Nashville – The rancor and division among Tea Partiers that erupted in the weeks leading up to the first Tea Party National Convention were nowhere to be found inside the expansive biosphere-like confines of the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Squabbles set aside, at least for the moment, the real business of the February 4-7 convention was three-fold: culture warring, movement building, and campaign winning.
Organized by Judson Phillips, a Nashville attorney, and his wife Sherry, Tea Party Nation (or TPN) is one of several different Tea Party factions vying to be the voice of those angry white voters wanting to “take America back!”
TPN describes itself as a “user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!” These threads ran through the convention.
The crowd of roughly six hundred came to Nashville from across the country. Among the TPN conventioneers was an attorney from Virginia, an IT professional from Atlanta, a retired executive from Lansing, a veterinarian from rural Pennsylvania, a power plant engineer from Houston, a teacher from rural Idaho, and snowbirds from Arizona. The crowd skewed slightly older, primarily from the 55+ demographic range, and was split almost evenly between men and women.
Many had attended the big 9-12 rally in Washington DC last year, or were fans of FOX News commentator Glenn Beck. Some were active in their local Tea Party groups, but for quite a few, it was their first time at anything like this. The vast majority had never met before. They spent the weekend getting to know one another, networking, becoming friends, and building a movement.
Throughout the three days of the convention, a myriad of issues were discussed from the Tea Party Nation podium: Obama the not-American socialist, the “climate change hoax,” states rights and state sovereignty, immigration, healthcare, ACORN-bashing, the auto manufacturer bailout as payback to labor unions, George Soros, American exceptionalism, debt and deficits, just to name a few.
The issue of jobs was noticeably absent from the Tea Party Nation discussion. This was a group of people who got paid regularly and weren’t particularly concerned about losing their employment. In this regard it is worth highlighting the fact that the conference leadership team included Mark Skoda of the Memphis Tea Party. He bragged repeated in his convention biography of his years of experience with “outsourcing” – shipping jobs overseas. Skoda’s made a comfortable living helping pack up and move American jobs elsewhere, and he was hardly in a position to reach out to the unemployed.
It would be a mistake, however, to boil the event down to a laundry list of issues. On one panel entitled “Defeating liberalism via the primary process,” Bruce Donnelly, of the website surgeusa.com, captured the mood when he explained that “I feel like I’m losing my country.” The common thread of all these complaints was, “We want our country back!” a battle cry for the restoration of a nation that never existed.
Revolt was in the air at the Tea Party Nation Convention, much of which was broadcast live on CSPAN. Nashville talk show host Phil Valentine warmed up the crowd with a shared sentiment, “we are angry and we are afraid.”
Treason Trial at the Tea Party?
At the Friday luncheon, the master of ceremonies declared, “You know, it just occurred to me, we have a good lawyer and a good judge in the house, maybe we should have a couple of treason trials while we’re here. I’m just thinking out loud. Alright, in anticipating the outcome I don’t see anything on the schedule for 6 o’clock tomorrow morning, so the hanging will be in the garden at 6 o’clock tomorrow.” The exhortation to political violence, eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric of groups like the Posse Comitatus, was greeted with cheers from the Tea Partiers.
The nearly all white crowd expressed a whiteness of the assumed, rather than consciously articulated variety. There was intensive defensiveness over charges of racism in the Tea Party movement. Andrew Breitbart, the ubiquitous silver haired right-wing new media mogul who seemed like he was onstage for the entire TPN convention, melded that defensiveness with a well-worn threat to the mainstream media, “If you continue to frame it as racist, sexist, homophobic, I’m going to organize a Tea Party on 6th Avenue on Friday and you won’t be able to get out to the Hamptons for the weekend.”
Enter the Nativists
Tom Tancredo kicked off the convention on Thursday night with a fiery speech attacking President Obama and “the cult of multiculturalism.” Commenting on the 2008 election, Tancredo declared, “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.” Tancredo also said Obama won because “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote.”
Tancredo, an immigrant-bashing former Colorado Congressman who founded the House Immigration Reform Caucus, appeared to have missed the irony in his rant. The immigrants he despises are required to take a civics test to become citizens and earn the right to vote, while people born here, like those in the crowd, do not. He also seemed to forget the racist use of literacy tests to keep African-Americans away from the polls under Jim Crow segregation. The Tea Party crowd on hand in the ballroom enthusiastically responded to Tancredo’s racial remarks.
