"Ready for dinner"
Just as the homeless cannot demand plush suites at the Four Seasons, New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith — who resigned from the Republican party on July 13 — cannot expect his threadbare presidential candidacy to be snatched up by a political party of any size or wealth or consequence. Thus, his flirtation with the fringe U.S. Taxpayers Party doesn’t seem so odd. After all, where’s he gonna go?
At his resignation press conference, few people in the room knew anything about the USTP, including Smith himself. But that hasn’t stopped Smith and his staff from mulling over an alliance with the party. “We’re talking to a lot of people,” says Smith spokeswoman Karen Hickey. “Lots of people who are Taxpayer Party members are supporters of his, but as of right now he hasn’t yet decided if he’s going to attend the convention,” which will be held in St. Louis from Sept. 1-6.
Smith might want to hold off on booking that flight to St. Louis.
There are some sound political reasons for Smith to join the USTP. An extreme conservative who quit the GOP for being too liberal, he has a lot in common with the members of the USTP — which, headquartered in Vienna, Va., is headed by another fed-up former Republican official, Howard Phillips. Smith and the USTP both oppose abortion, gay rights and U.S. membership in the United Nations; they favor unrestricted gun laws, congressional term limits, and more money spent on defense.
There are a few things about the USTP, however, that Smith might not want to affiliate himself with.
Like the fact that some from their ranks have advocated killing doctors who perform abortions.
Or that one of the party’s two main goals is to “restore American Jurisprudence to its Biblical premises” — a concept that many interpret to mean codifying Biblical law into the American justice system, which could include capital punishment for adultery, sodomy or homosexuality.
The Southern Poverty Law Center — the nation’s leading organization monitoring the activities of extremist and hate groups has the USTP on its radar and considers it a conduit for the activities of a radical band of racists, anti-Semites, violent pro-lifers and other nefarious characters.
As of today, Smith isn’t discussing his pending decision. But on July 17, Smith appeared in Bloomington, Minn., at a rally for the Minnesota Taxpayers Party. He has reportedly has met with USTP affiliates from California, Nevada and Texas. On a cable talk show July 19, Phillips called the chances that Smith would join his party “very likely.”
The USTP was formed in September 1992 by Howard Phillips, a Harvard grad and onetime full-fledged member of the GOP establishment. Phillips had served as an assistant to the chairman of the RNC, chair of the Republican Party of Boston and headed the President’s Council on Youth Opportunity and the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon administration.
In an interview published in the National Review in 1996, Phillips (who didn’t return several phone calls requesting an interview for this story) described his disillusionment with the anti-poverty Office of Economic Opportunity this way: “At OEO I was confronted with evil, pure and simple … I was not there very long when I discovered that OEO was the war room for those that were trying to overturn what had once been America … I had a moral obligation to fight these things, the funding of extreme-left causes.”
In ’74, Phillips split from the GOP and formed the Conservative Caucus, a conservative grass-roots organization. Around that time, Phillips converted from Judaism to Christianity, becoming a disciple of “Christian Reconstructionism” and a man named Rousas Rushdoony.
The USTP sprang, in no small part, from Rushdoony’s somewhat extreme views on religion. In 1973, Rushdoony had published the “Institutes of Biblical Law,” an 800-page treatise that preaches that “every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion. Every law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare.”
As part of his 1987 “God and Politics” trilogy for PBS, newsman Bill Moyers interviewed Rushdoony, who argued that society was falling apart and called for a new justice system based on literal interpretations of the Bible. This, Rushdoony explained, would mean capital punishment for anyone guilty of adultery, sodomy or homosexuality. “This is what God requires,” Rushdoony said.
Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism has influenced “mainstream” political and religious figures, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as well as fringe members of the political-religious right, like Randall Terry, the founder of the militantly anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. That’s why it shouldn’t have been surprising when Falwell said last that the antichrist is alive and well and is probably a Jewish male. The fringes of the political right — and the political left, for that matter — are alive with insanity, and the closer pols get to them, the more overlap you see in their views.
Rushdoony’s political views are even more alarming. He seems to think that Africans never had it so good as after they’d been taken in shackles to America. “The private ownership of slave labor in the American South has been the subject of extensive distortion,” he wrote in “Politics of Guilt and Pity.” “The Negro moved from an especially harsh slavery, which included cannibalism, to a milder form. Much is said about the horrors of the slave ships, many of which were very bad, but it is important to remember that slaves were valuable cargo and hence property normally handled with consideration.”
