I just came back from spending four-plus hours with the Don't-Tread-On-Me crowd at our nation's capitol. Expect a full Reason.tv report later, but my snap impressions:
* Big crowd. Do not believe any description that says "thousands." If there weren't at least a healthy six figures there, I will permanently revoke my head-counting license.
* Nineteen out of 20 signs were hand-made. My favorite was "Stop spending our tacos. I love tacos." The most popular were variations on "Don't tread on me," "You lie," complaints about Obama's "socialism," warnings about the 2010 elections, references to the deficit or big spending, critiques of Obamacare, and (especially) cracks about various czars (including not a few that equated czars with Soviet Communism). Godwin's Corollary was satisfied on multiple occasions, including "Hitler gave great speeches, too," "the Nazis did national health care first," and someone comparing Obama's 2009 with Hitler's 1939 (alas, we didn't get to ask him whether America was about to invade Poland). Michael Moynihan did have a nice chat about George Marshall with the fellow holding a sign saying "McCarthy was right." There was an "Obama bin lyin," "Feds = treason," "Birth certificate," and "Glen Beck for president." Greatly outnumbering such things were references to the constitution, taking our country back, and so forth.
* Chants on the march included "Shut down ACORN!" and "Boot Charlie Rangel!" and "Don't tread on me." There was not a single "Hey Hey/Ho Ho" in evidence. Songs included "Glory Hallelujah" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The most moving chant might have been when we walked past the Newseum, with its ginormous carving of the First Amendment on the side, and the crowd spontaneously said "Read that wall! Read that wall!"
* There were some Obamas-as-Grim-Reapers, some weeping statues of liberties (and weeping Founding Fathers), and a sprinkling of V-for-Vendetta masks. The End-the-Fed, read-The-Fountainhead quotients were extremely marginal.
* By far the two most referenced politicians in signage and buttons were Joe Wilson and Sarah Palin, though maybe my eyes have become so accustomed to Campaign For Liberty shirts that I don't notice the sartorial enthusiasm for Ron Paul. I should note here that I didn't really listen to any of the speeches.
* There were almost no references in the signage and shirtage to issues of national security or cultural conservatism, although I did hear some "by any means necessary" talk about fighting terrorists from one of the speakers.
* The music, especially the politicized re-writes of stuff like "New York, New York," was dreadful even by political standards.
* By far the best dressed people at the show was a clutch of 20 or so twentysomething/thirtysomething types in tuxedos and evening gowns, singing and chanting a huzzah-ing stuff like "Freedom, not medicine!" and "Privatize Medicare!" and "Defend our insurance companies!" and such. It was those Billionaires-for-Bush pranksters, taking the piss out of the evil right-wingers by, uh, mocking the decidedly not-rich-looking crowd. The bait only really worked when they chanted "Bring back Bush! Bring back Bush!", which would be taken up by some of the crowd before they figured out the con, then they'd either laugh or make a crack about the "Ivy League kids" or "government workers" earning "time and a half" for their Saturday prank.
* Of the people I ended up talking to, the general vibe was that they were conservative, and then either Republican, formerly Republican, or independent. Every single one had unkind words to say about George W. Bush's spending and governing record, though none had protested him. None expressed trust in Republicans, and most preferred a "throw-all-the-bums-out" strategy. All but one did not care about Obama's birth certificate controversy, and those I asked thought it was foolish to bring guns to political gatherings.
* People had traveled from North Carolina, Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and Washington state.
* The view on Obama and his administration ranged from a "heading in the wrong direction" vibe to a "we're not gonna take it much longer" edge.
This is all, obviously, a partial and unscientific take, and not an attempt to encapsulate a huge event, but rather a faithful rendering of what I saw. With that caveat, I had a very hard time reconciling the human beings I talked to and observed with the caricatures described in pre-writes by the New York Times' Gail Collins ("The tea party movement activists range from geeky Ron Paulists who obsess about the money supply to conspiracy theorists who believe that Barack Obama is a noncitizen brought here by people who hate this country"), the L.A. Times' Tim Rutten ("the talk-show/tea-party right…if it has its way–will convert the GOP into an almost exclusively white, zealously religious, mostly Southern party"), and Gawker's Alex Pareene ("Glenn Beck is an actual terrorist, and the people attending his rally in DC tomorrow are al-Qaeda in America").
Political rallies are no place to seek the subtle truth, nor feel particularly glowing about your countrymen, and today was no different in that regard for me. But the meta-fact about a huge anti-Obamanomics protest eight months into his term is certainly significant, and very little of what I saw made me fear that Alex Pareene will be blown to smithereens by a suicide hijacker from Arkansas. I am confident, however, that I will soon be made to fear what I utterly failed to detect.