During the far-right-leaning RedState Gathering in Charleston, political candidates and strategists were tripping over each other to paint the Tea Party, a conservative movement now well into its third year of existence, as a revolutionary group. Stumping for his Senate campaign behind a lectern in the Francis Marion Hotel Aug. 13, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz told the story of the town of Gonzales, the first battleground of the Texas Revolution. In 1835, Cruz said, the Mexican government demanded that the rebellious colonists hand over a small bronze cannon, a request to which the Texans responded "with typical mild-mannered Texas spirit."
"They responded with a flag with a picture of a cannon and a simple legend: 'Come and take it.' That's the spirit of America. That's who we are."
The Gonzales narrative took on new shades of meaning at a conference where protecting gun rights and stanching the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico were issues on the tips of many tongues. Other common tropes included the unearthing of the Reagan Revolution, the intrusion of government regulation in business and everyday life, and the onerous Keynesian economics of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
In the 2010 interim elections, Tea Party-backed candidates won some key seats in Congress and in state legislatures. During the recent debt-ceiling debate, Democrats accused Tea Partiers of holding the country hostage with unrealistic demands; Republicans, meanwhile, said Democrats were wielding the threat of a debt default as a weapon. As the GOP primary race for the 2012 election gears up, it remains to be seen what role the still-nascent movement will have on the two-party system.
Cruz, who was introduced as "one of those crazy people who have read the Constitution," never addressed the Tea Party directly during his RedState speech. But he praised Sen. Jim DeMint, a prominent Tea Party agitator from the Upstate, as a John the Baptist figure who was "crying out in the wilderness" before anyone else on Capitol Hill.
For members of the nebulous Tea Party, which has no central leadership and no set political platform, the Gathering was an opportunity to build a common self-image. And, like punk rock and the Christian church before it, the Tea Party drew its life force from opposition. Cruz asked everyone in the room to hold him accountable if he was elected, saying, "If I don't have arrows up and down my torso, I won't be doing my job."
Speaking to over 700 conference attendees — and to a worldwide audience via the 100-plus reporters who had flocked to the Francis Marion to hear Texas Gov. Rick Perry announce his bid for the GOP presidential nomination — speakers including DeMint and Gov. Nikki Haley not only railed against "Obamacare" and the Democratic "nanny state," they critiqued the Republican Party from the right.
Max Pappas, vice president of the conservative nonprofit group FreedomWorks, took to the lectern and described DeMint as the leader of a "new band of freedomphiles." He referred to the Tea Party as "this beautiful uprising," to boisterous applause. He was like an announcer at a pro-wrestling match, amping the crowd up before Haley took the stage.
"So this is what the end of the Progressive Era looks like," he said. "I certainly don't see anybody here shedding a tear."
Maybe Drew Ryun summed up the whole weekend during a sparsely attended campaign training session the morning of Aug. 13: "You have to define yourself before others define you." The brother of American Majority president Ned Ryun and son of former Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kansas), Drew Ryun was speaking specifically about the Tea Party's online presence. But other speakers bore that message out in the real world.
Outsiders have called the Tea Party a lot of things: extremist, racist, even terrorist. During discussions of the recent debt-ceiling compromise, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) compared Tea Party-aligned lawmakers to "hobbits," the diminutive heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The implication could have been that they were an insular group, or that they were making unrealistic demands, or that they thought they were saving the world.
Erick Erickson, head blogger at RedState.com and organizer of the Gathering, responded to McCain's critique by saying the mythical inhabitants of the Shire were "freedom fighters" and "a merry band of happy warriors." Max Pappas won loud cheers from the crowd with a more elaborate subversion of the analogy.
"They may call us hobbits — who, by the way, were the ones who were able to resist the corrupting influence of power in The Lord of the Rings — but I'd rather be a hobbit than a senator orc," Pappas said. "It's time to take 'the precious' from the grasping hands of Republican Senator-for-Life Orrin Hatch."
(Tolkien scholars, meanwhile, are up in arms over the hobbit comparisons. Wayne Hammond, a librarian and the author of The Art of the Hobbit, had this to say to The Christian Science Monitor: "Frodo volunteers to take the Ring out of a sense of duty, not only to his own folk but to all of the free peoples of Middle-earth, while Sam, Merry, and Pippin follow him out of love and friendship as well as their own sense of obligation to humanity. Members of the Tea Party seem to share none of these values.")
