But polls show that around 20 percent of Americans identify with the Tea Party movement -- even if only a much smaller percentage have actually attended a Tea Party rally or meeting. It has become as much a state of mind as a movement; people who have never been to a meeting or a rally now complain about out-of-control spending and government being too much in our lives.
This is not just true in off-the-grid Idaho or the Deep South; it's in supposedly liberal havens like New Jersey and Massachusetts. And most Tea Party supporters -- and their candidates -- do not spend a lot of time crusading against masturbation or dressing up as Joseph Goebbels.
But nor is the Tea Party as simple as the explanation offered to reporters by Mark Skoda, the barrel-chested, radio-voiced technology entrepreneur who served as the spokesman for the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville in February. "It's a way in which people are organizing, channeling their frustration about how the government's not listening," Skoda told a phalanx of foreign journalists who had arrived to cover the convention. "Elsewhere, people can't agitate for change. We're doing it peacefully, without bullets, without insults. We are taking our government back."
The foreign press took this largely at face value; Fabienne Sintes, a journalist with Radio-France, told me that while previously, she had trouble selling her editors on stories that described U.S. opposition to Obama, by the time the Tea Party convention gathered, the conventional wisdom had shifted.
"Before I had to adjust them, saying he is not walking on water," she told me. "Now I have to say, well, he's not dead yet."
It is true that the Tea Party movement started with frustration -- among conservatives who were out of power, and among people concerned about the growing national debt, the cratering of the economy, and the government's intervention to try to save it.
Liberals have appropriately asked why it did not start with President Bush, who turned the surplus into a deficit, not least by starting two wars. But the Tea Party supporters are mostly Republicans, and conservative ones, at that. When a president goes to war, they are inclined to support him. There is a libertarian core to the Tea Party that agrees with Ron Paul, the quirky congressman from Texas, about the need to reduce the United States' military presence around the world. But for the most part, this is a Support Our Troops crowd. They cheer Ron Paul when he talks about auditing the Federal Reserve and cutting spending, but he was booed at a Tax Day rally on April 15 when he began talking about the need to get our troops out of Korea and Japan.
Tea Partiers say they want to focus on economic conservatism, meaning that they don't spend a lot of time talking about other topics -- foreign policy, or social issues like gay marriage and abortion. But they do tend to define themselves as social conservatives, so it has been hard to completely ignore talk of faith or social issues. And while some Tea Party groups do not want to talk about immigration -- believing it too divisive -- for others it is a defining issue.
Still, the Tea Party is not as consumed with moral issues as France's Front National. Nor is its unifying mission the rabid Islamophobia of the English Defense League, as a recent BBC report suggested. And the Tea Party certainly does not resemble the current mass protests in France -- the Tea Partiers would align themselves with Sarkozy and David Cameron on cutting spending (if they bothered to think about policy beyond America's shores), just as they are with Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, as he takes on the teachers' unions. That said, Christie and Sarkozy, stylistically, have about as much in common as Marshmallow Fluff and aioli.
For as the United States has moved closer to a European model on health insurance, "Europe" has become a dirty word. ("Next thing you know they'll force us all to drive little European cars," one man in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told me, and you can bet he was thinking Yugo, not Porsche.) At rallies against health care, Tea Partiers held up the example of Greece to illustrate how a European welfare system would bankrupt the United States.
As the Tea Party looks likely to establish a sizeable presence in Congress, it will apply more pressure to cut spending -- including on Social Security and Medicare -- and to act on Republican promises to try to repeal the health-care legislation passed earlier this year.
None of this translates into Obama's downfall -- at least not yet. If anything, having an opposition to blame might help his campaign for re-election two years hence. Nor does the Tea Party movement necessarily signal the ascendancy of Sarah Palin -- another object of foreign fascination. Polls and focus groups show that many Tea Partiers are just like other Americans in this regard: They do not think her qualified to be president.
What the foreign press needs to understand is that the Tea Party movement is best understood as a conservative insurgency in a country that produces them in regular cycles. There are echoes of the Tea Party in the anti-tax protests of the 1970s and 80s, and in the Goldwater movement of the early 1960s. But that does not mean anyone -- foreign or otherwise -- can ignore it. The Tea Party may not have the numbers to take over the country, but it is not going away anytime soon.