The Tea Party's 5 Key Players

From Sarah Palin to Tom Tancredo to Alabama's culture warrior in the courts, Wingnuts author John Avlon offers a guide to the most important attendees at the Tea Party movement's big convention in Nashville.

02.04.10 1:39 AM ET

From Sarah Palin to Tom Tancredo to Alabama’s culture warrior in the courts, Wingnuts author John Avlon offers a guide to the most important attendees at the Tea Party movement’s big convention in Nashville.

Plus, read more on Avlon’s new book.

It’s Super Bowl weekend, but the big event in politics is the first national Tea Party Convention in Nashville.

As with all pre-game press, there’s plenty of hype that offers more heat than light. There have been last minute injuries and substitutions—wingnut Rep. Michele Bachmann dropped out from her long promised speaking role, while Sarah Palin has stuck with her $100,000 speaking fee and been rewarded with prime-time speech coverage from cable outlets during the Saturday night banquet. There is plenty of second guessing and insider scandals—the convention’s for-profit status has rubbed many grassroots activists the wrong way. They see themselves as defenders of the American Revolution, and this twist has some asking whether John Hancock would have rented out Independence Hall and tried to make money off the concessions.

Palin is the marquee attraction, the only possible presidential candidate speaking, and quite possibly the only person emerging with a profit.

But the big game, the “Thrilla in Vanilla,” goes on. If you’re keeping score at home on cable news or via The Daily Beast, here are the top five key Tea Party players to keep an eye out for.

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5. Judge Roy Moore: You might remember Friday’s lunch speaker as the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was removed from office in 2003 for installing and then refusing to remove a 5,000-pound stone monument to the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse grounds at federal request. The action made Moore a folk hero to the far right, a culture warrior in the courts, and a member of the state’s rights resistance. A sometime poet and now a candidate for Alabama governor in 2010, Moore embodies one of the oldest conservative populist claims: that God’s law supersedes man’s law in the U.S. It’s an argument that was used in efforts to defend slavery and segregation in the past; now it’s cited more frequently in critiques of abortion and gay rights. But for social conservatives who believe that liberalism is leading to America’s demise, Moore is a martyr to the cause.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. Beast Books. $15.95

4. Tom Tancredo: The former Colorado congressman and anti-illegal immigrant activist has been a hero to the new Know-Nothings for years, but he’s kept a low profile since leaving office, emerging only a few times in ’09 to bash then-Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor, accusing her of being a racist and characterizing her membership in La Raza as being “nothing more than a... Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses.” Anti-immigrant fervor has traditionally been a part of recession-era wingnut eruptions in years past, but it has not been a focus of Tea Party populist anger to date. It will be interesting to see what role Tom Tancredo plays among the Tea Party faithful—is he a third-rail throwback or a prodigal son turned Pied Piper? His reception will offer insights into the direction that the Tea Party movement may take in 2010.

3. Joseph Farah: In the isolation of the Internet echo-chamber, the influence of fringe news sites has increased, and the tallest midget in that corner of the wingnut world is WorldNetDaily, or It is the brainchild of Farah, a mustachioed lifelong newspaperman from Paterson, New Jersey, turned outer-limits conservative activist. Farah first made a name for himself as a Clinton hater during the analog era, but he’s really hit his stride in the online self-styled Obama resistance. On Inauguration Day, he urged readers to pray for the new president’s failure, because “his agenda is 100% at odds with God’s.” WND has become a prime news source for conspiracy theorists, pumping up the birther claims. Farrah rented 20 “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” roadside billboards at a cost of $300,000 and collected online donations to help fund the effort, alongside other items like lawn signs that say “America was founded by right wing extremists.” Farah is Friday’s featured dinner speaker.

2. Sarah Palin: The queen of the conservative populists has been given the prime speaking slot, and a decidedly non-populist speaker’s fee, to address her adoring public in a prime-time address to the Tea Party nation. At the ’09 protests I covered, Palin was placed in a league of her own, beloved by the crowds with an almost Reagan-like intensity. Her fans have constructed a foolproof defense around their hero—any mistakes she makes can be blamed on the liberal media. In their eyes, Palin stands for God and country, an antidote to the multicultural elitism they see in Barack Obama. She is the marquee attraction, the only possible presidential candidate speaking, and quite possibly the only person emerging with a profit.

1. The Tea Partiers: The real stars of the convention won’t be conservative celebrities, but the Tea Partiers themselves. These protesters have always prided themselves as being part of a leaderless Obama resistance, and the real action will be occurring not on the stage but on the convention floor. Most Tea Party protesters I have interviewed are engaged, if enraged, citizens. They are not fools; they have read their Founding Fathers. But their anger and alienation have been pumped up to a fever pitch by political operatives and partisan entertainers who get great ratings from cultivating conflict, tension, and resentment. There are different tribes and tributaries in this movement, from small business owners angry at the bailouts given to banks, to people suffering from mild cases of Obama Derangement Syndrome, to the full-fledged Hatriots—those people who believe that it’s patriotic to hate the president. Which voices carry the day will determine the success or failure of the convention. But as game day approaches, they all should remember a warning from Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer: “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.”

John Avlon’s new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. Advance orders can be placed here. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.