Stars and Strife
Mother Jones|May/June 2021
How two feuding tea party leaders helped lay the groundwork for the insurrection
By Stephanie Mencimer

“Hello, deplorables!”

That’s how Amy Kremer greeted the thousands of Trump supporters she had helped gather at the Ellipse in Washington, DC, on January 6 to “stop the steal.” Resplendent onstage in a bold leopard-print shawl, with the White House rising up behind her, the former flight attendant had come a long way since she and another Georgia woman, Jenny Beth Martin, became known as the “founding mothers” of the tea party movement back in 2009.

During the heyday of the grassroots conservative movement that had sprung up to oppose President Barack Obama, Kremer had headlined cross-country bus tours stumping for candidates like Christine (“I’m not a witch”) O’Donnell and fighting against the Affordable Care Act. The tea party had helped elect hardcore conservatives who blew up immigration reform and took down former Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for insufficient conservatism.

But six months into the life of the movement, the two women split up, and this was before a bitter legal dispute—over tactics and money and salacious rumors—that lasted for years. As the Republican Party absorbed and institutionalized their movement, Martin successfully embedded in the Washington GOP establishment while Kremer kept trying to recapture the outsider energy of those early glory days.

Her efforts culminated in a 27-city March for Trump bus tour kicked off in late November and backed by thousands of dollars in donations from maga diehards like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. “We’ve got to take to the streets and demand election integrity,” the tour website exclaimed. “If they can steal this election from President Trump, we’ll never get our freedom back.” Like the pied piper, Kremer schlepped from Florida to California, luring supporters to DC for the Save America rally on the early January day that Congress was set to certify the election. And come they did.

“You know, this president hasn’t asked for much from us,” Kremer told the cheering Trump supporters that day. “He’s asked us for our vote, and he asked us to show up today. And I don’t think he’s gonna be disappointed!” As one of the defeated president’s most loyal cheerleaders, she landed on the same stage as him. (Martin, while present at the rally, was in the audience.) But Kremer’s moment of defiance presaged something more ominous, as thousands of rally attendees, some carrying Confederate flags or dressed in tactical gear, marched to the Capitol and set off a riot that left five people dead and the country reeling.

In the decade since it began, the tea party movement has united several disparate strains of right-wing extremists— Islamophobes, nativists, paramilitaries, Christian and white nationalists—under a single banner. The movement triggered by the election of the fIrst Black president “blew down all the barriers” once separating these groups, says Devin Burghart, the executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, who has studied the tea party since its inception. It “created a mass movement for this far-right activity that has been successful at moving ideas about white victimhood and white dispossession into the mainstream of American politics.”

Though they took different paths to January 6, together Kremer and Martin’s story reveals the larger tale of how the tea party surged, faded, and then mutated into a diehard pro-Trump operation instrumental in the radicalization of the Republican Party.

“I come from the tea party movement, and I’m asked all the time: What happened to the tea party?” Kremer told the crowd at the Ellipse. “Well, we’re still here. We just grew and morphed into something bigger and better—the maga movement. And I am convinced that were it not for the tea party movement, we would not have the President Donald J. Trump today.”

The seeds of the Capitol insurrection were planted on February 19, 2009, when, less than a month after Obama’s inauguration, Jenny Beth Martin happened to hear CNBC contributor Rick Santelli on her car radio. He was ranting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange about the administration’s plan to bail out homeowners at risk of foreclosure—or, as he called them, “losers.” “This is America!” he shouted. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgages [when they have] an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”

Martin was primed for this message. A graduate of the University of Georgia and the daughter of a Methodist minister, she’d been involved in Republican politics for years, volunteering for Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and later working as a GOP consultant. For about eight years, her husband, Lee, had owned a company that supplied temporary workers to local businesses. The company went belly up in 2007, court records show, and the Martins filed for bankruptcy. In 2009, they were more than $1.4 million in debt. Lee owed the IRS $1 million and more than $172,000 to Georgia’s tax authorities. The Martins eventually lost their home and their twin Lincoln Navigators.

