How do you explain Christine O'Donnell to the French?
It was the closest I will ever come to being hounded by the paparazzi.
On Oct. 22, I briefed foreign journalists at the National Press Club in Washington on the Tea Party and how it is upending the midterm elections. My book about the Tea Party, Boiling Mad, came out in September, and I had been covering the movement for the past year for the New York Times. After I spent a full hour answering questions, the staff of the Foreign Press Center pronounced the session over, leaving several journalists in the room and on the satellite feed from New York with their hands still raised. The cameras began to rush my way, prompting the staff to form a protective huddle around me. "She's already answered enough questions," scolded one of my attendants, shuttling me through the corridors with one hand on my elbow, the other pushing away television crews from Portugal, Japan, and Denmark.
"We have lots of interest in the Tea Party," she told me by way of apology -- and understatement.
For months, I have been observing the foreign fascination with the Tea Party movement -- a fascination as bemused as it is bewildered, as self-satisfied as it is horrified. On rare occasion, it reflects an understandable self-interest -- a reporter from Hong Kong wanted to know whether Tea Party sentiment might push the Republicans toward protectionist trade policies. Some have practical questions: How big is the movement? Who are its leaders? Others are struggling -- just like many Americans -- to put the Tea Party movement in context. A French reporter wanted to know, for example, whether you could compare the Tea Party to the conservative moralizing and strident anti-immigration platform of that country's Front National. And for many others, the question is simply: Is it really as extreme as it seems?
You can detect a note of hopefulness in the last question, which helps explain the central obsession with the Tea Party overseas: It has affirmed the love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States. The questions foreigners ask and the assumptions they make often reveal a desire to affirm their biases about Americans -- their presumed lack of sophistication, their reflexive jingoism. The Tea Party, to them, is a sign that Americans could be really be as hopeless as they thought all along.
All those biases had been officially affirmed for eight years in the person of President George W. Bush, and then relieved by President Barack Obama, who quickly became the object of international infatuation. Obama got in trouble with the Tea Party types for going to Europe early in his presidency and, in the phrase of conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, "apologizing for America." (Like much of what the president said when he arrived promising to change the culture of Washington, the nuance got lost; while he allowed that the United States often "failed to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," he also chided Europeans for their reflexive anti-Americanism.)
But to many in the rest of the world, a stylish young president was a sign that there might be hope for Americans after all. As Daniel Alling, a Swedish radio reporter, told me, "People want the U.S. to be [like] Obama: He's not overly patriotic, he's not talking about his Christian faith all the time, he talks about science." The Tea Party, on the other hand, "is the U.S. we don't want the U.S. to be," Alling said.
Having fallen so hard for Obama, foreigners now want to know, as a French reporter asked me in Washington, "How do you explain the downfall of the president?"
How could a man everyone around the world saw as a breath of fresh air be facing such opposition?
For many abroad, the answer comes down to an elitist sense of the American grotesque, something reinforced by the Tea Party movement's crazier fringes. Foreign audiences seem particularly interested in Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate who is best known for dabbling in witchcraft and public statements against masturbation. They care less that she has run for office before and that she is not so much a Tea Party creation as a vehicle for the movement to express its anger at the Republican establishment. They want to know about the "billionaires behind the Tea Party" -- an overly simplified view of the role of funders like the Koch brothers that suggests a wizard behind the curtain controlling the minds of Americans too stupid to think for themselves. Then there's the Tea Party candidate in Ohio, Rich Iott, who has spent weekends of the last several years dressing up as a Nazi with his friends. Really, who can resist?
"This finger-pointing at the kooky Americans, they love that," says Sebastian Moll, a German newspaper correspondent based in New York. "To Europeans, the Tea Party thing is evidence of cultural inferiority, which is one of those old deeply rooted anti-American sentiments: that the Americans have no political culture and are unsophisticated."
As Moll notes, what many foreigners believe about the Tea Party movement are the same "knee-jerk liberal clichés" embraced by its many critics in the United States. As an Australian reader confessed in an email to me, "I assumed the Tea Party was just a combination of Glenn Beck's tearful conspiracy tirades and various small groups of extremists and oddballs that provided entertainment for outlets like Fox News and the Daily Show.
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.