February 16, 2010


[Richard Mack at a Bellevue, WA, militia organizing meeting in February 1995. Photo by David Neiwert.]

The more we learn about the Tea Party movement as it evolves, the more disturbing a portrait emerges: One of a right-wing populist movement animated by cultural resentments and paranoia that previously were the domain of fringe conspiracy theorists and militiamen.

There were a number of important reports on the Tea Party movement this week that underscored and confirmed something we've been reporting at C&L (similarly confirmed in that report for Newsweek) for some time: That the Tea Party movement has been overtaken by right-wing extremists of the Patriot movement.

The most important of these was David Barstow's report in the New York Times describing the movement's evolution into a revival of the Patriots:

The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival, as it was in the Massachusetts Senate election, or for division. But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Mrs. Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.

These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal — a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain.

One of the key figures in this takeover, as this story describes, has been Richard Mack, the '90s militia figure who has become a fixture on the Tea Party circuit, as we reported previously. Indeed, his December appearance in Spokane was one of the signal events in the NYT piece.

Mack, who I photographed in February 1995 while addressing a militia-organizing session in Bellevue, Washington, has been a key figure for the Patriot movement in "transmitting" its talking points and beliefs into the mainstream for a long time. But he is hardly the only Patriot figure heavily involved in the Tea Parties, as the NYT piece describes.

One of the people who sometimes accompanied me in the 1990s when I attended militia gatherings, Devin Burghart, now works for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, and he was at the National Tea Party Convention and attended its seminar. and speeches. He filed a detailed -- and revealing -- report for IREHR:

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 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.

He also attended the speech by WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah, who was a 1990s Patriot movement promoter as well:

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.

As the NYT piece notes, when Patriots begin taking over the Tea Party, they by extension begin moving toward taking over the Republican Party -- since that is, in fact, the Tea Partiers' stated intent:

In many regions, including here in the inland Northwest, tense struggles have erupted over whether the Republican apparatus will co-opt these new coalitions or vice versa. Tea Party supporters are already singling out Republican candidates who they claim have “aided and abetted” what they call the slide to tyranny: Mark Steven Kirk, a candidate for the Senate from Illinois, for supporting global warming legislation; Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, who is seeking a Senate seat, for supporting stimulus spending; and Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor in California, for saying she was a “big fan” of Van Jones, once Mr. Obama’s “green jobs czar.”

A report from Kathleen Hennessey at the Los Angeles Times details how the Tea Partiers are now mobilizing at the local level to take over the GOP apparatus:

Conservative activists who once protested the political establishment are now flooding the lowest level of the Republican Party apparatus hoping to take over the party they once scorned -- one precinct at a time.

Across the country, tea party groups that had focused on planning rallies are educating members on how to run for GOP precinct representative positions. The representatives help elect county party leaders, who write the platform and, in some places, determine endorsements.

"That's where it all starts. That's where the process of picking candidates begins. It's not from [GOP leader] Michael Steele's office down. It's from the ground up," said Philip Glass, whose National Precinct Alliance is among the groups advocating the strategy. "The party is over for the old guard."

In Arizona and Ohio, Republican Party officials report an increase in candidates running for precinct positions, which often sit open because of a lack of interest.

In South Carolina, a coalition of tea party groups has made a formal agreement with the state GOP to urge its members to get engaged at the precinct level.

In Nevada, a group of "constitutional conservatives" working under the tea party banner has already taken control of the Republican Party in the Las Vegas area, gaining enough strength to elect six of the seven members of the county executive committee.

Last but not least, the IREHR's Leonard Zeskind, writing at HuffPo, offers some sage advice on how we should deal with the special challenge the Tea Party movement represents:

Over the next nine months, other issues--immigration reform, a possible jobs bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, climate change--will raise the ire of the Tea Parties, but it would be a mistake to regard this as an issues-based phenomenon. These are, after all, people who marched in the streets of the nation's capitol with the defining slogan "Take Our Country Back." Theirs is a cry for the restoration of a nation that does not exist. It is a "Christian nation," according to the words uttered most often. And it is a "white" nation that does not dare speaks its name. Unlike hard core white nationalists, who have deified the concept of race into a idol they worship, the whiteness of the Tea Party's imagination is assumed rather than spoken. It is "their" country they want back.

Any response to the Tea Parties must address the issue of race forthrightly. A new website, www.usforallofus.org, has posted a statement on the subject that needs to be endorsed. "We reject the racism that keeps us divided. We celebrate our interdependence and our capacity to love our neighbors as ourselves." I signed the statement and urge others to do so as well. It is not necessary to agree with every paragraph in the statement, I certainly did not agree with every word or phrase. But it is important to draw a line and say that this is a United States of America for all of us, and those who want to make some kind of exclusive claim on its heritage and history and future need to be told no, its for all of us. Signing this cyberspace statement by itself will not be enough to turn the Tea party movement back. But it is one place all of us can make ourselves heard.

We also need to borrow from elements of the trade unions' response to the Tea Party's actions last August. Instead of laying down and being quiet, AFL-CIO leaders issued a statement saying, "We want your help to organize major union participation to counter the right-wing 'Tea Party Patriots.'" The unions sent pickets to a number of the town hall meeting sites in the only organized effort to respond to the Tea Parties at the local level. One-time picket lines, while however helpful in slowing this we-want-our-country-back crowd, are just not enough to stem this Tea Party movement. Much more needs to be done.

Be sure to read it all. Because being informed is our only hope for dealing with the wingnuttery and disinformation that inevitably follows the Patriot movement and its projects.

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