Their own economic calamity did not make the Martins more sympathetic to the victims of the Great Recession. “The contrast hit me hard,” Martin wrote in the 2012 book she co-authored with Mark Meckler (now the interim ceo of Parler), Tea Party Patriots: The Second American Revolution. “While my husband and I cleaned our neighbors’ bathrooms to pay our bills, our taxes were being spent by our government to pay for the mortgages of people who could not, or would not, pay their bills.”

So when Santelli announced, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July!” Martin decided to join a couple of dozen like-minded people on a conference call the next day. A little more than a week later, Martin had organized the fIRSt Atlanta tea party, where 500 people showed up to protest in the rain. Across the country, more than three dozen tea party events drew more than 30,000 people.

On that conference call, Martin met Kremer, a suburban Atlanta mom with a “Nobama ’08” magnet on her car. The daughter of a union pipefitter, Kremer had attended Auburn University, got pregnant at 19, and divorced four years later. Before making a career out of the tea party, she worked in real estate and as a Delta flight attendant.

By the time the two women met, Kremer’s daughter, Kylie, had gone off to college, and Kremer “had this empty space in my life,” she later told the Wall Street Journal. A huge Sarah Palin fan, she had started a political blog, Southern Belle Politics, where she wrote extensively about her hatred of Obama and his “big government and socialist programs.” She was an early proponent of the birther conspiracy theory and described the future president as a “master scam artist.”

“I truly do not think Barack Obama is eligible to be President of this great country,” she wrote in an October 2008 post. “If he is eligible and really doesn’t have anything to hide, then why not just produce the vault copy of his birth certificate and put the issue to rest?”

After Obama won, Kremer blogged about her hopes that members of Congress or Vice President Dick Cheney would refuse to certify the Electoral College vote. “Unfortunately,” she wrote, “none of them have any balls!”

The tea party movement focused on Kremer’s anger. An early adopter of social media, she recognized the potential of harnessing the hundreds of disparate tea party groups under a single organization, which she dubbed Tea Party Patriots (TPP). She created a website and social network accounts to connect tea parties across the country. In June 2009, Kremer, Martin, and Meckler officially incorporated Tea Party Patriots as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, a designation that allowed the group to raise and spend money on politics without disclosing its donors. They adopted the slogan “100% Grassroots, 100% of the Time.” Their mission statement: “Fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free-market economic policies.”

Tea Party Patriots vaulted Martin and Kremer into the national spotlight. Time named Martin one of its 100 most influential people for turning a fledgling organization into a powerhouse that claimed 15 million members and 1,800 local chapters. “A mother of young twins, she blogs about clipping coupons, her household menu plans and her family’s battle with bankruptcy, which had Martin cleaning houses to make ends meet when the Tea Party began brewing,” the magazine gushed in 2010.

In 2012, Tea Party Patriots, Inc. took in $20 million, and Martin’s salary from the nonprofit had jumped from almost nothing to nearly $300,000. Under her direction, it evolved into an interconnected network of nonprofits including the original 501(c) (4), and the Tea Party Patriots Foundation, a traditional 501(c)(3) charity. Despite early promises never to get involved in elections, in 2012 it also formed a super-PAC, a political action committee allowed to accept unlimited corporate contributions and spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

Tea Party Patriots intended to use its super- PAC to push the party to the right by challenging establishment Republicans, including Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). After raising $14 million for the 2014 midterm elections, much of it from small donors, it spent all but 10 percent on administration and fundraising. Martin, as the super-PAC’s chair, was paid $15,000 a month for “strategy consulting.” There’s nothing illegal about super-PAC spending most of its money on nonpolitical expenditures—conservative politics is riddled with such groups. Nonetheless, a lot of tea party activists weren’t happy about Martin’s dive into the Washington swamp.

“She was in debt...and then all of a sudden figured out how to make a big fat salary,” Aaron Park, a GOP consultant, and self-described “right-wing wacko,” told me. Park had encountered Martin during the early days of the tea party movement in California and had blogged critically of her use of grassroots donations. “I have to tip my cap to her. She found the right niche at the right place, at the right time, and she was able to do very well for herself.”

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