Have you wondered how the Tea Party, portrayed as a "grassroots" movement, could possibly raise enough money in one year to procure a professionally-painted, luxury motor coach and send it on two highly-publicized national tours? Or how the Tea Party so quickly developed the expertise to plan, organize and execute the tours, and consistently draw major media attention to them? The answer is that the Tea Party Express is not a "grassroots" effort. The Web site Politico.com obtained and posted a proposal (pdf) showing that long-time Republican party operatives are, in fact, directing the "Tea Party Express" portion of the movement. The "group" and its activities are the result of efforts by a Republican-affiliated political consulting and public relations firm, Russo Marsh & Rogers, based in Sacramento, California. PR executive Sal Russo of Russo, Marsh & Rogers is also the chief strategist for the Our Country Deserves Better, political action committee (PAC) formed in 2008 to oppose then-candidate Barack Obama.
A Visible "Brand"
The "Tea Party Express" is one of the more visible "brands" of the overall tea party movement. It is the faction that organized the highly publicized desert rally in Searchlight, Nevada last March to oppose Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), an event that cost around $1 million to pull off -- a pretty big chunk of change for a real "grassroots" gathering. Since forming in 2008, the Our Country Deserves Better PAC has taken in more than $4.5 million in donations, including major contributions from corporate executives and other wealthy supporters of conservative candidates, like the actor Chuck Norris. The PAC does not have to disclose who its big-name funders are.
"Tea Party Express" PR Proposal
The PR proposal obtained by Politico was written by Joe Wierzbicki, a principal at Russo Marsh & Rogers. In it, Wierzbicki suggests essentially taking over the Tea Party movement by rushing in with campaign-style event planning and advance work. He suggests obtaining a "proper luxury coach wrapped in 'tea party'-themed graphical design," and sending it out to "cross the nation, stopping in cities to conduct 'tea parties.'" Wierzbicki suggests inviting local Tea Party leaders, talk radio hosts and fiscally-conservative political candidates to speak at each stop. Wierzbicki says a major fundraising effort would be needed "to do this 'right' (have an awesome looking tour bus, getting the word out, having slick/persuasive/compelling advertising, paying for permits/insurance hotels, food, etc...)" He suggests that, to raise the money, the bus tour rallies focus not on asking for funds to support the tour, but on the "'Defeat Harry Reid' or 'Defeat Chris Dodd' or 'Defeat Arlen Specter' political components to this effort." In other words, Wierzbicki suggests exploiting the real Tea Partiers' emotions to raise money, and take the focus off the PR project itself. He also suggests renting email lists from conservative news outlets like Newsmax, Human Events, WorldNetDaily, etc. to begin direct fundraising -- again, not a cheap endeavor. All of Wierzbicki's ideas are professional-style campaign moves proposed by a GOP-affiliated, political PR firm. In fact, they bear a suspicious similarity to the strategy we saw in another big-funded, right-wing endeavor by Americans for Prosperity: the "Hands Off My Health Care Bus" and its tours around the nation. Clearly, none of this is the work of the kitchen-table set.
"Outsider" Sensitivity, "Buttressing Authenticity"
Wierzbicki expresses sensitivity to the issue of outsiders coming in and "working" the tea party theme. He says,
"We have to be very very careful about discussing amongst ourselves anyone we include 'outside of the family' because quite frankly, we are not only NOT part of the political establishment or conservative establishment, but we are also sadly not currently a part of the 'tea party' establishment ..."
Wierzbicki acknowledges the difference between their big PR effort and "real" grassroots activists:
"We can probably pull off a phenomenally successful tour without these big-ego establishment types, provided that we do a good job in getting the word out to local tea party leaders and grass roots conservatives who operate in their local communities independently as is..."
He discusses "buttressing our authenticity" by featuring local supporters and donors in TV ads that target Harry Reid.
True Grassroots Buried
Most everything Wierzbicki put in his proposal has come to fruition. The Tea Party Express is successfully raking in money and garnering tons of media attention while the real grassroots faction of the movement, the Tea Party Patriots, struggles to raise money and get attention. The Patriots have said they do not want to support political parties or PACs, and have accused the "Tea Party Express" of being a "sham organization" and an "astroturf" outfit. They point out that Republican strategists are co-opting a true conservative movement to raise money to support the party's agenda. The Patriots have even charged that Tea Party Express organizers dragoon real grassroots Tea Party activists into doing the grunt work for the professional campaign, like getting them to help set up stages and clean up rally sites after the bus leaves.
Even More Dubious Tea Party Factions
Other Tea Party factions are equally dubious: Tea Party Nation (the entity that organized the first official Tea Party convention last February in Nashville, Tennessee) is purely a for-profit business entity. Its official name, "Tea Party Nation Corporation," is even registered with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Division of Business Services. Its business is selling "tea party" merchandise, like bejeweled tea bag pins ($89.99 apiece), regular and decaffeinated "Freedom" coffee beans, trucker hats, coolers and other items at a Web site called Tea PartyEmporium.com. Tea Party Nation's organizer, an attorney named Judson Phillips, was even alleged to have linked a PayPal account for Tea Party Nation merchandise to his wife's bank account.
Reports indicate that the Tea Party movement benefits from millions of dollars in funding funneled to it from conservative foundations supported by mega-wealthy U.S. families and their business interests. Money to organize and implement Tea Party activities flows primarily through two conservative groups: Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. In an April 9, 2009 article posted on "ThinkProgress.org," Lee Fang reported that the principal Tea Party movement organizers are Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, two "lobbyist-run think tanks" that are "well funded" and provide the logistics and organizing for the Tea Party movement from coast to coast. "Media Matters" reported that FreedomWorks receives substantial funding from David Koch of Koch Industries, the largest privately-held energy company in the country, and the conservative Koch Family Foundations, which make substantial annual donations to conservative organizations (including FreedomWorks and other conservative think tanks advocacy groups). Media Matters reports that the Koch family has given more than $12 million to FreedomWorks and its predecessor, Citizens for a Sound Economy, between 1985 and 2002.
"Fox News Tea Parties?"
The Tea Party also gets substantial support in the form of promotion from the Fox News Channel and its talk show hosts, including Glenn Beck. Media Matters noted that "While discussing the April 15 protests on his April 6 program, Glenn Beck suggested that viewers could '[c]elebrate with Fox News' by either attending a protest or watching it on Fox News. Beck stated that in addition to himself, hosts Neil Cavuto, Greta Van Susteren, and Sean Hannity would be 'live' at different protests. While Beck spoke, on-screen text labeled those protests as 'FNC Tax Day Tea Parties.'"
The Real "Takeover" is by Corporate Interests
While tea partiers load their rifles and worry about a supposed "government takeover," their nascent movement itself has, in fact, been taken over by GOP-affiliated PACs, professional PR operatives, wealthy corporate interests seeking a "grassroots" face and by individuals seeking to profit off of citizens' honest concern about the country's political direction. Like a human hand zooming in and animating an otherwise limp hand puppet, these entities have zoomed in and co-opted the tea party movement from the inside out, and have started using it to advance their own agendas. The bright side is that this episode is instructive to people on both sides of the political spectrum about how entrenched corporate, media and political interests work together to co-opt real public sentiment, and harness it to advance their own goals. A "big government" takeover may seem like less of a threat when viewed through the prism of how all these big, professional political and corporate-level interests have seized the tea party movement and started using it for their own gain.