Skip to main content

The South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention at the Springmaid Beach Resort in Myrtle Beach on January 17-19 warred on the constitution and resurrected the patently false notions that President Obama is not a natural-born American. This event also displayed an abundant supply of Christian nationalism, racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and Islamophobia. It also drew more than its fair share of Republican politicians.  This event was much more than a gateway to the 2016 presidential primaries, however, instead, it served as a preview of Tea Party activism of the future—warts and all.

This was not a smooth or polished Koch brothers-inspired affair with free markets and oil money at its core.  Instead this was a rough and tumble grass roots affair, with more than 600 activists in attendance. When politicians took the stage the crowd swelled to 1,000.  Tea Partiers packed the halls, mingled and networked, got training and ideas, and reveled in victories and bemoaned defeats. Attendees milled past vendors and Tea Party booths.  One attacked the Common Core curriculum standards and featured the image of a rotten apple. Tea Party Patriots set up a “Pursue Your American Dream” booth where they interviewed speakers.  The event was sold-out, but was streamed live over the Internet for those who couldn’t attend (paid for by Tea Party Patriots).

The primary underwriter of this gathering was Tea Party Patriots, headquartered in Georgia.  FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based Tea Party outfit was a lower-level sponsor.  Tea Party Leadership Fund, which grew out of the group that organized the large guns rallies in 2013, was a sponsor.  And the Koch brothers funded Americans for Prosperity provided some financial support.  Nevertheless, this event was the largely a Tea Party Patriots show.

It should be noted that the conference’s organizers did, in their own minds, strive to dampen down negative press.   On December 17, IREHR had first reported that a national board member of the white nationalist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, Roan Garcia-Quintana, was scheduled to speak at this affair. After IREHR’s report was picked up by local papers and The Raw Story website, Garcia-Quintana’s photo and bio were quietly scrubbed from the website.

Then on January 14, IREHR detailed the bigotry of another speaker who works for an organization led by white nationalists. In less than a day, the speaker was removed from the convention website.  The action was short-lived, however, lasting only 19 hours. And when IREHR sounded the alarm about a speaker who teaches a book that refers to black children as “pickaninnies” and that slavery was “humane,” the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition refused to budge for even a minute.

So the convention leadership knew that they had several bigotry-laden time-bombs in their midst, but they proceeded apace anyway.

The South Carolina Tea Party Coalition

Indeed, the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition talks “our struggle to retain our heritage and very way of life,” in a defiant tone reminiscent of Southern segregationists of the Jim Crow era and white nationalists of the current period.

The website it created for this convention even contains feature-length videos by notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.  Jones, a Texas talk-show host, indulges in racist anti-immigrant rhetoric, promotes anti-Semitic con artists, defends Holocaust deniers, and attacks civil rights leaders.  For its part, the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition website contends that Jones’ video “reveals the architecture of the New World Order” and even describes President Obama as a “Trojan Horse manufactured to pacify the people just long enough for the globalists to complete their master plan.”

Further, on the opening day of the convention, Jim Dugan, the event’s organizer and head of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, declared that “political correctness is not allowed on the grounds” and “we don’t want a multicultural society.”  Dugan’s Myrtle Beach Tea Party also boldly displays images of Tea Party racism many in the movement have vehemently denied. The group’s “Who We Are” webpage features a rally commemoration video containing Confederate Battle Flags and racist birther placards amidst a sea of yellow Gadsden flags.

Inside the Convention

Dugan ran the program, except for when Bill Norton acted as the unofficial master of ceremonies.  Norton is the National Support Team Constitutional Coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. He also serves as a “Master Instructor” for the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS).  NCCS was founded by W. Cleon Skousen, a long-time John Birch Society supporter, and the organization foundered on the fringes of the far-right for decades.  The Tea Party movement has given it new life and a new-found respectability.

The book Norton uses for NCCS instruction is Skousen’s The Making of America, refers to African-American children as “pickaninnies,” claims that the treatment of slaves was “humane,” argues that Abolitionists were the real problem, and contends that “the economic system of slavery chained the slave owners almost as much as the slaves.”  Norton wasn’t the only speaker promoting Skousen’s work at the convention. Rev. Randy Riddle did an entire workshop on Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap on the first day of the convention.