He also belittles the Holocaust. “Did the Nazis actually execute many thousands, tens, or hundred thousands of Jews?” he wrote in “The Institutes of Biblical Law.” “Men to whom such murders were nothing had to blow up the figure to millions. The evils were all too real: even greater is the evil of bearing false witness concerning them.”
Phillips once toasted his mentor, saying, “Much of the energy in the home school movement, the Christian school movement, the right-to-life movement, and in the return of Christians to the political world, is directly traceable to Dr. Rushdoony’s work.”
And over Labor Day 1992, Phillips founded the USTP, based in a large part on Rushdoony’s work. To date, though, the USTP devotes its platform to the more acceptably loopy planks of conservative populism — abolishing the IRS, opposing any and every gun law and total isolationism.
But some of its members espouse notions that are less acceptably loopy.
According to news accounts, for instance, at a 1994 meeting of the USTP’s Wisconsin affiliate, Rev. Matthew Trewhella, head of a militant anti-abortion group called Missionaries to the Preborn, boasted that his 16-month-old son could already identify his “trigger finger.” Trewhella preached that parents should stop playing “pin the tail on the donkey” with their children and instead “start blindfolding them and sitting them down on the living room floor and saying, ‘Now put the weapons together.’”
Another speaker, a USTP official from Florida, said that the USTP’s candidates should start arguing that, “Abortionists should be put to death. They are murderers.”
The USTP 1996 convention featured not only Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry and impeached Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham, but Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, a favorite guest of the neo-Nazi Liberty Lobby and the racist Christian Identity movement.
More importantly, the national board of the USTP includes the following:
The Southern Poverty Law Center officially classifies the USTP as a “patriot” group, meaning that it traffics in anti-government conspiracy theories, and advocates extreme anti-government doctrines. It is not officially considered violent or racist.
“They’re kind of a milquetoast-y group,” says Joe Roy, director of the SPLC’s intelligence project. “They’re more of a conduit group for more radical people to hook up with the John Birch Society or more radical organizations. Probably 90 percent of anti-government groups are relatively harmless. Most of them are middle-aged white guys with weapons running around, angry at the government. But most are not at the point where they would break the law, or rob banks or anything. But they have become a support system for the underground, which is where the terrorism takes place. The U.S. Taxpayers Party is just one small cog in the wheel.”
Actually, its “smallness” is difficult to gauge. No one seems to have any idea how big the USTP actually is, though in 1996, presidential candidate Phillips came in 6th — behind Clinton, Dole, Perot, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Libertarian Harry Browne. Phillips got 182,924 votes, or 0.2 percent.
Some USTP affiliates themselves seem unaware of their group’s more whacked-out members, or its out-there founding theologies. Charles Eberle, the 57-year-old vice-chair of the USTP’s Idaho affiliate, the American Heritage Party, says that all that Rushdoony’s theology is saying is that “the country was founded on certain moral principles: Thou shall not kill, thou shalt not steal, you should have respect for human life. We’re not talking about theocracy,” he insists. “It’s just respect for basic Christian values, which we’re losing in this country.”
Seconds James Olson, 33, a Florida USTP official, “I’ve only read a little bit about [Christian Reconstructionism] myself, personally I’m a Southern Baptist. But I think it’s just that there are certain laws that God has set forth, such as the murder statute, which cannot be repealed by the government.”
Eberle says that he hasn’t seen the USTP advocate violence. “We have a pretty strong position against violence against anybody,” he explains. Then he adds: “I’m not saying that there’s nobody who claims to be a member of the party who comes out with a statement like that, but I’m saying that if someone did so, it would be repudiated by the party.”
As for the group’s place on the list of “patriot” groups SPLC monitors, Eberle says, “to be on their list is sometimes a good thing.”
No doubt plenty in his party would agree with him.
It’s possible the far-right Smith wouldn’t feel terribly out of place among this group. When I asked his press secretary whether the senator wanted to substitute Biblical law for the American legal system, she said, “In his 15 years in the federal government, and throughout his whole life, he’s dedicated himself to the Judeo-Christian value system and always voted accordingly.”
And when I asked if Smith agreed with the conspiracy theories about world government that are prevalent among USTP members, she responded: “The senator strongly supports the U.S. getting out of the U.N. and out of international agreements like NAFTA and GATT that infringe on U.S. sovereignty. I wouldn’t put words like ‘conspiracy’ in his mouth, though.”
So who knows? Certainly Howard Phillips thinks Smith has a future with his party. As he gushed July 19: “This is the easiest fit that you could find.”
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.More Jake Tapper.