Behind the hillbilly image, the Tea Party movement has a serious message – and a dark side, reports David Usborne from the Nashville convention
The Opryland Hotel in Nashville has a river all its own, one that runs, so the plaque says, with water blended from sources all across the United States.
And the Tea Party movement that has come together at the hotel this weekend is like that: the roughly 600 politically excited folk who signed up for this event (and, controversially, paid $549 for the privilege) come from every corner of the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. Like the hotel's river, the movement is running swift and smooth – but if you open your nostrils wide and sniff, there is a bit of a bad smell.
The first indications were that they were mixing well, sharing many of the same grumbles about their country as it's being run today, the most common of which has become a catchy acronym: Taxed Enough Already.
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"We are TEA'd" is the message inside the outlines of a teapot on the T-shirt worn by Jack Smith, 65, a retired coffee supplier and vice-president of the Gilmer County Tea Party in northern Georgia. With short-cropped grey hair, he could be your quintessential Partier: he was barely politically active before this; the focus of his activity so far has been mostly local, and he is thrilled now to be a part of something.
His first big outing was to Washington DC last September when tens of thousands of people thronged the National Mall to protest big government and what they consider as out-of-control federal spending. He didn't hesitate about coming to Nashville either. And the best part? "It's just like a big family," he says.
A happy river then. And, as anyone who pays even the smallest amount of attention to American politics already knows, it is a potentially powerful one too, already credited with carving deep new contours in the country's landscape. It has been credited with helping to elect Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts last month and with kyboshing Barack Obama's healthcare reform plans with a series of highly raucous and effective town hall gatherings last summer.
It is a grassroots upswelling – revolution is so far too serious a term – that has dug deep furrows in the brows of both the mainstream parties and of not a few moderate candidates preparing for elections in November. The kindling for it has largely come from a few conservative voices on television and radio, notably Glenn Beck, the bombastic, baby-faced anchor on Fox News, who is partly responsible for one of the biggest sub-groups within the Tea Party movement called the 9.12 Project.
And while its sources are diverse – there are hundreds of groups that have come under the Tea Party umbrella in the last year, only a fraction of them represented here – there is cohesion in its message. Or so it seems in the microclimate of Opryland (a comfortable 2C with absolutely no chance of rain).
Over-taxation is a key thread, for sure. But add to the mix the following thoughts, expressed by almost everyone who felt like talking to a reporter yesterday: the politicians in Washington don't listen; they should be booted out by "citizen politicians" who will observe strict term limits; not enough heed is being paid to the Constitution and it should be more rigorously honoured and, finally, creating a third political party is not what they want but colonising an existing one (the Republicans) and turning it to their purposes is a more realistic and tenable way forward.
These are "regular" people, for the most part, leaving aside, perhaps, William Temple, a retired federal government worker from Brunswick, Georgia, who was momentarily lost early yesterday among the shrubbery of the resort's Cascade Gardens – headphone guided tours are available – in the costume of an 18th-century Boston patriot, complete with white chaps, three-cornered hat and, of course, a copper tea pot on his belt.
Truth be told, Temple appears sane, too, and eloquent on all the Tea Party themes. It is time for the federal government to return the money it has wrongfully "appropriated" from the states over the decades and for all US Senators and their staffs to get out of Washington. "They get up there and they start playing the game, playing golf together and whatnot," he says, affecting a perfect accent of King George III. "They have become, if you will forgive me, the House of Lords, and they consider us the rabble who can't even count."
So whence that not-so-sweet odour? Keeping the Tea Party on the right side not just of loopiness but also of extremism has been one of its cleverest strategies so far. Previous grass-roots uprisings in the United States have been marked by strands of paranoia and nativism that have led to their eventually being discredited and their ignominious fizzling. It is a pattern that goes back to the Know Nothing Party of the mid-1800s, which encouraged fears of a takeover of the country by immigrants from Germany and Ireland. And it is rooted in the notion that America is God's country on Earth and no one from abroad had better mess with it.
