And at some point I knew I wanted to try to ground my story in a particular place. A limitation of traveling around on the Tea Party Express was that we weren’t in any one place for long enough to get to know the local leaders of this conservative uprising—and by the way, the uprising wasn’t merely about the Tea Party movement. You had the emergence of the 9/12 movement, you had the re-emergence of groups like the John Birch Society, you had the incredible strength of Campaign for Liberty, and you could see all these different groups—which are in many ways more aligned with Patriot movement ideology than they are with any Republican establishment organization—both drawn to the Tea Party movement but also coalescing within it. I wanted to find a framework to tell that particular story.
GM: How did you settle on the inland Northwest?
DB: Part of it was happenstance. A second bus tour was planned, and at that point I was thinking that I might do some reporting in a place where the Tea Party Express was going to arrive—see it come in, then see it leave, but still be writing about the people in that particular place. And it just so happened the Tea Party Express was going to be in Spokane in late October, at a time when I could be there.
I also was aware of the history of anti-government activism in that area, and I knew there was a very robust community of human rights and civil rights activists that had sprung up in response to some of the Ruby Ridge stuff. And in grounding my story in a place, I wanted to find a way to reflect how people who were coming at the Tea Party movement from a different point of view were evaluating it. I just thought it was important to find a way to deal with this story on multiple dimensions.
GM: Once you focused on a local area, was it still difficult to figure out who was in charge, what the networks were, who represented who?
DB: It’s certainly much easier once you’re in a particular place to figure out who the characters are and who’s doing what. On the other hand, while it’s completely true to say that this is a very difficult movement to report on because of its factionalized nature, you can make too much of that. If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.
There are exceptions, as I noted in the story, but generally it becomes very familiar: you begin to understand why it is that they’re so concerned about ACORN, why it is that they’re so concerned about global warming, why it is that they’re worried about the potential for things like FEMA camps. You understand why they’re so angry not just at Obama and the Democrats, but also at people like John McCain. You understand where they’re coming from on stimulus and bailouts and the Federal Reserve. If you scrape deep enough with people and spend enough time really listening to what they’re concerned about, it does tend to gel. There’s a fear that both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans. It’s very complex, and yet at the same time there is something coherent about it.
GM: One of the things that readers seem to have responded to is the militia angle that you describe in the story. Is that something that’s nationwide, or a reflection of the region you focused on?
DB: The militia movement is on the rise in lots of different places, not just in the inland Northwest. I saw the people who were active in militia movements showing up all across the country. That is not to say that everybody in the Tea Party movement is part of a militia group; that’s absolutely not the case. But you will be hard-pressed to find people in the Tea Party movement who think there’s anything wrong with going out on a weekend with a bunch of other people and doing paramilitary training. There’s a much broader acceptance of that idea.
GM: Were the people you were writing about wary about being approached by a New York Times reporter?