Audience members at the "Social Networking 101: Twitter and Facebook" panel at the RightOnline conference in Pittsburgh on Friday (Photo by: David Weigel)

Audience members at the "Social Networking 101: Twitter and Facebook" panel at the RightOnline conference in Pittsburgh on Friday (Photo by: David Weigel)

PITTSBURGH – Scott and Anna Allegrini founded The Children of Liberty shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It was a small group that would meet at the local library in Sylvania, Ohio, bringing in guest lecturers to talk about economics and the words of America’s founders. What they learned made them ever more concerned about the state of America.

“When you read what the founding fathers said, you see a lot of parallels,” said Scott Allegrini, unwrapping a sandwich on the second and final day of Americans for Prosperity’s RightOnline conference. “It’s almost like we have another ruling class, another royal family.”

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

A lot has changed since then. Rick Santelli “made his rant,” as the Allegrinis put it, and the anti-tax “Tea Parties” began. Glenn Beck brushed away his tears and launched the 9-12 Movement, which the Allegrinis happily joined. The Children of Liberty grew from a few dozen members to more than 300. Then, this month, the Allegrinis watched in amazement as their friends, and people who looked like their friends, were labeled a “mob” and accused of being organized by corporate money and groups like, well, Americans for Prosperity. On September 12, they–like many other attendees of the week’s conference–will participate in a march on Washington, sponsored by FreedomWorks.

“It’s been surreal,” said Anna Allegrini.

“If the pharmaceuticals want to give me a check, I won’t complain,” said Scott Allegrini. “But they sure don’t. Look, we started this because we were worried about our country. I think the left is projecting.”

The Allegrinis were typical of the more than 600 conservatives at the second annual Americans for Prosperity weekend conference, part training seminar and part pep rally. It was the largest in a series of AFP events bringing activists together and supplying them with talking points and tools. Attendees could register for as little as $59; even the early registration for Netroots Nation cost $225. Netroots Nation bloggers spent plenty of time worrying about the pace of the Democratic agenda, while RightOnline attendees could take a victory lap after a month dominated by coverage of like-minded activists getting in the faces of people like Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), warning them that a vote for a “socialist” health care bill would cost them their jobs.

“Just when you think, boy, I can’t go another step, you see that there’s a network of people who are doing the same thing,” said Anna Allegrini. “It’s energizing.”

For months, Washington-based conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks have been targeted by progressive media and congressional Democrats for their role in organizing and promoting protests of President Barack Obama’s administration. On August 3, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) warned Democrats not to be “sucker-punched” by a surge of conservative activists at their town hall meetings. Last week, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow devoted multiple segments to investigations of the funding behind major conservative organizations, and prodded AFP President Tim Phillips to admit that the organization took millions of dollars in funding from the energy industry.

In Pittsburgh, the so-called “astroturfers” laughed it off. At a Friday afternoon rally inside one of the main rooms of the Sheraton Station Square, conference attendees were encouraged to grab signs made by AFP volunteers with slogans such as “Kiss My Astroturf” and “Real Grassroots American.” Dallas Woodhouse, president of the group’s North Carolina chapter, whooped up the crowd by repeating all the attacks on how their conference had been funded.

“Who got paid by big insurance to be here?” said Woodhouse. “Who got paid by big pharmacy? The reality is that Americans for Prosperity, our efforts, are paid for by folks like you!” As he passed two buckets to collect donations, Woodhouse told the cheering crowd that their town hall barnstorming was getting results. “On this health care debate, you are winning and the president is losing!”

After the rally, AFP President Tim Phillips told TWI that the Democrats’ focus on the protests was backfiring and weakening their stand in the health care debate. “I think people here are going, ‘You know what?’ It’s so laughable that we’re a made-up thing. Let’s just mock it.”

The “mob” and “astroturf” attacks were a running joke throughout the weekend. In a speech, AFP’s Phil Kerpen informed conference-goers that the astro-turf attacks came from the Center for American Progress, which was suspect because it took money from Hungarian-born financier George Soros. Erick Erickson, managing editor of the conservative RedState.com, informed the crowd that there was “an organized effort to shut us down” by “the guys organized by Hungarian billionaires.” In the small exhibit hall next to the Sheraton’s ballroom, conference attendees could pick up free buttons proclaiming themselves part of “the mob.” And Eric Odom, the web guru behind TaxDayTeaParty.com, and who had famously told Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that he couldn’t speak at the Chicago anti-tax “Tea Party,” told attendees to sign up with his new project, The People’s Mob.

