The Revolutionary War-era costumes, the yellow “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flags from the same era, the earnest recitals of the pledge of allegiance, the over-stated veneration of the Constitution, and the defense of “American exceptionalism” in a world turned towards transnational economies and global institutions: all are signs of the over-arching nationalism that helps define the Tea Party movement.
It is a form of American nationalism, however, that does not include all Americans, and separates itself from those it regards as insufficiently “real Americans.” Consider in this regard, a recent Tea Party Nation Newsletter article entitled, “Real Americans Did Not Sue Arizona.” Or the hand-drawn sign at a Tea Party rally that was obviously earnestly felt. “I am a arrogant American, unlike our President, I am proud of my country, our freedom, our generosity, no apology from me.”
It is the notion that President Barack Obama is not a real natural born American, that he is some other kind of person, that abounds in Tea Party ranks and draws this movement into a pit of no return. Much of this sentiment predates the actual formation of Tea Parties. For example, in October 2008, before the election, Amy Kremer, who later became a figure from both Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express, wrote of Sen. John McCain: “...he needs to tell Nobama to bring his authentic birth certificate to the debate. I am so tired of the spin from his spinmeisters! Johnny Mac...just go straight to the source!” This sentiment was coupled with a profound alienation and distrust of established American institutions. On January 8, 2009, she wrote: “I have lost all hope on this issue of OBami’s eligibility to be President of the United States. I am totally disillusioned after sitting and watching Congress certify the Electoral College vote on CSPAN without one objection.”
Among those promoting these ideas after the 2008 election was Tea Party Nation’s marketing director, Pam Farnsworth, who asked, “Where’s the birth certificate?” in a June 4, 2009 tweet. She also remarked that, “New bill would make Obama a US natural-born citizen. Doesn’t the Constitution mandate he already be one to hold office?”
In a Tea Party Nation website discussion forum, one rank and file member, “Charles the pathfinder,” wrote in a way that set the president apart as a non-American: “If obama [sic] is to be stopped, TPN better stop preaching to each other and start some drastic action. I am afraid it is already too late. Just my opinion mind you, but I have been studying obama [sic] since the start. I hope every one realizes now that he is full blooded Muslim. And I have been told that Muslims are taught to kill all infidels and Americans especially. When is he going to have to answer for all his treasonous acts?”That sentiment, the notion that Barack Obama is not a real American, but a “lying African,” is also found across the entirety of the Tea Party movement. Hundreds of posts echoing these sentiments are on the Tea Party Nation website.
In the multiple Tea Party street protests since April 15, 2009, those who do not believe that President Obama is a native born American have been widely visible. They have claimed he was a Muslim instead of a Christian, that he was born in Kenya or Indonesia, rather than in Hawaii. And that Barack Obama was a non-American socialist who conspiratorially slipped into the White House. Dick Armey and FreedomWorks’ injunction that the Tea Parties should be limited only to fiscal policy matters was obviously rarely observed.
Indeed, these claims became so widespread that they corresponded to an uptick in the number of Americans who believe that President Obama is not a Christian, as he professes, but a Muslim. Shortly after he took office, in March 2009, 11% of Americans believed he was a Muslim. In August 2010, the Pew Research Center measured that number at 18%. These numbers were highest among conservative Republicans (34%) opposed to the president policies. Among white Protestant evangelicals, the percentage believing the president was a Muslim stood in August 2010 at 29%.
While social scientists have not yet said that this jump in the numbers from March 2009 to August 2010 was caused by Tea Partiers propaganda, this was a period of intense protests and mobilization. As such, Tea Party organizations could have served as a perfect Petri dish from which this particular bacterium could have grown and spread.
Pamela Geller and Islamophobia
The term “Islamophobia” was defined in a 1997 Runnymede Trust Report as “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.” Among the characteristic elements of Islamophobia highlighted in the report: Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities; Islam does not share common values with other major faiths; Islam as a religion is inferior to the West; It is archaic, barbaric, and irrational; Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism; and Islam is a violent political ideology.
In fact, alongside racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism, the elements of Islamophobia have found their way into the Tea Party Movement. Tea Party leaders and members have employed anti-Muslim language. With strong Tea Party ties, Pamela Geller stands out in this regard.
As noted earlier, Geller was a featured speaker at a Tea Party Patriots-sponsored convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in May. Despite weeks of pressure from community groups who raised concerns about Geller’s history of Islamophobia, the convention organizers refused to reconsider their invitation to Geller.
Geller also spoke at the anti-immigrant rally in Arizona sponsored by Tea Party Nation in August 2010. She is expected to be speaking at the Tea Party Nation Unity Convention in Las Vegas in October.
