Let’s Rile ‘Em Up

Thomas Sullivan is one of the top ten finalists from the 2009 Awards Program.

I look out at the crowd from the edge of the stage and wait for the event to begin. A swarming mass of people form a churning sea of reds, whites, and blues. Near the front I spot my friend Rick wearing an American flag headband and pumping a placard into the hostility-charged air. The sign pleads for “more 1776 and less 1984.” In the middle of the mob I see Jen, the bored mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who is screaming about burying Obamacare alongside Ted Kennedy. She just loves that line, thinks it’s so witty. Looking around at the faces, I recognize maybe twenty percent of the people in the audience. They’re my people, strategically placed and heavily armed with talking-point lies to foment agitation. This is our magic act, and we’re good at what we do. I’m expecting a great show, a scream-fest louder and angrier than any metal concert you’ve ever been to.

Most of the people in this audience have no idea that my organization, Tea Party Patriots For Progress, is actually funded by United Health, the largest insurer in the Tri-State area. Robert Stratem, our founder and president, was a VP at United until he was fired two years ago after a federal investigation into denial-of-coverage abuses. Robert kept his mouth shut, took the fall for the higher ups, and was careful not to burn any bridges when he left. This loyalty is now paying off, big time.

Robert saunters up to the microphone and waves at the crowd as the throbbing music tapers off. He introduces himself and then spits out a stream of rapid-fire rants about government takeovers and bureaucratic death panels. He shakes his fists in the air and wails about stunning affronts to personal liberties and the emergence of dictators. When Robert finishes, the crowd roars with disapproval. I look down at scrunched, red faces and realize that Robert is an absolute master at this. The crowd is literally frothing. Robert is a maestro, a sorcerer capable of taking absurdities and myths and turning them into undeniable realities inside your emotion-addled brain. I’ve never seen someone leverage the fear of a group into this much anger this quickly before.

Robert holds his palms up and calls for silence. He stares into the crowd using the stern look of a deeply offended parent. He drops his voice an octave and says, “I have a very special guest with us today, a courageous mother from the great state of Wisconsin. And you are not going to believe what she has to say. Robert spins toward the back of the stage and says, “Rhonda, come on out here.”

Janet, our web developer, emerges from behind the huge American flag hanging at the back of the stage and plods toward the microphone. The makeup people have done an amazing job converting her into Rhonda, a poor single mother working at Denny’s. She’s wearing ripped acid-washed jeans and a tight fitting Green Bay Packers tee shirt, under which someone has stuffed a small throw pillow. Her hair has been frosted up into a thin, 70’s style claw that arcs down toward her forehead. And the outfit is perfectly completed with a pair of heavy work boots and gobs of blue eye shadow.

Robert places a comforting arm around Rhonda’s shoulder before sighing loudly into the microphone and saying, “Rhonda, I want you to tell these good people what you told me last week.” Rhonda-Janet steps meekly up to mic and says, “Well, I called the Medicaid office last week to inquire about pre-natal care for my new baby…” She steps back from the mic and smiles while tapping her belly. The crowd hoots and hollers, screaming out congratulations. Rhonda steps forward again and slumps her shoulders while wiping a hand under her eyes. Her voice cracks as she says, “but the bureaucrat said that Medicaid only allowed one child per woman, so I’d need to get an abortion.”

The audience stands in stunned silence for a moment and then explodes. I’ve got my camera rolling and capture the upheaval perfectly. I catch a pair of women with tortured expressions straining their bodies forward and screaming with all their might. I pan out to the wider audience and catch handwritten signs and water bottles flying over peoples’ heads. Loud cussing pours out of enraged faces and floods into my phone. The perimeter fencing is trampled underfoot as people break away from the rally and race home to email their friends and representatives. My buddy Rick upends a Honeybucket and starts screaming like an animal, a ploy he’s been practicing all week at construction sites around town. The scene devolves into pure chaos.

An hour from now my video clip will appear on You Tube as a posting by a furious citizen. By nightfall it’ll be running non-stop on Fox and CNBC with loud, puffy-faced men expressing their outrage. Our little show will go viral. At which point getting healthcare reform this year will be as likely as a song praising inter-racial marriage cracking the country music Top 40. Hell, the clip will probably still be playing when I get back from Mexico next month after a well deserved vacation. I really need the break. Stopping change is more than a full time job, and it’s exhausting, but at least the pay is good.


Thomas Sullivan’s writing has appeared in Word Riot, 3AM Magazine, and Memoir (and), among others. His memoir of teaching drivers education (titled Life In The Slow Lane) is forthcoming from Uncial Press in February, 2010. To read more of Thomas’ writing, please visit his webpage.

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