After months of
struggling to harness the energy of newly engaged tea party
activists, the conservative establishment - with critical midterm
congressional elections on the horizon - is taking aim for the first
time at the movement's extremist elements.
The move has been cast by some conservatives as a modern version of the
marginalization of the far-right anti-communist John
Birch Society during the reorganization of the conservative
movement spearheaded in the 1960s and 1970s by William
F. Buckley Jr.
"A similar effort will be required today of conservative political and
intellectual leaders," former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in
his column in the Washington
Post . "It will not be easy. Sometimes it takes courage to stand
before a large crowd and proclaim that two plus two equals four."
But for Gerson and other conservatives, this is not just an intellectual
exercise. They have a very specific political goal - to deprive
Democrats and their allies a potentially potent weapon to use against
the GOP in November.
"I don't believe we should be giving (extremists) a platform or
empowering them to do anything based off their conspiracy theories,"
said Ned Ryun, president of American Majority, "because they give the
left ammunition to try to define the tea party movement as crazy and
The attempt "to clean up our own house," as Erick Erickson, founder of
the influential conservative blog RedState, puts it, is necessary "
because traditional press outlets have decided to spotlight these fringe
elements that get attracted to the movement, and focus on them as if
they're a large part of this tea party movement. And I don't think they
Until recently, organizers and activists mostly seemed content to
ignore, or in some cases tolerate, extremists in their ranks, confident
they'd be drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of activists who took
to congressional town halls
around the country to protest big-spending initiatives pushed by
President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.
But inflammatory rhetoric such as former congressman Tom Tancredo's
racially tinged speech at this month's tea party convention, reports of
the involvement of right wing militia groups, and the continued
propagation of conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama have
sometimes cast the movement in an unfavorable light.
Erickson has advised new tea party organizers on how to avoid
affiliations with extremists, and this month banned birthers -
conservatives who believe that Obama was not born in the United States
and is, therefore, ineligible to be President - from his blog (he has
long blacklisted truthers, those who believe that the U.S. government
was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - a conspiracy
theory with devotees
across the political spectrum).
"At some point, you have to use the word ‘crazy,'" said Erickson.
Majority, a group that trains tea party activists and others around
the country, has done much the same thing. Its website has moved to
close its sessions to activists who identify themselves with the
birther, truther or militia movements, or the John Birch Society.
Ryun conceded that extremists are involved in the
tea party movement, but he said "it's just such a small percentage and
it should not be portrayed as representative of the broader movement ."
The fringe-fighters' methods range from censuring signs at rallies or
banishing unruly participants completely to challenging the media's
focus on the fringe and highlighting the movement's diversity and
They have gone out of their way, for example, to promote
activists and movement-backed candidates of color, including tea
party stars Marco Rubio and Allen West, running for U.S. Senate and
House, respectively, in Florida, and Texas Senate candidate Michael
Williams - all Republicans.
Ryan has another strategy. He has commissioned a poll that he thinks
will show that tea partiers share a commitment to reducing taxation and
government spending with independent voters and prove that the tea party
movement is " very much mainstream."
But the tea party movement's decentralized structure, vaguely defined
goals and anti-establishment tone makes it an attractive place to
channel angry feelings. Mainstream media organizations such as the New
York Times, which recently ran a 4.500
word story focusing on the infiltration of the movement by a
militia-linked group called Oath Keepers, have recently focused on that
aspect of the movement.
And, as tea party supporters such as Schultz have expected, liberals
have been acutely attuned to any evidence of extremism.
Independent of their actual numbers, it's in both political parties'
interests to inflate the influence of the other side's fringe, said Tom
De Luca, a Fordham University political science professor who studies
political movements and wrote the 2005 book "Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers!
Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics."
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"That creates this dynamic that seems to exaggerate the influence of the
extremes," DeLuca said.
Much as conservatives have sought to link Democrats to environmental
extremism or socialism, he said, it's an obvious countermove for the
left to try to link Republicans with the more extreme elements that have
gained traction around - and sometimes within - the tea parties.
So it was that liberals have demanded to know where Republicans stood on
Obama's citizenship, or that last week found left and right debating
which side had more in common with Andrew Joseph Stack III, the
software developer who crashed his plane into the Austin, Tex., IRS
The left seized on a comment
by hard-line-conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) reportedly
expressing empathy for the pilot's anti-tax views. Rush Limbaugh
retorted that Stack "sounds like he's blaming Bush and Reagan, asserting
that he sounded "almost word-for-word for Nancy Pelosi. Almost
word-for-word for Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama."
DeLuca predicted that another "Bill Buckley moment" will only occur when
the political damage done by extremists outweighs the boost the tea
party movement has provided to conservatives generally and the
Republican Party specifically.
"My guess is their basic stance will be to try to juggle as long as they
can," he said.
That approach - and its drawbacks - was on display at last week's Conservative
Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of Washington's
conservative establishment. It featured the John Birch Society as a
co-sponsor. And, while conference organizers nixed a panel on Obama's
citizenship, a birther contingent still made its
presence felt, as did the Oath Keepers, who co-sponsored the
After filming a brief segment
at the conference, liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, a leading tea
party antagonist, concluded on her show that "the
conservative movement right now is really not afraid to let its freak
flag fly ... They‘re happy to show off the ‘we want another revolutionary
war,' ‘we think the black president is arrogant,' ‘we think the
apocalypse is nice' side of themselves."
Liberal commentators similarly highlighted the extremism on display at
this month's National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, which included a
speech by WorldNetDaily Editor Joseph Farah questioning Obama's
citizenship and one by Tancredo asserting Obama was elected because "we
do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this
A blogger on the liberal site Daily
Kos asserted Tancredo's speech revealed the "REAL reason" tea
partiers are upset: "A black man is President and their White Privelege
(sic) is fading."
Tancredo's speech was not widely condemned by conservative intellectuals
or media, but immediately after Farah delivered his, he was confronted
in a hallway outside the convention hall by conservative media
entrepreneur and fellow convention speaker Andrew
Breitbart, who said it was disservice to the tea party movement to
infer its activists are "all obsessed with the birth certificate, when
it's not a winning issue."
Others cited the jeering of an anti-gay activist at CPAC who condemned
organizers for inviting gay Republican group GOProud to participate.
Conservative author and TownHall columnist Ashley Herzog said
it was proof that "CPAC, and the conservative movement in general,
isn't a haven for haters after all," and urged the left to view a video
of the incident, which she said evidences "a lack of bigotry (that) must
be painfully puzzling to liberals."
They noted that the speaker - like the comedian Rock - is from Brooklyn
and speaks with a regional accent, demanding an apology.
And in a clever web video that went viral
this week, the Dallas Tea Party called out MSNBC host Keith Olbermann,
who had mocked the mostly white make-up of the Nashville convention of
what he called the "Tea Klux Klan, comparing its racially diverse
leadership to MSNBC's mostly white host lineup.
Judson Phillips, the Nashville tea party activist who organized this
said it's incumbent on local tea party leaders across the country "to
control the message and to prevent the tea party movement from being
In the run-up to a July tea party convention he's planning in Las Vegas,
Phillips said, he's planning on asking speakers "to stick to our
message, which is unity headed into the fall."