Geller maintains a tight-knit trio of organizational fronts: Atlas Shrugs, SIOA (Stop Islamization of America), and the Freedom Defense Initiative. All are listed as official “partner” organizations of the ResistNet Tea Party faction. She has appeared on the ResistNet radio program that was heavily promoted by ResistNet leader Darla Dawald.
With leaders like Geller, it is not surprising to find language on a ResistNet Tea Party website that denigrates an entire grouping of people because of their faith. “We are at a point of having to take a stand against all Muslims. There is no good or bad Muslim. There is [sic] only Muslims and they are embedded in our government, military and other offices...What more must we wait for to take back this country of ours...”
Geller, like many Tea Partiers is also a birther. In addition to claiming that Obama’s birth certificate is a “forgery,” she has called President Obama a “third worlder and a coward” who’s “appeas[ing] his Islamic overlords.” She has perpetuated the lie that President Obama is Muslim. Geller has referred to Obama as “The Muslim president.” Media Matters for America documented that Geller’s blog contains 267 posts tagged, “Muslim in the White House?” She’s gone as far as to seriously make the argument that Barack Obama is the illegitimate child of Malcolm X.
Among the many inflammatory statements Geller has posted on her blog, Atlas Shrugs, she has written that: “It is increasingly clear that the most divisive President in history is itching for a civil war. And at the rate he is going, he is going to get one -- if he continues to ignore the will of the American people.”
Nativism and Support for Arizona’s SB 1070
These doubts and denials about President Obama’s American-ness have been coupled often with a growing level of nativist activity and sentiment from both the grassroots and the leadership of the various Tea Party factions.
As noted earlier, at the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville, former congressman Tom Tancredo gave a rousing anti-immigrant speech; and he and others conducted workshops along the same lines. (Although some Tea Partiers became upset with Tancredo later, after he decided to run for Governor of Colorado on a third party ticket.) In fact, Tea Party Nation is second only to the 1776 Tea Party in its connections to nativist groups and advancing anti-immigrant issues. And the number of such posts on the Tea Party Nation website has been on the rise.
Donna Baker, a TPN member from Gainesboro, Tennessee, for example, wrote: “Yes, things ran quite well before the swarm of manipulated underclasses invaded our country. If they stayed home and made half the effort to change their country as they do marching our streets demanding our laws not be enforced, they could change their own lives. They are blindly being used and manipulated by other forces ... [they are] a huge burgeoning looming voting bloc.”
Another member, Robert Matheson, wrote: “WOW! I am so mad and pissed off at Obama. I live in Detroit and between the Mexicans and the Arabs this area is run over by them. They come here for a legal Drivers [sic] License which is still possible and welfare and then work in the contruction [sic] trade thanks to Governer Granholm [sic] and the holes in our boarder [sic] with Canada.” 
From the leadership, an August 3, 2010 email to members asked recipients to post anecdotes to a new TPN forum about illegal immigrants. “If you have been the victim of a crime by an illegal, or if your business has gone under because your competition uses illegals, or if you have lost your job to illegals, we want to know about it. If you have photos and videos of illegals or their supporters doing outrageous things (like burning the American flag or putting the Mexican flag above ours, or showing racist posters), please share those as well.”
After Arizona passed a piece of anti-immigrant legislation (SB 1070) and Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of many of the bill’s most draconian measures. The matter is likely to ultimately go to the Supreme Court. In response, Tea Parties have been drumming up support for SB 1070. Tea Party Nation, for example, was one of the sponsors for a United Border Coalition Tea Party in Arizona on August 15. Tea Party Nation also joined the Patriot Caucus and United We Stand for Americans to support the event.
Similarly, the National Leadership Council of Tea Party Patriots voted overwhelmingly, to ask affiliated members to hold sign waving events for one hour on July 29 to show their “support of the people and State of Arizona on the day SB1070 goes into effect.”
On the list of “non-negotiable core beliefs” that the 1776 Tea Parties hold are the usual items about budgets and taxes. Also included are “Illegal Aliens Are Illegal” and “English Only Is Required.” This faction also supports SB1070, the anti-immigrant statute roiling Arizona. Remember that this particular Tea Party organization imported two of its commanding executives from the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project. Accordingly, their chairman argued, “The Tea Party? We stand with Arizona and why shouldn’t we. The federal government doesn’t give a hoot about us, except we are the cash cows they must keep milking and if a few of us are murdered, kidnapped or abducted into Mexico, well that is the cost of doing business!"