Tancredo returned to the convention on Friday to join NumbersUSA head Roy Beck for a workshop entitled, “5 Easy Fixes to the high Cost of Mass Immigration.” Before that workshop began, Beck chatted with Tea Partiers about the issue of “anchor babies” and the birthright citizenship portion of the 14th Amendment. Beck noted that it was the 5th or 6th item on the NumbersUSA agenda, but given the current Democratic Congress they were going to focus on legislation targeting immigrant workers under the guise of giving those jobs to native born Americans.
Beck’s presentation, saturated with data, left many audience members puzzled. Nativism by the numbers didn’t move this crowd, and only half the seats were filled for this NumbersUSA workshop. More, there was little indication that the five pieces of legislation he asked the audience to support would do little to increase the number of jobs. Not that the Tea Partiers cared. As noted above, finding paid employment was not a priority in this crowd.
Beck also introduced Chad MacDonald, NumbersUSA director of social media marketing. McDonald told the workshop of his organization’s plan to have an “immigration expert” in each local tea party group around the country. And he admitted to being no stranger to the Tea Parties. After all, he spoke at an “anti-amnesty” Tea Party rally in Pasadena, California last fall, and claimed to have many friends who are active in the Tea Parties.
During the Q&A session in this workshop, one of the audience members attempted to gin up some controversy by claiming to have found a piece of paper in the bathroom linking NumbersUSA to “sterilization and abortion,” but both Beck and the crowd quickly shrugged off the stunt.
As a side note, MacDonald would later be seen giving his card to Orly Taitz, the California activist that the Orange County Register dubbed “queen of the birthers.” The repeatedly debunked racist conspiracy theory around president Obama’s birth certificate as an excuse to call him not American and illegitimate would repeatedly surface at the convention.
Tea Partiers and Cultural Warriors
A workshop by Dr. Rick Scarborough indicated a shift taking place at the convention, transforming the focus from bailouts and deficits to the culture war. Scarborough is a former Southern Baptist pastor from Pearland, Texas, and a he heads up a corporate constellation including Vision America, Vision America Action and the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. He has been a fixture on the Christian Right for several years (Jerry Falwell published his first book).
After showing an eight minute video cataloguing his many television appearances, the jovial Scarborough told a packed room of around 215 people that the gap between “fiscal and social conservatives has got to cease.” In addition to attacking the Obama administration for its commitment to ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and supporting the inclusion of gays and lesbians into federal hate crimes protections, Scarborough warned that we “now have a government of thieves” and that we are moving towards a “collectivist” society. We have a Godly duty to defend “American exceptionalism,” he said.
Scarborough used much of his speech to launch a new campaign, called the Mandate to Save America, a project of the S.T.O.P. Obama Tyranny National Coalition.
The pamphlet he distributed read, “We, the undersigned, and millions of other American patriots, including many who comprise the growing TEA Party movement, are no less determined than patriots of the past, who fought for our freedom. We will make any sacrifice, endure any hardship, and confront any foe to keep the flame of freedom burning bright; so help us God.”
The list of signers reads like a who’s who of the Christian Right: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, Gary Bauer of American Values, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, and many more. The ten campaign demands marked an overt attempt to fuse Tea Party desires with the broader agenda of the Christian Right into a more potent form of Christian nationalism.
Scarborough worked up the crowd in the room, and got a standing ovation when he demanded, “enough is enough!” When he finished, an older woman in the front row stood up and stated, “What we need is revival and revolt!” which also brought enthusiastic cheers from the audience.
Years before, Scarborough had crisscrossed the country in support of Judge Roy S. Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court justice impeached from office after a stand-off over his placing of a statue of the Ten Commandments inside his courthouse. And Moore, who’s running for governor of Alabama, gave the lunchtime TPN convention keynote address.
He wove words from the “founding fathers” together with his brand of Christian nationalism, proclaiming that “we must fight,” and that “the war is inevitable.” “The battle is here in America. We must preserve the Republic and our faith in God, or have it taken from us,” he said. Moore received some of the loudest applause of the entire convention when he spoke about “spiritual warfare,” and declared that “it’s time for Christians to take a stand.”
This strain of Christian nationalism would merge with the racially charged birth certificate conspiracy theories later that night during the Friday evening keynote address.
Enter Joseph Farah
Convention boss Judson Phillips introduced Joseph Farah, of the far right website WorldNetDaily.com., as the Friday evening keynote speaker. Phillips called WorldNetDaily “an amazing source of information” that he turns to every morning, right after finishing up business on the Tea Party Nation website.
