twitter hashtag #tcot (top conservatives on Twitter) held a conference call to build on the idea. Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News Channel show picked up the story, and by tax day on April 15, 2009—less than three months after Obama took office—tea parties had spread to 850 communities, fueled by round-the-clock coverage on Fox, where four anchors went so far as to cobrand with the movement by reporting, and cheerleading, on scene from “FNC Tea Parties.”

It was hard to discern what lay behind the sense of outrage. Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant and real estate broker who helped organize Tea Party Patriots and later Tea Party Express, believed that the million or so people who took part that first spring were “united by anger over Washington not listening.” But listening about what? The bank and auto bailouts were rarely mentioned by Tea Party members asked about their grievances. Despite some grumbling, no one had organized street protests on the right when President Bush pushed through huge bailouts, not to mention trillions in new spending on wars and a prescription drug benefit that wasn’t paid for.

In late 2009 Obama said that he thought it was the debate over the stimulus that led to the Tea Party. (At the time, he was paying so little attention to the protesters that he inadvertently called them “teabaggers.”) But when he saw the “Take Our Country Back” placards on television, he was under no illusions about the racial subtext. “‘Take back the country’?” he said one night to a couple of friends gathered in the treaty room in the residence. “Take it back from . . . ?” he didn’t need to finish the sentence.

In twenty-first-century America, race was hard to talk about beyond a small circle of intimates. Even the most ardent Tea Party members went to pains, at least on the surface, to point out that they had black friends and acquaintances. While only 8 percent of self-described Tea Party adherents were nonwhite (compared to 11 percent of the GOP), members liked to brag that the movement sent two African-Americans to congress, Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and provided most of the money and staff for the presidential campaign of Herman Cain, a black man and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.

Joel Benenson, the president’s pollster, was convinced the Tea Party was a bunch of hype. He believed that those who self-identified as Tea Party members were no different from older white, very conservative Republicans. Democrats further comforted themselves that the Tea Party was the product of “Astroturfing”—fake grassroots planted from Washington.

It was true that a few Tea Party groups received financial backing from FreedomWorks, an outfit run by former House Majority Leader–turned-lobbyist Dick Armey (and backed by major corporations), and from Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. AFP suggested its true orientation when its Texas branch gave its Blogger of the Year award to one Sibyl West, who called Obama the “cokehead in chief” and said he was suffering from “demonic possession.” By organizing training sessions and providing help with publicity, FreedomWorks and AFP watered the grassroots.

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But the movement, made possible by the new social media world, was not a creature of billionaires. The Tea Party was propelled by the same forces that had brought Obama to power: disgust with government and a bad economy. It was best understood as a loosely organized collection of several hundred tiny groups connected mostly by websites and social media. Even Tea Party Patriots, the biggest group, was linked to only about half of the sites claiming to be Tea Party–affiliated. Only about a quarter of the small Tea Party websites even linked to FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, suggesting that most of the movement was organic as well as Astroturfed.

The scores of different Tea Parties had no leader, but Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots probably came closest. Once a distributor and recruiter with Herbalife, a multilevel marketer of controversial nutritional supplements, Meckler believed in keeping the Tea Party independent of the GOP. Another group, Tea Party Express, disagreed. With the help of Sal Russo, a seasoned conservative political operative who had worked for Senator Orrin Hatch and former housing secretary Jack Kemp, Tea Party Express organized bus tours around the country and PACs that poured money into Republican campaigns in 2010, starting with Scott Brown’s campaign in Massachusetts. Tea Party Express came of age on September 12, 2009, which Russo described as a “holy day for the Tea Party crowd.” Between 600,000 and 1.2 million people rallied at scores of events across the country, underwritten in part by money from the conservative Scaife Foundation, the tobacco giant Philip Morris, and other corporations.

The willful misuse of history was inevitably part of the Tea Party story. Harvard professor Jill Lepore argued that Tea Party activists practiced “anti-history,” a form of retroactive reasoning that allowed them to say with a straight face that “the founders are very distressed over Obamacare.” They also practiced “historical fundamentalism,” in which the Constitution and the Declaration were applied as if they were religious doctrines.

Whatever the Tea Party’s shortcomings, something big and uncontrollable had been loosed upon the political system, at least for a time. In the 2010 midterms, according to pre-election surveys and exit polling, self-described supporters of the Tea Party made up 20 percent of the American population and 41 percent of those who voted. The name was so appealing, so redolent of the Founders and American ideals, that more than two-thirds of Republicans wanted to be connected to it in 2010.

From The Center Holds: Obama And His Enemies, by Jonathan Alter.  Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Alter.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Sean O'Keefe

Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

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