In Nashville, you do not have to dig very deep to see something of this going on all over again. Indeed, the opening speaker on Thursday night, a former 10-year Congressman from Colorado and a fringe presidential candidate in 2008, Tom Tancredo, brought it directly and unpleasantly to the surface with a racially charged address, which the movement, in time, may come to regret. Because there is one thing that the Partiers here appear quite happy to talk about also: out-of-control immigration.
According to Mr Tancredo, whose own political career has surely crashed and burned precisely because of his barely disguised xenophobic views, the United States has fallen prey to "the cult of multiculturalism". He went on his speech to suggest that Mr Obama was elected in 2008 – "putting a committed socialist ideologue in the White House" – because "we don't have a civics, literacy test before people vote in this country". That is where the nasal canals twitch, recalling that it was precisely those sorts of tests that were used during segregation to prevent African Americans from voting.
In an interview, Mr Tancredo defended his remarks, insisting they had "nothing to do with colour or ethnicity or any of that crap" but "has everything to do with people coming to America and wanting to be American". That, he explained, means stopping talking your native language and doing everything to blend in. "Under the cult of multiculturalism, we don't make them do that and that will have great implications," he said. Looking at a British reporter, he galloped on: "When the Archbishop of Canterbury says there is nothing wrong with Sharia law being practised as well as British law, you say wha-a-at?"
Among the first keynote speakers yesterday, meanwhile, was Rick Scarborough, the pastor and firebrand founder of Vision America, which had its own stall here yesterday laden with books he has written, among them Liberalism Kills Kids. He also wanted to discuss the Tancredo speech which he apparently liked very much. "I didn't hear racism," he told this reporter, before spelling out his worries. "America is a country of legal immigrants but the Left has turned it into a country of invaders," he offered bluntly. "Look at Europe and the rampant invasion of England. They are practising Sharia law and I think this crew is going to fight that." Mr Scarborough also outlines how the US is a "special country" – more than any other in the world – and that is how God intended it. He adds: "If we are to become 30 per cent Hispanic we will no longer be America." (And therefore no longer special.) "That would be a bad thing."
Thank goodness that this morning, the subject will change a little. The first address of the day will be by Ana Puig under the title: "Correlations between the current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America" – Hugo Chavez, by name.
The delegate who made it all the way from Alaska, by the way, is called Sarah Palin. Her speech tonight will close the convention. May it will be less offensive than the opener.
Freedom for sale: Setting out their stall
*"For him to be leading our country is almost mind-boggling," Don Spak from Dallas, Texas, offers on the subject of Barack Obama. "He is driving the country to the edge of a cliff."
But Mr Spak is digressing, because he is here for commerce.
Among the array of stalls outside the main ballroom here, his, the Tea Bag Emporium (catchphrase: Freedom Brewing) is the most appealing. And there are discounts for the conventioneers. Sterling silver tea bag necklaces can be yours today for a mere $99.
Elsewhere in the room, there are bags of "Freedom Coffee" ($9) and bald eagle T-shirts ($20).
Some of the knick-knacks are free. Why not grab a bumper sticker that simply says 'Right Wing', advertising, it seems, rightwingwarehouse.com. And there are some nifty booklets from STOP Obama Tyranny National Coalition. It's all about God, marriage and the Constitution.
The Nashville blend: Groups represented at the Tea Party
*Homemakers for America
Conservative women's group "crying out for some semblance of decency" working against abortion, same sex marriage, contraception and the stimulus package. Compares the National Organisation of Women to the Devil.
*Tea Party Express
National bus tour for devotees, run by the same group that previously organised the "Stop Obama Tour". Run by major Republican fund-raising group.
*Tea Party Patriots
A national organisation which claims to have 1,000 chapters. Backed by Republican grandee Dick Armey, picture. But the founders are staying away.
A veteran on the scene, it has filed lawsuits against politicians, mostly liberals, over corruption and sleaze since 1994: it brought 18 cases against Bill Clinton. Considers Barack Obama the 17th corrupt politician in the US.
Employs what it calls a "counter-insurgency strategy" to awaken local leaders to the threat of the liberal insurgency in America .
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