The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was followed by a slew of protests, as Americans denounced the government. Many called for the impeachment of our leaders, others their arrest. Some even compared President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler.

As a result, many conservatives criticized the antiwar movement for being made up of a bunch of lunatics. And anyone against President Bush, they said, simply didn’t understand that the creation of new agencies like the Department of Homeland Security or legislation like the Patriot Act by Bush were necessary to protect the country from terrorists — and perhaps antiwar protesters.

Last week, thousands of Americans protested nationwide at various “tea parties” to denounce the government. Some called for the impeachment of our leaders, other for their arrest. And as liberal MSNBC talk show hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow gleefully pointed out, one man even had a poster comparing President Barack Obama to Hitler.

Predictably, Olbermann, Maddow, and other liberals used such examples to label tea party participants as lunatics. They also say that anyone against Obama doesn’t understand that his stimulus plan is necessary to save this country financially and his Department of Homeland Security is only there to protect the country from terrorists — and perhaps even conservatives.

According to a recent Department of Homeland Security report released to law enforcement officials titled “Right Wing Extremism in the United States,” virtually everyone at the Charleston Tea Party, and at other tea parties across the country, may have fit the profile of a “right-wing extremist.” The DHS report notes that members of extremist groups include those who oppose illegal immigration, fear the loss of gun rights, criticize free-trade agreements, harbor general anti-government sentiment, or — my favorite — belong to “groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.”

Funny enough, the day after the report was released, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) made a well-publicized states’ rights declaration. He even proclaimed that his state could secede from the union if it so desired. Speaking to a tea party in Dallas, Perry said, “I’m just not real sure you’re a bunch of right-wing extremists. But if you are, we’re with you.” The crowd cheered wildly.

What the tea parties represent more than anything is something that would have never been possible on the Right a year ago — a substantial, anti-government grassroots movement that is increasingly becoming more radical.

Eight years of defending George W. Bush created a conservative movement that justified big government, cast a blind eye to spending, and cheered a Big Brother agency like the Department of Homeland Security. Last week, I saw tea party signs calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve, the abolition of the income tax, and the end of foreign aid. Dick Cheney would not have felt comfortable. Ron Paul would have felt right at home.

Now is the time for the Right to clean house, and I’m not just talking about Congress or the White House — but their own. It was appropriate enough that Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. Jim DeMint spoke at the Charleston Tea Party, as their staunch opposition to both Bush and Obama’s bailout and stimulus spending gives them credibility.

But while these two South Carolina Republicans were rightfully celebrated, much to my delight, the Charleston Tea Party was not a pep rally for the Republican Party. If, as Sanford said before the tea party crowd last week, “We use this rallying cry as the beginning of this larger notion to change the way things are going in America,” it will remain absolutely crucial that any future efforts are not co-opted as yet another faux-populist tool for the GOP establishment. There’s a good reason neoconservative Sen. Lindsey Graham wouldn’t dare show his face at any tea party in his own state. If grassroots conservatives are serious, they will make sure things stay that way.

It is not “extremist,” but logical to recognize that stopping the radical expansion of government will require radical opposition against it. And as that opposition, determined conservatives should expect to be called “terrorists” or worse for the foreseeable future.

As an Old Right, Pat Buchanan conservative, it is my hope that this new, radicalized, grassroots Right, as exemplified by last week’s tea parties, will eventually have the anti-government courage to address all wasteful spending, including the wars we fight and the massive defense budgets necessary to wage them. All in due time.

But in the meantime, I remain smiling. This might finally be the movement I’ve been waiting for — extremely principled, radically righteous, and conservative to a tea.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.