A Fissure in the Tea Party Movement

Tensions have finally boiled over: Mark Williams, easily the most controversial figure in the Tea Party movement, became the focal point of a significant fissure in the movement this weekend.

The National Tea Party Federation, an umbrella group formed as a kind of rapid-response network and loose, collaborative alliance of Tea Party groups, kicked Williams and the influential Tea Party Express (which Williams chairs) out of its ranks over the weekend, following a controversial blog post Williams authored about the NAACP.

Williams wrote a blog post (now removed and replaced with this post) satirizing the NAACP for using the term "Colored People" in its name--in the process suggesting, in the voice of "Colored People" in a faux letter to Abraham Lincoln, that African Americans had a great thing going with slavery--the Tea Party Federation took a stand and said Tea Party Express can't be a member demanding, as TPM notes, that...

1. Mark Williams must be officially removed from the ranks of the Tea Party Express.

2. Notice of Mark Williams' removal must be placed prominently on the official Tea Party Express website.

3. Tea Party Express must issue a press release articulating points 1 and 2 above.

Williams has lent controversy to the Tea Party movement for some time now, and it's not all that hard to find Tea Party organizers who will tell you that he is a racist and a bigot and that he's giving the movement a bad name. In fact, he's already on his way out as chairman, or so he told me: the controversy, the schedule, and his own pursuits have let him to set the wheels in motion for him to step aside from his "chairman" role (which entails speaking on stage as an emcee, some light consulting, and media appearances) into that of a lesser consultant or affiliate.

Williams is a talk radio host (though not on the air at present) based in Sacramento, and he has said many controversial things since and before the Tea Party movement began. I profiled his fraught relationship with the movement, and Tea Party Express's sudden ascent, earlier this year; see that story if you want to know some of the history.

At the same time, Tea Party Express is one of the most powerful groups to emerge from the Tea Party movement. They're the only name-brand, national "Tea Party" group that raises money on the Tea Party name and donates it to candidates. Its national bus tours account for a sizable chunk of the news coverage we've seen of Tea Party rallies, after the initial explosion of protests on Tax Day 2009. Sarah Palin has spoken at two of their rallies; it's her Tea Party group of choice.

The expulsion of Tea Party Express from the National Tea Party Federation is not a big deal, in itself. As I understand it, the federation was formed this year mostly as a rapid-response network to combat bad things people may say about the movement; it's been described to me by organizers of member groups as a loose, vaguely collaborative alliance that essentially got all the Tea Party groups together at the same table. It does not, they say, involve much planning or directional control of the movement or its groups. The handful of people I talked to about it all acknowledged concerns about top-down control and making the movement too organized, artificial, marching-order-driven, or otherwise not grassroots enough.

So it's not as if Mark Williams and Tea Party Express have been expelled from the movement writ large. TPX does not need the National Tea Party Federation to do what it does.

But what's significant about this is that the tensions surrounding Williams, which have been building steadily for some time (Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest membership organization, lost a board member because she chose to associate with Williams and TPX), have now boiled over, and the news cycle has taken note.

Some of Williams's critics in the movement, it seems, have been waiting for everyone to catch onto the stuff he says and for his comments about Muslims, for instance, to become a big deal.

Now, the National Tea Party Federation has taken a stand and leveraged the controversy over Williams' blog post about "Colored People" to make his expulsion a story about the movement purging racist elements from its ranks. An umbrella group committed to fighting smears, ironically, has decided that one of its own members was causing those smears to be true.

Sal Russo, the consultant who runs Tea Party Express, has taken a laissez-faire approach to Williams' comments before, but now there's a bigger threat that Williams can actually be a liability to the group, mostly because the National Tea Party Federation's decision has gotten so much press.

Many Tea Partiers--the same people who have insisted that Tea Partiers aren't racist and a few bad eggs, plus a critical liberal media, have led to distortion--will likely cheer the development. Others will walk a finer line: Tea Party Nation, the Tennessee-based group that held the movement's first convention in Nashville, released a statement describing Williams' blog post as one that "some people took to be racist" and insisting that the movement itself is not racist. Tea Party Express's undeniable power will have something to do with how people react.

But as fallout settles in the movement, it's fair to say this is the biggest news event having to do with the Tea Party and its relationship with racism, both real and up for interpretation, that has happened since the Tea Party came into existence.