As the Islamophobic demagogue Pamela Geller knelt down to congratulate a dog wearing a stars-and-stripes tutu, one of her admirers, Merilyn, a middle-aged Italian-American in a royal blue "Tea Party Patriot" t-shirt, found an answer to my question from somewhere underneath her bouffant. "You wanna know who I want as President in 2012? Between Barack Obama and that dog, I'd vote for that dog."
Amid the dying embers of October, five days before the US mid-term elections, I had the dubious pleasure of being a British guest at an American Tea Party. Fortunately no-one tried to throw me into the harbour - but then Britain isn't the threat any more. The new enemy is a confusing blend of spectral Islamists (who, Geller explained to the assembled crowd, are spreading "a creeping Sharia Law in this country"), and a Democratic president that many are convinced is a communist.
Contrary to the angst I heard from the podium that day, the American way of life looked pretty safe. As the train from New York's Grand Central Station chuntered through wealthy suburban car-park towns, I passed a whole swatch book of spectacular autumn colours; pretty old houses shrouded by tall trees, rising on gentle hills up from the railway; golf course greens and slow streams. Approaching the small town of White Plains, where the 100-strong rally had just begun, the amplified words tripped down Tarrytown Road on the autumn breeze: "We are the conservative base - we're not here to split the Republican Party..." the voice paused, dramatically. "We're here to take it over!"
On the steps of the Westchester Convention Center, women with Art Garfunkel hair stood two abreast alongside gaggles of young children, weathered retirees and a smattering of severe-looking men of all ages. While the backdrop was idyllic, the tone rarely softened from one of frothing, genuine anger. They really were, as their signs proclaimed, mad as hell. "Drain The Swamp!", said one home-made banner, adorned with hand-drawn pictures of lizards and photos of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. "DON'T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA," read several others, the last two words in dramatic red.
The Tea Party love framing themselves in the broad sweep of history - in terms of what they're for, and what they're against. In four hours of speeches, I heard references to, among others, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Weimar Germany, the American War of Independence, the Tariff Act of 1789, the 1900s Wilson administration, the 1960s civil rights movement, the Roman Senate, King John of England and the Magna Carta. One speaker haughtily quoted Thomas Jefferson on the right to bear arms: "The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it". In fact, Jefferson never said this - the "quote" is a fiction.
Another speaker, Charles Ortel, declared that President Obama was "waging a war on capitalism", and suggested confidently that a Stasi-style secret police would not be far behind: "Obama is planning for the struggle in 2011 and 2012," he said sternly. "I think meetings like this are going to be disrupted: I think we're going to see thugs coming out of the woodwork." Old men gravely nodded their heads.
While their grip on history may be slight, the rise of the Tea Party movement is undoubtedly historic - they have stunned mainstream Republicans with their organisational clout, ousting numerous long-standing candidates in the party primaries. And while the mid-terms were only a qualified success - TV network NBC found that only 32 per cent of Tea Party candidates won their elections - that's still 40 elected members of Congress and five Senators; pretty emphatic, for a first splash. What they need ahead of the 2012 election, is a leader - and there is one obvious candidate. "You have to run, you're like Obi-Wan Kenobi," I heard the shock-jock Glenn Beck tell Sarah Palin on his radio show, just hours before catching the train to White Plains. The Tea Party's ability to unseat Obama depends firstly on whether Palin decides to run, and secondly on just how much of a Jedi she turns out to be.