The Link Between Trump And The Tea Party
Trumpism is a direct by-product of the poisonous populism of the Tea Party movement, and they've both taken over the Republican Party.
In a piece at The Washington Post, Bryan Gervais and Irwin Morris, respectively Professors at the Universities of Texas and Maryland, bring attention to something that I have written about in the past, namely the connection between the rise of the Tea Party in the wake of the 2008 election and the campaign and eventual election of Donald Trump and what all that says about the future course of whatever might be left of conservatism and the Republican Party:
What distinguished tea party Republicans in the House was not their views on fiscal issues, but their views on social and racial issues. House members most aligned with the tea party were more socially and racially conservative than other Republicans. In this way, tea party Republicans in the House resembled rank-and-file members of the tea party movement.
The same is true of Trump. Although during the presidential campaign he took quite unorthodox positions on fiscal issues — defending entitlement programs and suggesting that he would raise taxes on the wealthy — as president he has instead instituted a tax cut that would benefit the wealthy and also proposed large cuts to government spending. Now he does not appear that distinct from the “Taxed Enough Already” party and the GOP generally. Conservative views on fiscal issues are not what distinguishes Trump.
Instead, it is social and racial issues. For example, House tea party members were more likely than other House Republicans to take conservative positions on abortion rights and employer-mandated coverage for contraception — not unlike the conservative position Trump has taken on these issues as well as other social issues such as LGBT rights.
Tea partyers tended to take more conservative positions on issues such as the defunding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, opposition to funding for “sanctuary cities” and support for federal contracting with corporations that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Likewise, Trump’s rhetoric and policies on civil rights and immigration match the views of tea party Republicans. Trump’s conservative positions on immigration — from the construction of the border wall to the revitalization of ICE — and his strong support for stronger voter identification laws resemble the conservatism of tea party Republicans, even as other Republicans stop short of endorsing Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants or policies like family separation.
The tea party and Trump resemble each other not only in substance, but in style and rhetoric. Trump is, of course, famously combative. In particular, his attacks on opponents and “digital shouting” has produced countless analyses of how he uses Twitter.
Here again, House tea party members were not much different. We analyzed the official Twitter accounts of House Republicans during the 113th Congress and found that tea party Republicans use uncivil, hyperbolic rhetoric more often than other House Republicans. Of course, Trump’s incivility — on and off Twitter — predated the rise of the tea party. But the tea party’s own incivility arguably prepared the GOP for a candidate like Trump.
There is at least one other similarity. Trump’s campaign was predicated on a gloomy portrait of life in this country. In his inaugural address, he famously spoke of “American carnage.” This same theme was also present among tea party legislators. They were more likely than other House Republicans to describe an America in decline, one in which Americans had experienced losses at the hands of a failing, and even abusive federal government led by President Barack Obama, and one in which even the American way of life was under threat, including from Muslims and undocumented immigrants.
The larger truth here is that the so-called “Tea Party” was a fraud from the beginning. Instead of being motivated by opposition to higher taxes, spending, deficits, or the size of government. Instead, it was and always has been a movement built around other far more partisan concerns. The first concern, of course, was opposition to the Presidency of Barack Obama and, both before and after him Hillary Clinton This kind of personality based movement wasn’t new on the right, of course, we saw much the same thing during the Clinton Administration, for example. Additionally, the Tea Party has routinely made enemies out of others on the left, moving easily from Nancy Pelosi to Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren (the person who Trump now mocks as “Pocahontas”), and Chuck Schumer. Presumably, they’ll do the same thing to whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020. By contrast, this so-called movement, its leaders, and the politicians that claimed its mantle and received the support of were all silent during the Administration of George W. Bush when government spending and debt was exploding at absurd rates and the nation was fighting wars that it arguably shouldn’t have been involved in (and which, in at least one case, it quite clearly should not have been involved in.) Now that the Trump Administration is in power alongside a Republican Congress, they are all silent once again and seem more focused on restricting immigration and advancing conservative positions on social issues such as abortion while engaging in other cultural war battles than they are on fiscal issues.
Anyone who paid attention to the Tea Party rallies even as far back as 2009 can recall that the movement was being motivated by far more than just that “original agenda.” Issues such as immigration and the aforementioned social issues were as much as part of the movement as any concern about freedom or fiscal responsibility. In fact, the same politicians that were part of the movement were also leaders when it came to things like opposition to immigration reform and advocates for restrictions on LGBT and abortion rights. Another factor that was evident in the Tea Party from the beginning was the same kind of close-minded populist nationalism that epitomizes Trumpism in the ideology that drove the Tea Party movement, It was evident in the rhetoric of the people who emerged as spokespersons for the movement, in the politicians that the movement end up backing, and the rhetoric that was prevalent at Tea Party rallies from the beginning of the movement. Go back and listen to all of that, and you can see the seeds of Trumpism being planted, not that it took much for those seeds to bloom.
For some time now, I’ve argued that one can draw a direct line from Trumpism back in time to the Tea Party and, before that, to the populist conservatism that began emerging in the 1990s when the intellectual conservatism of Buckley, Reagan, and Goldwater began to be replaced by the populist conservatism of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News Channel. It was back then, after the end of the Cold War when many on the right how the uneasy alliance that bound Republican moderates, hardcore conservatives, and the more libertarian-leaning ideas that mostly came out of the West and Southwest together during the Cold War. As it turned out, that alliance was replaced by the populism that these new media sources represented, and which politicians such as Newt Gingrich quickly learned to exploit to their political advantage. Slowly but surely, it was that brand of “conservatism” that won the battle and that now finds itself in control in the person of Donald Trump and the collection of sycophants, sellouts, and cowards on Capitol Hill that are going along with him even though many of them know on some level that it will ultimately lead their party to disaster. Rather than being a corruption of the Tea Party or the populist conservatism of the 1990s, Trump represents its apex. That may be an uncomfortable fact for people who were involved in the movement who believed it was something else, but it doesn’t make that fact any less true. In the end, the Tea Party was about nothing but blind populist rage and the culture war, and it led to the rise of absurd politicians such as Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell and, ultimately Donald Trump itself. If there are any regrets among former Tea Partiers, they have nobody to blame but themselves.