The Tea Party, Day 1

John Avlon speaks to Tom Tancredo about his suggested “literacy test” for voters, and the Tea Partiers form a political action committee to target Dems in 2010 races.

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John Avlon speaks to Tom Tancredo about his suggested “literacy test” for voters, and the Tea Partiers form a political action committee to target Dems in 2010 races. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America

Tom Tancredo managed to get the National Tea Party Convention off to a stereotype-reinforcing start Thursday night when he launched into a tirade accusing President Obama of being a “committed socialist ideologue” and said that Obama might not have been elected if a literacy test had been in place.

Tancredo wasn’t backing off his remarks when I ran into him in the hallways of the Tea Party Convention at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville. “This is a socialist administration,” he said stoutly. “When President Obama said ‘I’d rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,’ what he was saying was, ‘I’d rather get this country pushed to the point where there’s no going back—to a socialist system—I’m going to get the government in control of the economy’…and he’d put his second term at risk to achieve it. That’s an ideologue.”

Tancredo’s call for a literacy test for voting privileges was something I hadn’t heard advocated since reading about Jim Crow laws, so I asked him for some clarification. He was quick to say he meant a civic literacy test. “I would suggest to you that a lot of people who voted for the president who didn’t know a thing about the process and couldn’t care less about it….I would use the same test on civic literacy that we have immigrants take….If you’re an American citizen who can’t pass the same test we immigrants take, then I don’t think you should vote.” Defending the integrity of the Constitution apparently has its limits.

John McCain wasn’t doing much better than Obama in Tancredo’s eyes: “We could not run a worse candidate for president and I hope he gets beat in the senatorial primary—and I’ll come down and work for JD (Hayworth) I’ll knock on doors.” Obama Derangement Syndrome and RINO hunting tend to go hand-in-hand.

But put Tancredo’s comments in context—and I mean the context of the room in which he was speaking. Perhaps four feet away, a table of books was for sale by the Reverend Rick Scarborough, such as the straightforward In Defense of Mixing Church and State and the more pungently titled Liberalism Kills Kids. That particular tome offered wisdom packaged in chapters like “God’s Patience Must Not Be Confused with Tolerance,” “Homosexuals Are Not Gay” (with cheery section-headers like “Normalizing Pedophilia”), “The Undeniable War Against Christianity,” and “Globalism…Death to America.”

For a convention that has come under fire for its For-Profit status, plenty of Tea Party entrepreneurs were present. There are folks selling $80 dollar silver tea-bag pendants (enclosed in boxes that romantically read “when in the course of human events”) and $12 bags of Freedom Coffee. There are t-shirts with semi-clever slogans like “You Keep the Change, I’ll Keep My Guns and Religion” and decks of cards adorned with cartoons of the Obama administration. The president’s card—an Ace, incidentally—reads “No One’s Pulling the Plug on Grandma…Yet.” Beneath Hillary Clinton’s wrinkled visage it reads: “It was MY turn and I lost…now the world must pay!” South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is evidently the only Republican included in the deck, a RINO dig laced with not so subtle innuendo: “I’m not an angry white guy—I’m a liberal trapped in a conservative party.”

At a press conference staged in the same hall, the National Tea Party Convention organizers announced their next incarnation—as a Memphis-based corporation titled “Ensuring Liberty” and a complementary political PAC that would be targeting Democrats in races throughout the mid-south in 2010. They concurrently announced a list of “first principles” that will guide their candidate endorsements: fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less government, state’s rights and national security. Tea Party Convention spokesman Mark Skoda made it clear that he envisions the Tea Party movement as a means of moving the GOP to the right, saying bluntly, “We absolutely do not support a third party.”

The organizers seemed quite taken by the walls of cameras facing them in Opryland, listing with pride the international journalists present, from a half dozen countries, including a large amount of interest expressed from German journalists. I turned to the nearest man wearing angular eyeglasses and asked if he might be from Deutschland. Jackpot. Why did he think there was such interest in Germany about the Tea Party convention? “A right wing movement is always interesting,” he said, and then laughed darkly.

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.