Hyper-patriotism tailor-made for a Tea Party audience

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

AMERICA:On Tuesday, voters in Michigan could determine the course of the Republican race

SAGINAW, FLINT, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo. There’s a steely poetry to the names of Michigan’s cities, redolent of Simon and Garfunkel songs and Michael Moore movies.

On Tuesday, Michiganders could determine the course of the Republican presidential race when they choose Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum. The Tea Party that sprang up three years ago puts a greater emphasis on fiscal conservatism than the social issues cherished by evangelical Christians. But they still feel the pull of a hardliner like Santorum.

“The Tea Party stands for limited government, cutting spending and following the Constitution,” says Roger Lunberg (62), a retired director of engineering at Chrysler and a member of the “Rattle With Us” Tea Party from Plymouth. The other evening, eight Tea Partiers to the northwest of Detroit braved a snow warning to gather in Milford to hear Romney.

“The things the Tea Party stands for, Romney supports,” Lunberg continues, as if trying to convince himself. Like half the people I talk to, he’s still undecided. “To win any state these days, you need Tea Party support,” Lunberg muses.

Before leaving for Milford, I telephone Stacy Swimp, a national conservative commentator and radio host based in Kalamazoo, and a Santorum supporter. “I’m a Christian first, a conservative second and I happen to vote Republican,” Swimp explains.

Swimp calls Romney a “progressive” and a “liberal” based on Romney’s support for an inflation-indexed minimum wage and his enactment of a healthcare mandate that forced citizens of Massachusetts to purchase insurance. “His track record indicates he can’t be trusted,” Swimp says. “Can Romney win over the majority of Tea Party activists? No. Not in a million years. He might be able to win over some Tea Party people who don’t understand the purpose of the movement.”

Romney addresses only the symptoms of America’s ailments, Swimp says. “Santorum is getting to the core of the disease. You don’t have a basis for economic stability without social stability; the breakdown of families produces a plethora of economic woes.” Swimp, who is black, sees Santorum’s discourse on family values as particularly relevant to his community. “Blacks abandoned the values of education, literacy, individual responsibility and family that preserved us through slavery and Jim Crow,” he says.

And Santorum is America’s leading opponent of abortion. “Black women abort their children at a rate of 40 per cent or more,” Swimp continues. “Our children are dying in the womb at a rate that should be considered some sort of national emergency. Seventy-two to 80 per cent of black women in urban communities are single mothers. Rick Santorum believes in strong families.”

Among the all-white Tea Partiers in Milford, Romney never mentions Santorum by name. But he alludes to something Santorum said in Wednesday night’s debate: “When these politicians go to Washington, I’m not sure what’s in the water but they start saying ‘This is for the team’ and they vote for things they don’t believe in.”

Romney does not raise the social issues that Santorum has dragged to the fore. He begins with nostalgia. His first home in downtown Detroit was squatted by drug addicts and torn down. “Detroit was really the pride of the nation . . . How sad it is to see Detroit suffering, and Michigan suffering . . . As Detroit goes, so goes the nation . . .” For three-quarters of an hour, Romney talks about Barack Obama’s failings, the perfidy of China, his plans to reduce taxes, slash the federal budget, repeal government regulations and kill “crony capitalism”. He rails against the “union bosses” and “union stoodges” whom he accuses Obama of empowering. Then he pivots to the “shrunken military” that he’ll beef up. Romney recounts how a gold medal winner in the Utah Olympics (which he organised) became tearful when the torn and burned flag from ground zero billowed on the last verse of the Star Spangled Banner,“as if the souls of all those who died lifted the flag”.

The melange of fiscal conservatism and hyper-patriotism is tailor-made for Romney’s Tea Party audience. “We are a patriotic people,” Romney repeats. “We the People” says a banner on the wall.

But is Romney conservative enough? “You have to find someone you can trust and someone who can win,” shrugs Tim Turner (61), the owner of a digital advertising company and a manager for Slinky toys. Social issues aren’t important to him. “I believe we should let people do what they want to.”

Before Romney spoke, Dawn Puscas (44), a housewife and mother of two, told me, “I don’t trust everything he says. Sometimes I feel like he just says what people want to hear.” Puscas found Romney’s economy-focused talk “inspirational”. “I wish he would stick to that, instead of knocking down his opponents,” she says. “The attack ads bother me. I hated when he did that to Newt Gingrich. And now he’s doing it to Santorum.”