During his speaking slot, Norton rehashed a speech he’s given to countless Tea Party gatherings over the past year. His talk, “The Language of Liberty” is a focus-grouped, PR-tested, re-branding of the Tea Party Patriots. Now, rather than talking about the Tea Party, they refer to “the Liberty movement.” Their tagline of “fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets,” has been replaced by “personal freedom, economic freedom, and a debt free future.”  Noticeably absent from the new motto is any mention of the Constitution.

In fact, Tea Party Patriots spent much of the last year organizing to gut parts of the U.S. Constitution. This South Carolina convention featured a pair of speakers who called for an Article V Constitutional convention. One speaker, Lou Marin, runs a group that calls for repeal of the 17th Amendment.

Return of the Birthers

All the re-branding in the world won’t help the Tea Party dispel concern about racism in the movement if they keep providing a platform to birthers and other bigots like they did in South Carolina.

The convention crowd roared to their feet for real estate magnate, television personality, and birther racist Donald Trump. His efforts to mainstream racist birther conspiracies in 2012 made him popular in Tea Party circles. Not only did Trump spend years pushing the Obama birth certificate conspiracy, he financially backed the “birther posse” of racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He’s also implied that president Obama was a secret Muslim, that Obama was a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Trump praised the Tea Party, “You’re great people,” he said.  Then he made another coded appeal to racism, referring to president Obama’s “other agenda.”

Trump’s talk bounced back and forth between far-right bullet points and raging narcissism. He plowed through ObamaCare, Benghazi, the IRS, and immigration in under a minute. “Why aren’t we keeping people who add something rather than people who flow across the border,” he declared.  Then he claimed he would build the biggest wall on the border. In another minute, Trump moved through terrorism, Common Core, and the 2nd Amendment.

Trump wasn’t the only birther on-stage in Myrtle Beach. Rafael Cruz, the father of Senator Ted Cruz, gave the Sunday morning invocation. Rafael Cruz is well-known for both his birther racism and his Christian nationalism. He’s snarled that Obama should “go back to Kenya,” and argued that “the average black” doesn’t realize that having a minimum wage law was bad. Cruz preached of “restoration” and the “fight for America,” while referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as “divinely inspired documents.” Rafael Cruz has also repeatedly preached a bigoted brand of Christian nationalism, calling the United States a “Christian nation;” and he was not talking about the demographic majority of the country.

Christian Nationalism

Rafael Cruz wasn’t the only hardcore Christian nationalist to grace the convention stage. One of the most glaring names on the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention was Jake MacAulay, the fast-talking Chief Operating Officer of the Institute on the Constitution (IOTC).

Despite the prosaic name, the IOTC is a theocratic, Christian nationalist outfit.  Two of the three IOTC founders were members of the League of the South, a white nationalist secessionist group.

And among the many toxic positions taken by the IOTC is the the belief that discrimination based on race is okay.

MacAulay told the audience how he was a “counterculture kid” but that he met Jesus in rehab. He forgot to mention to the crowd his post-rehab time leading an anti-LGBT hate group. MacAulay was at the core of the Annandale, Minnesota-based hard rock homophobic ministry, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide International. The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the organization as an anti-gay hate group in 2012.

Much of his time onstage at the convention was then used to show a video of video of his wife and kids promoting the IOTC training courses they sell. MacAulay has written that the United States should be a theocracy, and he told the crowd in South Carolina that the separation of church and state a lie. He briefly laid out his theocratic view of the Constitution.  Then he talked about the IOTC’s “American Clubs” the organization is trying to set up in high schools around the country to promote its theocratic position.


The recent attacks in France and the advances made by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have no doubt animated anti-Muslim sentiment. The problem of Islamophobia, however, has rippled through the Tea Party from the beginning.  And it was front-and-center at the annual South Carolina event. While several different speakers, including Frank Gaffney and Col. Bill Cowan, appealed to anti-Muslim sentiment at this year’s event, peak Islamophobia was reached on late Sunday afternoon.

