The National Tea Party Convention, which wrapped up Saturday night with a televised speech by Sarah Palin, offered an outlet for some of the fouler strands of modern conservatism that had long been bubbling beneath the surface of the Tea Party movement.
Tea Party leaders had worked hard to keep the public face of the movement focused tightly on a small government, anti-tax message, largely steering clear of social issues, and appeals based explicitly on race. But this weekend, from the podium at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel, convention speakers espoused birtherism, anti-immigrant nativism, homophobia, Christian fundamentalism, and an apparent nostalgia for racially discriminatory barriers to voting.
Here’s a quick recap:
• Joseph Farah, the publisher of the right-wing website WorldNetDaily.com, drew cheers from the crowd by questioning whether President Obama was born in the U.S. “The media, the politicians … all say, no, it’s all been settled,” said Farah. “I say, if it’s been settled show us the birth certificate. Simple.”
• Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado Republican congressman, declared that the president was elected because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote.” Such tests, of course, were used in the Jim Crow south to block African-Americans from voting. Tancredo, who ran for president in 2008 as a rabid foe of illegal immigration, referred to the president using his middle name, and added: “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”
• Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court charged that by proclaiming a gay pride month, Obama “has elevated immorality to a new level.” Moore, who became a conservative darling after refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse, added: “An appeal to the God of hosts is all that is left.”
• And Pastor Rick Scarborough — a self-proclaimed “Christocrat” — “went after homosexuals several times to choruses of amens,” according to Time.
Leaders of the Tea Party Patriots — who pointedly sat out the confab — certainly noticed the shift. Yesterday, Jenny Beth Martin, Mark Meckler and other TPP co-ordinators sent out an email to supporters, slamming the “media frenzy” surrounding the convention, and making clear what they see as the movement’s core organizing principle. “Had you given the National March on Washington the same coverage you gave this “convention” it would have been more realistic of the voice of the people,” they wrote, addressing the news media. “During that march, it was evident what the people of the movement wanted our platform to be: LIBERTY.”
To some extent, the expansion into wider territory was due to the nature of the convention itself. Since details of the confab were announced, numerous Tea Party activists have complained that the event’s organizers aimed to co-opt the Tea Partiers’ energy for the benefit of the broader conservative movement and the Republican Party. It was perhaps inevitable that those more organized interests couldn’t be kept at arm’s length forever. In her speech, Palin even began grafting an aggressive national-security policy onto a movement that has shown strong isolationist tendencies, to the extent that it has had a foreign policy at all.
Still, the expansion beyond the core low-tax, small-government message wasn’t an entirely hostile takeover. It’s never been hard to detect an element of right-wing cultural grievance lurking beneath the surface — even on ostensibly economic issues like health-care or government spending — as several observers have noted. It’s true that overt Christian fundamentalism has always been firmly on the margins of the movement, but “Where’s the birth certificate?” signs — and worse — haven’t been hard to spot at Tea Party rallies. And some more radical anti-government activists have been welcomed at movement events.
So maybe what we saw this weekend was something more like the dark underbelly of the Tea Party movement, momentarily coming to the light. Not that Sarah Palin seems to mind.