The 1776 group’s executive director, further spelled out his justification for supporting the Arizona anti-immigrant law: “The Tea Party has waved the signs, marched and protested big government, but will we stand with our fellow Citizens as the residents of Arizona are denied their domestic tranquility? Arizona needs the help of the Tea Party and every American Citizen as well. ... While other [Tea Party-ed.] groups have only a plank or two on their platform we have 15 strong ones. How can we restore our beloved nation with only one plank? Our borders are hemorrhaging, our jobs are being exported and our guns slowly being confiscated, yet few speak up. Are we to guarantee domestic tranquility for the rest of the world while our own Citizens hide in their homes for fear of an invading army of trespassers? ... We will NOT stand down and we will NOT go silently into the night.”
Contra Dick Armey and FreedomWorks
This exaggerated nativism and birther talk has been strong enough to result in something of a rift with FreedomWorks Dick Armey. Gary Armstrong, a tea party organizer in East Tennessee, said he unsubscribed from the FreedomWorks e-mail list after learning of Armey’s record on immigration and told Politico, “right now, I think we should tar-and-feather Dick Armey." Armey’s position on immigration has angered many Tea Partiers. One supporter of the Tea Parties, Michelle Malkin, called Armey an “amnesty stooge” and “a clueless promoter of bailout-happy, big government Republican Sen. John McCain."
The North Carolina nativist group, Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (ALI-PAC), jumped into the fray in March 2010, when William Gheen, the director of ALI-PAC, sent out an email which read: “Dick Armey of FreedomWorks (The group trying to take control of the tea party movement) supports AMNESTY for illegal aliens,” and asked “Does this explain why the D.C. insiders are trying to keep the illegal immigration issue out of the tea party movement?”
The ALI-PAC attack is a fight over turf. William Gheen, head of ALI-PAC has been trying to carve out a niche for ALI-PAC among the Tea Parties. Like ALI-PAC, the anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA is trying to make inroads into the Tea Party movement. The group has also used Dick Armey’s immigration position to freeze out FreedomWorks and create some space for nativist groups like NumbersUSA.
In a blog post entitled “Dick Armey stuns tea partiers with open-borders advocacy,” NumbersUSA head Roy Beck charged that Armey “wants immigration to be treated as a social issue with no place in the tea parties,” and suggested FreedomWorks may be trying “to intimidate local tea parties” to shy away from the issue at the behest of “corporate benefactors [who] want the foreign labor to keep pouring in.”
Tea Party Caucus in Congress
The link between the Tea Parties, anti-immigrant politics and birthright citizenship shows up in Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. Founded in July 2010, the Tea Party Caucus quickly grew to include fifty-one representatives, all of them Republicans. Bachmann, from Minnesota’s 6th District, is the only representative from that state who is a member of the caucus. Ten are from Texas, five are from Georgia and four are from California, and the rest are scattered around the country--although none are from the northeastern part of the country.
Notably, forty-two of the fifty-one are also members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus in Congress--the grouping of the most steadfast opponents to any reform legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship for those without proper papers. In a second count, thirty nine of the Tea Party Caucus members are also co-sponsors of H.R. 1868, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009. This bill, currently sitting in a House committee, would end birthright citizenship in the United States for the America-born children of parents without papers. It would present a direct constitutional challenge to the Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War to guarantee the citizenship rights of the newly-freed slaves and their children.
Opposition to “birthright citizenship” extends throughout the Tea Party movement, and is often linked to an explicit fear of the demographic transformation underway in the United States, in which white people are projected to become one minority in a country of minorities during the next several decades. A web post by a Tea Party Patriot activist using the name “No Anchors” was symptomatic: “We have to stop mexicans [sic] from having kids here and giving them citizenship. They will overtake us if we don’t [sic] stop this now. The 14th amendment [sic] needs to be respected. It is being misrepresented and no one stands up for this!! All politicians agree with it if they don’t [sic] change it.”
A similar post from Jason Leverette, the ResistNet Alabama State Director, argued that real Americans were being “out-bred.” Leverette wrote, “The Mexicans reasons for invading America is certainly more than just for jobs and ‘anchor babies’! The kidnappings, killings, rapings, slave trade, smuggling weapons and drugs is just another part of their plan to occupy and outbreed the Americans and eventually become the majority who will rule America! If this trend continues…by 2050 the United States will be ruled by Hosea Jesus Delgado Gonzalez Calderon, Esq. WTF!”
It is here, at the conjunction of nativism, opposition to birthright citizenship, the denigration of President Obama, and the fear of the new majority in American life, that the unstated racism embedded within the Tea Parties becomes vocal and unmistakable.
Leonard Zeskind is president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Devin Burghart is IREHR vice president.