Farah spent nearly half of his speech cooking up a Biblical basis for his obsession with Obama’s birth certificate. Some didn’t like this kind of birther talk, and after Farah’s speech, Andrew Breitbart privately criticized him for it. Nevertheless, in some respects, Farah’s speech seemed to signify the convention’s tipping point: marking a transformational moment as the crowd shifted from inchoate angry ranters to full-blown culture warriors.
Most Tea Partiers were pleased to hear about the birther issue. For example, Miki Booth, an Hawaiian-born woman who’s also a member of the Route 66 Tea Party, announced her candidacy for the Oklahoma 2nd District Congressional seat. She used “birtherism” to announce her candidacy to the convention floor. Holding up a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, she said “this piece of junk is what you get when you don’t have one of these,” she finished, holding up a copy of her birth certificate, to raucous applause. And when Orly Taitz, who more than anyone is associated with the birther issue, made an appearance at the convention on Saturday, she was warmly welcomed and continually stopped for autographs.
A New Movement Gets On Its Feet
If 2009 was the “birth” of this movement, as many referred to it, this conference could be described as the movement’s “learning to walk” phase. This faction of the Tea Parties has clearly moved beyond street protests, moving towards more seasoned activism. And the majority of the convention was focused on the minutiae of movement building.
Lori Christenson from the Evergreen/Conifer Tea Party did a powerpoint presentation on the nuts and bolts of creating a local Tea Party group: recruitment techniques, ideas for fundraising events, the right kind of tax status options for local groups, and more, including where to hold meetings. Audience members shared their success stories and their business cards with one another.
Another popular workshop was dedicated to developing statewide networks of Tea Party groups. David DeGerolamo and Erika Franzi of a group called NCFreedom.us walked the audience through the process of creating a statewide structure that unified the various Tea Party, 9-12 project, and other “patriot” groups. DeGerolamo told the audience that when they are looking to create a group in a new town, “go to the gun store and ask, they’ll know.” Roy Rammell of the United States Tea Party Patriots of Idaho Falls, Idaho added that his group does most of their recruiting at gun shows, where they get 100-150 new people signing up and they raise a few hundred dollars in donations each time.
DeGerolamo and Franzi led a second session which quickly filled to capacity. They elaborated on their statewide approach, then had the audience divide up by regions. Those discussions led to the formation of regional alliances, like the Northwest Tea Party Alliance, which included groups from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington.
The importance of these statewide and regional networks was stressed as Tea Parties move away from a focus on DC to state and local efforts.
Social networking technology has dramatically improved the communications abilities of local Tea Party groups, and they have grown accordingly. Several workshops at the event focused on these new internet technologies. Despite it being an older crowd these workshops were well attended and supported. At the end of one session, Judson Phillips commented that they had over 3000 new TPN members sign up to the website since the conference started. To address the glaring age issue, the convention also featured workshops on how to recruit young people.
The speedy adoption of social networking combined with the rapid growth of politically simpatico new media sites, like brietbart.com, and traditional media like FOX News has helped create an insular, self-reinforcing information feedback loop for Tea Partiers.
A plenary on “where the Tea Party movement goes from here” was one the most highly anticipated sessions. It soon became obvious that this particular grouping had chosen to endorse candidates, run for office, and win elections. For example, Mark Skoda announced the formation of a new group, the Ensuring Liberty Corporation and Ensuring Liberty PAC which will target twenty Congressional races, 6 within 100 miles of Memphis (3 in Tennessee). The success of Tea Party-backed candidate Scott Brown in the recent election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat reverberated across the halls of this Opryland convention center. The Tea Partiers were fired up and ready to go.
There were sophisticated workshops on GOTV (get out the vote), precinct level organizing, voter registration and voter identification. Some workshops were so detailed that they provided instructions down to the type of font to use when printing nametags for events (they say a serif font like times new roman, in case you’re curious).
The climax of the event was the highly anticipated (and highly priced, at $349) speech by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Eleven hundred well-dressed supporters filled the ballroom to dine on steak and shrimp, as Palin called the Tea Party movement the “future of American politics.” As the chants of “Run, Sarah, Run!” died down, and the conference came to an official close, there was little sign of the Tea Party Nation losing steam. To the contrary, Judson Phillips announced that the next TPN convention will take place in July.
Devin Burghart is vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.