On a beautiful autumn day at the end of October 2010, an estimated 210,000 people gathered in the National Mall to watch television for four hours. At least, that’s what it felt like from my position behind the sound stage in front of a giant flat screen TV flanking the main stage at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
As the crowd filtered onto sections of lawn separated by short metal fences, the jumbotrons played clips from episodes of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report in the run up to the rally. As the morning wore on, the crowd grew until it stretched all the way back to the Washington Monument and spilled into the parkway at the edges of the Mall.
It felt like the buildup to a momentous occasion, and for many people there (some of my friends included), it felt like we were witnessing an important event, a statement, or the birth of a new political movement.
Signs and costumes mocking the Tea Party and Christine O’Donnell, former US Senate candidate from Delaware, were everywhere. Then MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman came on stage and instructed the crowd to jump up and down and perform “the wave.”
Actor Sam Waterston read a satirical poem penned by Stephen Colbert’s neoconservative pundit alter-ego. With the Capitol Building visible in the distance beneath a large red, white, and blue banner erected over the stage, Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osbourne, The Roots, and The O’Jays performed musical numbers. A giant puppet in the likeness of Stephen Colbert even made an appearance.
What was going on? Had we all become the butt of an elaborate practical joke? Finally, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who had become famous for skewering the Bush administration four nights a week for eight years, got to the point.
The news media, they argued, had been fear mongering long enough. Pundits from both sides of the political aisle had turned their opponents into monsters, and it was time to lay the fear aside and embrace each other as one nation. Then everyone piled their signs and placards around the overflowing trash cans and slowly filtered back to their hotels.
What had been accomplished? Years of organizing and activism had been topped by an anti-rally—a political spoof with a non-political message. Days after the event, right-leaning libertarian and conservative candidates swept the midterm elections. Six years later, Republicans control the House, Senate, and the White House. Like at the end of every mass gathering in Washington, DC, the demonstrators simply tossed away their signs and went home.