The question-and-answer sessions after each speech illuminated the diversity of concerns among conference attendees. One man asked Cruz the sort of rant-question common to town hall meetings: "What is your stand on illegal immigration?" Before Cruz could answer, the man unrolled his theory of how laws allowing birthright citizenship and anchor babies had caused the healthcare crisis, crippled the housing market, and led to widespread unemployment. "We'd solve the whole cotton-picking problem in this country by getting rid of them," he said in conclusion.
After Haley's speech, someone asked the governor what she thought about nullification, the doctrine that says a state can declare a federal law null and void within its own borders (which was one of the issues that ultimately led to the Civil War). Haley responded, "I think nullification is something we talk about when we're frustrated." When the same audience member said he really wanted to know Haley's stance on states' rights, she said, "States' rights trump everything. The 10th Amendment trumps everything."
Not everyone in attendance spoke with such conviction, though. During a lunch break, Beaufort resident Brett Williamson stood out from the crowd as one of the only people not talking. He was also a good deal younger than most conference attendees, and he was not formally involved in politics. He described himself as a conservative, but he had come to the RedState Gathering largely out of curiosity.
"It sounds like, here, it's so extreme on certain issues, if there's ever one vote that's bad, they've written you off forever," he said. Williamson said he had already heard people at the conference dismissing Rick Perry, who had not yet made his formal campaign announcement.
Perry's security squad had planned to keep the conference room cleared until 12:45 p.m., but when people started passing out while waiting outside in the poorly ventilated hallway, the guards let everyone inside 15 minutes early. When Perry finally took the stage, he stared into the high beams of a tough crowd. He did win a rowdily positive response by promising to "repeal this president's misguided one-size-fits-all healthcare plan immediately" if elected, but many of his talking points fell flat, lacking the previous speakers' fiery antagonism.
After Perry's speech, George Neitz, a regular RedState blogger from central Florida, said he agreed with 99.9 percent of what he had heard so far. When it comes to the 2012 election, he says the important thing is he'll be voting for A.B.O. — Anybody But Obama.
When Ted Cruz asked how many people in the room had read Atlas Shrugged, only a handful of audience members raised their hands. The ones who hadn't read it could hardly be blamed; the trade paperback edition clocks in at over 1,000 pages. But, wittingly or not, many people who align themselves with the Tea Party are adopting large segments of the worldview espoused in Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand's 1957 novel. Rand's theory of objectivism holds that capitalism is not a necessary evil but, rather, the only moral system for the creation and distribution of wealth.
In Atlas Shrugged, the mysterious inventor John Galt makes a pledge: "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." If the Tea Party is anything, it is anti-collectivist — and it sees collectivism all over the place, from Obama's "spread-the-wealth" tax plan to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. At the RedState Gathering, the widespread aversion to anything approaching socialism made for some key talking points.
In his speech leading up to Haley's, Max Pappas drew some laughs by referring to Congress as a dog "returning to the vomit of collectivism" and adding, "Now we're saying, 'Bad dog. Those collectivist pukes stink.'"
Out in the hallway, where a half-dozen political interest groups had set up tables covered with literature and free swag, Maraide Sullivan manned the display table for the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which is establishing a branch in South Carolina. The Coalition issues an annual report card for congressmen based on how consistently they support constitutional liberties like free speech and the right to bear arms, as well as on support for conservative views of abortion and traditional marriage. Sullivan has been a member of the Coalition for about a year, but the roots of her ideology go back to the 1980s, when she was a missionary to Eastern Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Yugoslavia. Having lived in Romania just before Nicolae Ceausescu's execution, and having seen Poland under Soviet rule, she says America is "on a very dangerous slippery slope."
"I appreciate that the speakers are saying we need to get back to the founding roots of our country and our Constitution," she said.
Some people in attendance complained that their hometowns were so heavily liberal, they felt alone in their crusade. One said he felt that way in Charleston. Many refused to give their names to the media, having been warned beforehand by Erickson that left-leaning news outlets might take their words out of context to disgrace the movement.
When a presenter from Heritage Action for America said the country lacked "media that truly fought for the truth," one audience member swivelled her head toward the forest of cameras on tripods at the back of the room. She narrowed her eyes, raised her voice, and issued a challenge before turning back around:
"You hear that, media?"