David Bores, a former Woodstock, Georgia, Chief of Police (the hometown headquarters of Tea Party Patriots), took the stage and claimed that, “Seriously, Sharia law represents a very serious threat to our way of life, to our culture, and to our Constitution.” Further, “I submit to you that the problem is far worse than you just being kept in the dark. There is a purposeful effort to deceive us, to prevent us from knowing the truth of the threat that we face by Islam,” he added.

Then Bores declared that the “racial unrest” in Ferguson, Missouri was caused by ISIS.  “Just take a look at what happened in Ferguson. We know the problems that existed there this summer, the racial unrest. But what was stoking some of that racial unrest? Well, ISIS was there. Did you know that? Did you know that there were ISIS sympathizers there? Did you know that there were other Islamic groups there, helping to stir the pot,” Bores stated. He came to this conclusion by conflating all American Muslims with ISIS. His evidence: a list of 45 faith-based groups active Ferguson that included seven Islamic organizations.

Bores made no effort to differentiate between violent Islamist militants and all Muslims. Quite the opposite: He went so far as to attack all of Islam as inherently violent.  Citing Islamophobic sources like Pamela Geller and ACT for America, Bores also created a convoluted story about “subversion,” “stealth jihad” and “creeping sharia.” Dipping deep into his bag of tricks, he even tried to claim that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, was a stealth agent of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Bores attacked multiculturalism and warned of “the Islamization of our culture.” “Watch out, they’re going to change our religion. The blending of Islam and Christianity … is a movement designed under dialogue,” he said.  And Bores told the crowd to “resist local concessions to Islamic practices.”  Leaving no doubt of the incendiary nature of his talk, Bores added, “a speech like I have been giving today is considered hate speech.”

The Tea Party Claims and Attacks MLK

With his leather vest and big black cowboy hat, retired law enforcement officer “Wild Bill for America” Finley has made a career out of promoting racism and Islamophobia to Tea Party groups. A YouTube sensation, Finely’s videos include numerous anti-Muslim monologues, not to mention posts where he refers to Ferguson protesters as “thugs” and expresses fantasizes of “race war.”  Finley told this South Carolina crowd how he “wants to make liberals scream” and how Tea Partiers need to be “special forces” that are “hitting back” with “unconventional strategies” against “enemies of freedom.” He called for “stomping all over the politically correct nonsense” and doing it “as publicly as possible.”

Then, Finley claimed ownership of the legacy of the martyred civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.   “How appropriate that we are here right at the Martin Luther King holiday,” he began. “Martin Luther King had a dream, and it was a good one — a day when skin color wouldn’t matter anymore. A time when character would be more important than skin color.”

“But when we look at what’s going on in America today, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. King’s dream got hijacked,” Finley added. “I believe racism in this country would’ve died out a long time ago, except that some people figured out that racism can be very profitable — both financially and politically.”

“And now, those who are most vocal about Martin Luther King being their hero seem to be the most race-driven people in America. The left have mastered the art of turning every issue into a skin-color issue, character be damned,” he said.

“Manufacturing racism for political purposes is a big business in the USA, and manufactured racism has been used to hurt the Tea Party from Day 1. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today the liberal left would spit in his face because he would be such a threat to their political agendas.”

“We are the people,” Finley said, “who practice Dr. King’s dream. It is the Tea Party where people are not judged by the color of their skin, and it’s Tea Party Americans who believe that character still counts.”

“So today, I am officially announcing that the Tea Party is taking Martin Luther King away from the liberal left,” Finley said. “And to you race-baiting promoters of division and hatred, you’re not getting him back until you renounce your shameful skin-color politics and start practicing the politics of character.”

Several other far-right speakers at the convention tried to co-opt the legacy of Rev. King’s family. Rob Maness, who lost a 2014 race for the U.S. Senate while receiving backing from the Tea Party, spent much of his talk attacking immigrants. In his anti-immigrant remarks, Maness shamefully regurgitated the nativist lie that Coretta Scott King was against “illegals.” Maness also boasted of his recently formed Tea Party political action committee, GATOR PAC.