The relationship between AFP’s corporate sheen and the grassroots populism that the conference was intended to tap into and provide tools was occasionally rough. The attendees skewed toward retirement age; when Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore alluded to the crises of Jimmy Carter’s presidency: “How many of you remember double-digit inflation? How many of you remember 20 percent mortgage rates? How many of you remember gas lines?” nearly every hand went up. Pennsylvania radio host R.J. Harris won the crowd over with jokes about Bill Clinton’s infidelity and “Hillary’s latest new blue pantsuit, a little larger than they had been.”

In the Sheraton’s ballroom, the attendees were treated to a spectacle with the feel of a money-making seminar or a corporate retreat. Speakers bounded onstage to the sound of riffy “Guitar Hero”-ready rock songs and spinning, whirling spotlights. Pat Toomey, the GOP’s wonkish candidate for U.S. Senate, walked on to the booming sounds of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and delivered a somber economic speech with an appeal for the audience to read “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes.

Rhetoric was an easier sell than direct action. When New Jersey AFP President Steve Lonegan riffed on “the left’s so-called environment and polar bears” and the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore called global warming “the greatest hoax of the last hundred years,” they got roars from the crowd. Around half of the attendees of Friday’s dinner stuck around for a screening of “Not Evil, Just Wrong,” a documentary that purportedly debunks Al Gore and other environmentalists. But at dinner, copies of pre-fab letters from the Consumer Energy Alliance were not snapped up as fast as the industry-funded activist group might have wanted. “I strongly support the new Five-Year Program by the U.S. Minerals Management Service,” said a postcard, ready to be signed by a concerned conservative. “The program should open all available offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to responsible oil and natural gas development, as well.”

RightOnline attendees had a bit more fun listening to web gurus and organizers, many of them in their 20s and 30s, hold breakout sessions that thanked activists for the work they’d done so far and taught them how to do it better. Conference rooms for sessions on “Blogging 101″ and “Social Networking 101: Twitter and Facebook” were packed to capacity. In “Blogging 101,” the telegenic conservative blogger Matt Lewis put up slides with helpful motivators–”You Are Your Own PR Firm,” “Pics Better Than Words, Video Better Than Pics”–and cited a video of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) talking on a cell phone as Exhibit A of what successful “mobs” could use to attack liberals. Lewis pushed the lesson forward by asking if the audience remembered a video of Clinton walking to the funeral of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and seemingly wiping away tears after he saw a camera. Not only did they remember that, they recalled–when Lewis failed to–the name of the person walking with Clinton, Tony Campolo, and that it was on Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show.

“Wow, this is an advanced group,” said Lewis “I’m sure the average American has no memory this even happened. That was the kind of thing where, if you were on the fence about Clinton, you found out what he really was.”

There were some signs of strain between activists and the conservative speakers such as Lewis and Grover Norquist–who said that Obama was so powerless in the operation of government, “if it was a martini, he’d be the vermouth.” During the final afternoon’s closing panel, Lewis made an offhand reference to “the failed policies of the Bush administration” and sent one attendee bolting for the door. “I gotta get out of here,” grumbled Mark Driver, a vice-chair committeeman of the Valley Forge Patriots Tea Party, once outside. “Always bashing Bush! I’m sick of it! Just focus on stopping the socialism!”

But the activists found some unity listening to Joe Wurzelbacher, still a sought-after conservative speaker who can charge as much as $10,000 for eight-minute speeches, 11 months after he argued about tax rates with then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during a campaign stop in Ohio. He was welcomed, and mobbed for photos, as the first American to get the kind of full-bore smear campaign that was now directed at “Tea Party” activists and Flip camera-wielding conservatives going to town halls to tell congressmen that they were shredding the Constitution. “Let’s try to make this an American movement,” said Wurzelbacher, “not a Republican movement, not a Democrat movement. You guys are empowering Americans again. Don’t forget that.”

If AFP’s mission succeeds, Wurzelbacher’s transition from a blue collar worker to a semi-professional political activist will be less of a media curiosity and more a symbol of how this movement works. A video that introduced the event’s big-ticket speakers spliced together footage from anti-tax “Tea Parties” with footage of AFP spokesmen promoting them on talk shows. The “astroturf” maligned on MSNBC was revealed, in full view of C-Span’s cameras, as a driving force behind so many headline-grabbing anti-tax and anti-spending events. And it was soundtracked to a high-tempo song by Matchbox 20:

I believe the world is burning to the ground
Well, oh well, I guess we’re gonna find out
Let’s see how far we’ve come
Let’s see how far we’ve come