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Unsweet Tea: Exploring the Ideas of the Antigovernment Movement

Exploring the ideas of the key activists of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, men and women who are leading an angry resurgence of the American radical right

Martial law is around the corner. The federal government is storing 30,000 guillotines to use on dissident Americans. High officials plotted the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, too. Secret concentration camps have been set up on military bases around the country. The Federal Reserve is part of a plot to strip us of our riches.

These are some of the ideas of the key activists of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, men and women who are leading an angry resurgence of the American radical right. In this issue, we profile 35 of these leaders, along with five politicians and pundits who are helping to mainstream their theories.

To most of us, the conspiracy theories and demonizing propaganda of these groups mark them as the fringe of the fringe, people who are seriously out of touch with reality. Although so-called Patriots were responsible for a great deal of criminal violence during the first wave of their movement in the 1990s, and despite the fact that their numbers have grown astronomically in the last year or so, it is tempting to dismiss them as people who couldn't possibly affect the course of our country.

That's less easy to say about the Tea Parties, a complex social movement with its own share of conspiracy theories.

Polled by CBS and The New York Times this spring, some 18% of Americans described themselves as supporters of the Tea Parties. Sounding in many ways like the furious, government-hating Patriots, they described their top issues as opposition to the health care reform bill, a belief that the government does not represent real Americans, high levels of government spending and the economy. Like the Patriots, too, they were far more likely than most to call themselves "angry."

It seems clear that the Patriot resurgence has been fueled, in part, by demographic changes in this country — specifically, the predicted 2050 loss of a white majority, a change that was brought home to many by the election of a black president. Now, there is new evidence that race is playing a part in the Tea Party movement as well, even as it begins to claim some real political power.

Just 1% of Tea Party supporters are black, the recent poll found, compared to more than 12% of the general population. Nine out of 10 disapproved of President Obama's job performance. Asked why they didn't like the president, 19% said they just don't like him, 11% suggested he is moving the country toward "socialism," and 9% said he is dishonest. Fifty-two percent thought too much has been made of black people's problems, about twice the proportion of all Americans.

A subsequent poll by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality found that white supporters of the Tea Partiers were 25% more "racially resentful" than those who were not supporters. White backers of the Tea Parties were less likely to believe that African Americans are intelligent, hardworking or trustworthy, and their perceptions of Latinos were similar.

In Ohio, scheduled speakers at a Tea Party rally organized by leader Brian "Sonny" Thomas fled after he suggested in a tweet that he wanted to shoot Latino immigrants — or, as he wrote, "spicks." Thomas' Tea Party site linked to, and CNN found a photo of him wearing a "White Pride" T-shirt.

As E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post wrote about the Tea Party poll: "Part of the anger at President Obama does appear to be driven by racial concerns."

None of this is to say that the Tea Parties are anything close to the American Third Position, a new hate group profiled in this issue. A3P, as it is known, is an explicitly white supremacist group, one that goes far beyond merely expressing angst about many of the changes occurring in this country to actually advocate deporting any citizen with an "ascertainable trace of Negro blood."

But many in the Tea Party movement have adopted Patriot theories about the Federal Reserve, concentration camps, the "New World Order" and more. Patriot leaders regularly address Tea Party crowds. Even as the Tea Parties appear to win more respect in the political world — many were claiming credit for the Kentucky primary victory of Rand Paul as this issue went to press — it seems increasingly possible that they will begin to look more and more like Patriots.

And that should worry us all.