They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.
That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like ResistNet.com ("Home of the Patriotic Resistance") and Infowars.com ("Because there is a war on for your mind.").
Some have gone so far as to stock up on ammunition, gold and survival food in anticipation of the worst.
Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, is an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun-rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the "birthers" who doubt Obama's citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.
It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from a concern that the community organization ACORN is stealing elections to a belief that Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.