Members of various tea party groups took over two floors of the Springmaid Beach Resort hotel in Myrtle Beach, a South Carolina tourist trap in the offseason, for a weekend dedicated to recharging a movement that's sputtering nationwide.
“We need God to get through this,” the event's organizer, a jowled Tea Party Patriots coordinator named Joe Dugan, told a crowd of several hundred. Homemade signs leaned against the chair legs of an audience that was mostly elderly and almost 100 percent white. “What will get America out of its dilemma is resurrect McCarthy’s hearings,” read one of the signs.
In opening remarks, Dugan said speakers would take the gloves off, and he promised to “take political correctness and put it in a ditch and bury it.”
That was evident downstairs as an older man in sunglasses perused vendor tables wearing an air-brushed anti-Obamacare t-shirt with an image that depicted the president as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose. (When a blogger snapped a photo and interviewed the man, organizers took umbrage at the publicity.)
The tea party convention came at a time when polls show a hemorrhaging of support for the modern backlash movement. It also comes amid a civil war at FreedomWorks – a sponsor of the convention – and after the GOP's conservative conference smashed to splinters on the rocks of reality during negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff.
But Jim DeMint told the crowd in a video address in a hotel convention room that his was not a time to despair but “a time to get to work.”
DeMint was the most right-wing member of the U.S Senate until he abruptly resigned earlier this month to run the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Themes at the 2013 tea party convention centered on the same dark prophecies fringe conservatives pushed in the run-up to Obama's re-election: warnings about encroaching Sharia Law, , the United Nations, and Obama’s health care reform act.
Betty Blanton, a small grey-haired woman in glasses, walked up to see what such a young man was doing at a tea party convention – and if he'd learning anything from it. She worried that young people aren't as alarmed as they should be about Sharia Law and said to remember this conversation in 20 years when Islam has infiltrated much of American life. She worried about how many mosques have been built after Obama's election. Because mosques, she says, “are where the terrorists start.”
If the tea party has learned anything, perhaps it's about the movement's relationship with the media. Fringe extremism makes for bad headlines and fuels narratives unproductive to the movement's goals.
When conservative author Ron McNeil hit a fever pitch during his speech and started calling for a revolt -- he mentioned secession, and perhaps turning over Fort Sumter to a patriot militia -- organizer Dugan cut him off, taking the mic and assuring the crowd such talk was out of bounds.
Referring to the Democratic administration as tyrannical, calling progressive ideology “insane,” as one speaker did, and maligning the news media.
Dugan complained that the tea party didn’t “have the money to get our message out when the whole press is working as part of the Obama Administration.
One issue tea party groups are pushing in 2013 that hasn't been on their front burner in recent years are Second Amendment rights in the wake of progressive responses to mass shootings. In a convention speech, conservative columnist John Fund called gun issues the third-rail of American politics, and welcomed Democrats to touch it.
DeMint’s replacement in the U.S. Senate also threw down the gauntlet.
“Anyone who believes an executive order somehow someway is available to tackle the Second Amendment,” said Tim Scott, “you’ve got a fight coming.”