Jesus, there are probably less appropriate places to spend Martin Luther King day than Myrtle Beach, a resort town at the northern end of the South Carolina coast, but you have to scratch to come up with a couple. Johannesburg, 1975 might be one. A Klan meeting, maybe. The place sprawls along the coast, and then for miles inland. The place has been a resort for almost a century, but any trace of the past is nearly gone now. Tract housing and trailer parks sprawl for miles inland, punctuated by theme parks and malls.

The town centre, such as it is, has a sort of rambunctious energy, although it’s possible to feel that you’ve wandered into a museum of regional fast-food franchises. As it thins out towards the ends, it becomes somewhat grimmer, a peerless beach with concrete blocks, rather as if Tweed Heads had been redesigned by prison architects. “Welcome to the Redneck Riviera!” a bellboy on a golf cart yelled, unbidden, as I came out of reception, trying to find the right multi-storey car park, with hotel attached. “So this isn’t a faded old lady of the south, a town seen better times?” “Hell no, sir. They’re trying to sell it as a family resort these days, but this is where they come to paaaaarty. If it weren’t for the biker rallies we’d be in deep shit.”

He seemed insouciantly off-message. Was he on drugs? Or just high on life?

He wasn’t alone — in being high on life, that is. Drifting around the grounds, dressed in red, white and blue, chattering like lorikeets were the attendees for the South Carolina Tea Party convention. They were arriving en masse, parking their big white SUVs, moving their big white selves towards the featureless conference centre. They were old and gnarled and sun-spotted and, like most southerners, unfailingly gracious, as long as you stay off certain topics.

“God bless the USA,” the karaokesque tones drifted down from the main auditorium (And I’m proud to be an American/where at least I know I’m free/And I won’t forget the ones who died/who gave that right to me …) as long-lost Tea Partiers greeted each other, from across the state. “It is ye-ahhhs since I been down here”(South Carolina is the size of Tasmania). “This is our first state conference,” someone told me unbidden. “How’s it going so far?” “Very well!” she said her eyes twinkling.

Well, maybe. For a group that sought to restore America by restoring the Republican Party, the South Carolina Tea Party is leaving its run pretty damn late. Its state is the last chance for conservatives to derail the Romney express, and the Tea Party here is relatively united, in the Tea Party Patriots network (there are three major Tea Party networks, and a couple of smaller ones). By contrast, a victory for Romney here, all but seals the deal. This is the year that the SC primary, which was inaugurated only in 1980, has fully become what it always aspired to be — the true king-maker, displacing New Hampshire.

Politics, arguably, is about three or four key moments across decades — taking the Winter Palace today, not tomorrow, sacking the governor-general before he sacks you — and to flub them is to make a joke of your whole project. The Tea Party has a role to play in Congressional and Senate races, but all that is chin music compared to its one task, selecting a Presidential candidate who won’t sell them out from the White House. There is no agreement within the Tea Party on the best conservative candidate, but any genuine movement would have, no matter what the bloodletting, found a way to endorse, and to reduce the split vote. What were they talking about instead?

Well, all those things you shouldn’t talk about with southern conservatives, in sessions including “the Sharia law threat”, “fair tax” and of course “securing our borders”. One looked in vain for discussion of the economy that wasnt a flat-tax-now session, for a foreign policy session that wasn’t an investigation of Obamesque treason. In the middle of the first day, a very young man (“I largely fund myself doing this, so there’s a donation box outside”) spoke about the five stages of Sharia takeover, announcing that “we’re at level four”.

Would the audience steer this guy to calmer shores? In an overflow question and answer session they struck out for deeper water. “I gotta friend who lives near to this Muslim compound up in the woods, and they’re always firing guns. Can’t we check the land registry against the terror watch list?” “Can you tell me, sir, what is the link between radical Islam and the spread of the global free trade agenda?” “They’re even using our rights to protect themselves”, one woman muttered to another behind me. They were both wearing the Americana that has become tribal war paint for the Tea Party crowd — stars and stripes scarves, “don’t tread on me” brooches, etc. They were good ol’ boys and gals, the old southern ruling class, the occasional backwoods evangelical easily spotted under a bad haircut.

Yet their party was about to select a candidate who had run to the left of Teddy Kennedy in 2004, and helped design the healthcare system that they took as evidence of Obama’s fasco-communism. Were they not disappointed by this? “Well there’s no agreement on a conservative candidate,” said a bespectacled Santorum supporter, as his surrendered wife nodded enthusiastically at his side. “Yes but that’s the point,” I said, “that’s the problem. Should there have been an internal struggle” — yes, I’m pretty sure I used the term internal struggle — to send the Tea Party in one direction?”. They looked at me again. “Yes but there’s no agreement on which party we support,” he said again.This happened three or four times in various forms, and even when I ramped it up — “Haven’t you actually failed as a movement” — there was no general recognition. Nothing could disturb the serenity. It occurred to me then that the Tea Party, however it started, whatever process it had been co-opted by, had now become a third thing — an identity group, a club for like-minded people, in which a world view was affirmed, even as, by the very same motion, the very thing they didn’t not want to happen — an establishment candidate taking the lead — came to pass. Or perhaps they were more knowing than this.

The Tea Party’s leaders — once the nascent, Ron Paul-influenced series of Tea Party and “Porculus” protests had been thoroughly co-opted in early-mid 2009 — has always been tied to the establishment Right in the party, but in Myrtle Beach I had that bad sci-fi movie feeling, where you’re in a scene where everyone has been replaced by a robot — a bottle-blonde robot in a “live free or die” stars and stripes ruffled shirt, to be sure, but robot nevertheless.

Who knows whether the Tea Party really exists any more or not, or is just chapters of people getting occasionally to read the Constitution. Should Romney wrap up the nomination early, as everyone thinks, then we will never know. But that has become so much the conventional wisdom, and other scenarios dismissed by the punditry, that it demands examination, which will have to wait. That alternative scenario — a brokered convention — would lead the Tea Party right back into the centre, of they are there at all.

Today, the Obamas prayed in Zion church, to remember a man and a movement that moved millions against dogs, whips and guns, with nothing but their scorned skin to oppose it. In a resort that would not have admitted them without that struggle, the self-appointed next American revolution piled collard greens and fatbacks onto their plate in the all-you-can-eat diner, and talked of how the imams were taking over Michigan. Out behind the resort, a trailer park. “Oh that, that’s where the staff live,” someone said. Two, three, many Americas, hard to know which was the real one.