Nashville – “English only.” Under this pretext, this reporter gets nothing but monosyllables and a pronounced lack of interest on the part of my intended interview subjects once they detect a foreign accent in my English. It’s not yet eight in the morning, but those attending the first National Tea Party Convention here in Nashville are already exercising a sociopolitical muscle that Tom Tancredo – the populist, firebrand American political figure – flexed the night before.
An extremely hearty breakfast – “a traditional American meal,” a smiling grandmother from Florida informs me – is spread out before me: scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon and potatoes, all of it to be washed down with loads of coffee (also “American,” of course). This meal will provide the much-needed strength and energy to the Tea Party-goers as they prepare for the tough mission that lies ahead of them: taking back America for the Americans.
This Tea Party maxim affects one American in particular: the president of the United States, Barack Obama. There are more than a few Tea Party supporters who believe that the president is not, in fact, an American, and they demand that he show his birth certificate to prove them wrong. “Taking back America for the Americans” is a saying that might also affect Samyra, the Palestinian woman who serves coffee at the convention; and Roberto, the man from El Salvador who makes up the hotel beds; and Ahmadu, the Ethiopian cab driver who transports the California Tea Party delegation back and forth from the hotel.
Tom Tancredo, former Republican Congressman of ten years, may not work on the Hill at the moment, but he is by no means removed from the political arena. During his opening speech at the Tea Party Convention on Thursday, he denounced “the cult of multiculturalism” that he believes is undermining the nation. Famous for his anti-immigration agenda and his (failed) attempts to amend the Constitution so as to make English the nation’s official language, Tancredo told his Tea Party audience that Obama had been carried into power because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.” He went on to voice his concern over the fact that voting rights are afforded to citizens “who can’t even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English.” The applause was thunderous inside the convention hall, but Tancredo’s controversial remarks have fanned the flames of a particular brand of extremism that the movement’s defenders have been trying to mask. Literary tests were used during segregation days to keep black voters out of the booths until a law banned the practice in 1964.
“This is our country,” Tancredo told the crowd. “Let’s take it back.” This sentiment is at the heart of the Tea Party movement: along with a fervent and allergic opposition to taxes and the authority of the federal government, the primary objective of the Tea Party appears to be to essentially “re-establish” America through a second revolution that, in the opinion of many supporters, has already begun. To legitimize their viability as a force to be reckoned with, Tea Party loyalists highlight their contribution to three triumphant battles against the political powers that be: flipping the gubernatorial posts in both Virginia and New Jersey from blue to red, and ushering the populist Scott Brown into the Massachusetts Senate seat left vacant by the late Ted Kennedy. This latter victory has already been dubbed “the Massachusetts Miracle.”
So, what is this Tea Party, then, and where did it come from? The name is borrowed from one of the famous events that triggered the American Revolution. In 1773, a group of colonists, in an act of protest against the British Empire and their bloody taxes, hurled crates of tea into the Boston Harbor. Samuel Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, is suspected of being one of the instigators of the rebellion. Today, in addition to being the name of a popular Boston-based beer company, Sam Adams’ legacy lives on in the convention hall of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel (the largest American hotel outside of Las Vegas), here in Nashville, where several Tea Party-goers can be seen dressed up in historical Adams attire, parading up and down the hallways and calling for “the revolution.”
The 21st-century incarnation of the Tea Party is a movement that brings together mostly white, working-class men who find themselves in a state of panic after being hit hard by the economic crisis. Many of these people also feel uneasy about the presence of a black man in the White House – a black man who they regard, moreover, as a racist, a Marxist and possibly a Nazi.
The birth of the Tea Party movement – which came out in full force this past September as thousands congregated in Washington, DC, on September 09, 2009 – can be traced back to the furious outburst of CNBC’s Rick Santelli who, in February of 2009, [called for a “Chicago Tea Party”] to oppose the Obama administration’s housing bailout proposal. After that, the movement took off and Americans across the country began to organize their own Tea Party protests.
Although they claim to have neither Republican Party affiliation nor an official leader, Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee for the Republican Party, closed the convention on Saturday night at a dinner party that cost attendees $350 a plate, lobster option available. Palin charged $100,000 for her appearance, a bounty she says she will give back to “the cause.” The high cost of the event has been a source of friction among Tea Party followers: charging a $549 registration fee during times of economic crisis was reason enough for FreedomWorks, a primary organizer of the movement, to skip out on the Nashville convention. Could this be the first schism in what might eventually become an official third party in the United States?
Translation: Ryan Croken.
Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at [email protected].