Inside the Tea Party’s Civil War

The dumping of a Tea Partier who made racially charged remarks was about more than just political correctness. Zachary Roth on the deep split that could cripple the movement this fall.

If last week’s NAACP resolution condemning Tea Party racism was intended to smoke out bigots in the conservative movement, it could hardly have been more successful. One Tea Party leader, Mark Williams, responded with an attack on the civil-rights organization that was widely derided as deeply racially insensitive. In short order, Williams was publicly kicked out of the National Tea Party Federation, and the topic of Tea Party racism was everywhere.

"Most rank-and-file Tea Party activists think we’re talking about Star Trek when we try to explain who the ‘Federation’ is,” Wierzbicki added.

But look closer, and it becomes clear that the Williams flap is about far more than just race. It’s about control. In setting itself up as the Tea Party’s internal race cop, the Federation may have overplayed its hand—and provoked a more-or-less open rebellion against its bid, launched in April, to unify the famously fractious movement. The controversy over Williams has helped reignite a major internecine power struggle among Tea Partiers that could make it harder to operate effectively come November.

Last week, outraged by an NAACP resolution condemning Tea Party racism, Williams posted on his blog a “satirical” letter, since removed, which was written in the voice of an NAACP official and praised slavery for offering blacks “three squares, room and board.” In response, a spokesman for the National Tea Party Federation, an umbrella organization of Tea Party groups, announced Sunday on Face The Nation that Williams and Tea Party Express, the group for which he has been acting as a paid spokesman and public speaker, had been expelled from the Federation, calling the letter “clearly offensive.”

But in a statement to reporters released Monday, Joe Wierzbicki, a spokesman and organizer for Tea Party Express, declined to criticize Williams, a conservative talk radio host with a history of incendiary racial comments. Instead, Wierzbicki called the Federation’s decision to oust Williams and the Express “arrogant and preposterous,” and downplayed the impact the expulsion will have on his group—which in January gave a major boost to Scott Brown’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts. “The Tea Party Express, with over 400,000 members, is far larger than the Tea Party Federation’s entire membership,” said Wierzbicki.

He also lampooned the Federation’s standing within the movement. "Most rank-and-file Tea Party activists think we’re talking about Star Trek when we try to explain who the ‘Federation’ is,” Wierzbicki added.

Williams himself made a similar point in the wake of his expulsion, referring in a Sunday evening blog post to “self-anointed Tea Party ‘leaders.’ ”

Two spokespeople for the Federation did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But the revolt against the Federation has not been confined to Williams and the Tea Party Express. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mark Meckler, a leader of Tea Party Patriots—a prominent grassroots group that claims two million members—called the Federation “not a long-term part of the Tea Party movement.” Meckler noted that the Patriots had never joined the Federation, explaining that his group was “offended by the idea that some organization would purport to speak for thousands of organizers who frankly speak well for themselves.”

Meckler has no sympathy for Williams. The Patriots have in the past— with some justification—portrayed Williams and the Tea Party Express as inauthentic creations of self-interested Republican political operatives. (Indeed, the group was started by the veteran California GOP consultant who helped gin up the 2003 effort to recall California Governor Gray Davis.) Meckler told The Daily Beast he’d warned the Federation months ago about working with the bomb-throwing talk-show host, and was ignored. “They knew a long time ago that Williams has a long history of vile, racist rhetoric,” Meckler said. "Now, when it’s politically inconvenient for them to be associated with him, they step away."

There’s more than just trash talk going on here. With two of the largest and most prominent Tea Party groups now openly contemptuous of the Federation’s authority, it’s difficult for the umbrella group to continue claiming to speak for the movement. That was essentially the Federation’s raison d’etre when it was launched in April by a group that included Mark Skoda, a Memphis-based activist who had helped organize and promote February’s National Tea Party Convention in Nashville. From the start, the idea was to streamline the Tea Party’s media efforts, and to unify the movement’s notoriously de-centralized factions, by acting as a clearinghouse for the Tea Party’s public communications.

The Federation quickly expressed support for Arizona’s harsh immigration law, then slammed Chris Matthews and MSNBC over what it saw as a “hit piece” on the Tea Party movement. Had the Tea Party finally transformed itself into a more organized and on-message operation? If so, some observers suggested, it could offer a crucial boost to conservative GOP candidates just in time for November’s midterms.

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But despite the media’s eagerness to portray it as some kind of officially sanctioned Tea Party leadership body (see, for instance, Sunday’s Face The Nation segment), the Federation was always regarded with deep skepticism within the movement. The Nashville convention, which featured a keynote speech by Sarah Palin, generated frenzied media coverage and helped establish the Tea Party, at least with the press, as a major force in American politics. But it also provoked criticism from some Tea Partiers, who grumbled about the event’s $550 price tag and accused the convention’s organizers of mounting a power play that ran counter to the movement’s grassroots, bottom-up ethos. Some activists, especially those working with Tea Party Patriots, had similar concerns all along about the Federation.

Those concerns may have been on the back burner for a while, but they’ve re-emerged with a vengeance over the Williams flap. In the process, perhaps the most serious effort to date to unify the Tea Party movement appears to be in peril. And that doesn’t bode well for the chances of fashioning themselves into the kind of disciplined grassroots army, united behind a slate of conservative candidates, that many on the right have been hoping for.

Zachary Roth was until May a reporter for Talking Points Memo, and is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon, among other outlets.