Lauren Cooley had been an undergraduate at Furman Univesity in Greenville.  There she had earned a reputation as a racist by attacking the campus appearance of one of MLK’s aides, Jesse Jackson. Now of Turning Point USA, a group created to a Tea Party agenda on college campuses, Cooley used her talk to rejoice her campaign against the Civil Rights leader, calling Jesse Jackson a “race baiter.” She also bragged about having brought racist columnist Anne Coulter to Furman, and of her campaign to bring a “creation scientist” to that university. Though she didn’t mention it in her talk, Cooley also brought Larry Pratt, the far-right militia and death squad proponent who leads Gun Owners of America, to campus.

Black Speakers and Language of White Supremacy

There were four African-American speakers among the nearly forty people who took the stage at the convention: Deneen Borelli, Kevin Jackson, Katrina Pierson, and Ben Carson. Deneen Borelli, director of outreach for FreedomWorks, turned to well-worn attacks on civil rights leaders and organizations. As she’s done many times before, Borelli spent much of her speech attacking the NAACP and Rev. Al Sharpton as her way of establishing her “challenging the black liberal establishment” bona fides. Borelli is also the author of Blacklash: How Obama and the Left are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation. Borelli bragged about FreedomWorks challenge to Speaker Boehner’s leadership. She called it a win. She concluded her talk by shilling for the oil and gas industry.

Katrina Pierson, a failed Texas Congressional candidate who now works for the Tea Party Leadership Fund, was limited to her introduction of Senator Ted Cruz, who is discussed later.

Conservative radio host Kevin Jackson, like Borelli and Pierson, attacked civil rights leaders.  In his talk, Jackson defended Voter ID, attacked undocumented immigrants, and defended the shooting of Michael Brown (who he called “thug”). In person, on the radio, and through his books, Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, and The BIG Black Lie: How I Learned The Truth About The Democrat Party, Jackson serves as an apologist for Tea Party racism, a paid operative to attack Civil Rights groups and spin false equivalencies. Jackson ended his convention speech calling the Congressional Black Caucus “Race pimps” and peddling his book of same name.

Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon turned potential presidential candidate, took the stage to a raucous, cheering crowd. The crowd was strikingly white, in a state where nearly twenty-eight percent of residents are African American.  But this older demographic seemed to love Carson.  Some waved “Draft Ben Carson” placards.  Echoing a convention theme, Carson took the stage and told the crowd, “I’m not politically correct. Nor do I intend to become politically correct.”  In the past, Carson has referred to Obamacare as the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” and argued that progressives are turning America into “Nazi Germany.” Carson concluded his convention talk by dividing the country into “Pro-American vs Anti-American” Americans, and received a standing ovation.

Politicians Join in the Swamp

Into this swamp of discredited Birtherism, anti-civil rights propaganda, and Islamophobic scare-mongering, dropped a bevy of other political figures seeking to curry favor. Though none have yet declared their candidacy, there was buzz about possible presidential runs by several speakers, including Senator Ted Cruz, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Dennis Michael Lynch.  Tea Party politicians who took the convention stage were Congressmen Jeff Duncan (SC-3), Mick Mulvaney (SC-5), Tom Rice (SC-7), Jim Bridenstine (OK-1), and Louie Gohmert (TX-1).

Outside of a rare moment of candor when Rep. Mulvaney had to explicate why he bucked the Tea Party insurrection and voted to retain John Boehner as Speaker of the House, these figures generally delivered bland stump speeches. They were there to lend their credibility to the event, put butts in the seats, and energize battle-weary troops.


This Tea Party convention provides IREHR with a new look at the Tea Party movement.  Educated and socialized within their ranks to a deliberately bigoted set of ideas, Tea Party activists are also interested in a range of political figures—and not all of them come from the accepted Republican Party leadership ranks.  The focus on the U.S. Constitution is mediated by the desire to amend it and throw out some “small d” democratic measures—such as the direct election of U.S. Senators.  More, the current focus on Islamophobic topics is just a foreign policy outlook, but instead a stand in for a broader anti-immigrant appeal.

This Tea Party movement is not yet disappearing completely into the Republican Party, but remains a semi-autonomous movement that must be reckoned with.  And the results of this just past gathering will be felt for some time to come.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

More posts by Devin Burghart