Published April 11, 2010
PETOSKEY, Mich. -- The Tea Party Express has toured state after state trying to kick up a debate about constitutional rights and cast doubt on the legality of the recently passed health care overhaul, all with an eye toward the 2010 elections.
But while organizers have held the tour as a way to stay front-and-center as a political force, the rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called "fringe" and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder.
"Obama, to me, is a socialist. He's a Muslim and all he wants to do is bankrupt us and run us into the ground," Ken Schwalbach of Escanaba, Mich., said at a rally on Friday.
Though Obama is a Christian -- and his Christian faith was a focal point of debate during the campaign-era controversy over his former pastor Jeremiah Wright -- the allegations that the president is a secret Muslim persist years later.
The charge of socialism has been a common theme at Tea Party gatherings -- but some activists have gone beyond merely portraying Obama as a European-style, big-government liberal.
Some suggest Obama wants to keep Americans unemployed so that they become dependent on government-run programs. Lenin and Stalin have become catchwords to describe Obama in the speeches denouncing his policies.
Going further, swastikas, as well as pictures of Obama's face next to Adolf Hitler's, have appeared on signs at dozens of rallies blasting the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Other Tea Party members continue to question the president's citizenship -- a sign reading "Show Us Your Birth Certificate" popped up at a recent rally in Traverse City, Mich.
"What's more disturbing is that he's not answering them," Tea Party member and conservative blogger Andrea Shay King said of the questions over Obama's birthplace.
The Hawaiian government twice confirmed during the 2008 presidential election that a copy of Obama's birth certificate was authentic. Factcheck.org tracked down the birth certificate and posted copies of it online.
Questionable characterizations of the massive health care legislation have also resurfaced at Tea Party gatherings.
Ron Moore of Petoskey, Mich., said he stood firm in his belief that the Democrats' goal was to implement "death panels" to decide who receives medical care and who does not.
"They've already started," he said.
But Tea Party organizers -- both nationally and locally -- say the misinformed beliefs of some do not represent the views of all.
"Any movement is going to have fringe elements," said Joan Fabiano, an organizer with Grassroots in Michigan, a Tea Party group based in Lansing, Mich.
"If there's any sort of hateful and racist signs, that is something the Tea Party in general would disavow," she said.
Similar depictions were used to portray former President George W. Bush at anti-war protests-with signs evoking Hitler, the antichrist and other disturbing comparisons.
Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said the imagery and rhetoric seen at the Tea Party rallies "pales in comparison" to the protests during the Bush presidency.
Of some of the debunked theories, like questions over Obama's citizenship, Williams said, "I don't think it's mainstream Tea Party thought."
"It's an interesting constitutional exercise to wonder about and talk about it," he said. "But it's a dead end in terms of getting anything accomplished."
Some of the Tea Party rhetoric is closely aligned with that of other conservative groups. The central arguments about health care trumpeted by Tea Partiers are also trumpeted by Republican lawmakers across the country. For instance, Tea Partiers have used the health care overhaul as an example of what they believe is a violation of the U.S. Constitution -- an argument also shared by 19 states that have filed lawsuits over the legislation.
"You can't make people buy a product or fine them," Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said in an interview with FoxNews.com. "Article 1 of the Constitution has never been twisted, bent or distorted in such a way ever before."
Cox, a Republican who is also running for governor of Michigan, struck a more tempered stance in comparing the newly passed health care law with socialism.
"It's not on the model of Western Europe socialism, but it's clearly unconstitutional," Cox said of the law, adding that he believes it amounts to "incremental steps towards that."
"I fear this is a slippery slope towards a universal single-payer system that has proved so inadequate in other countries," he said.