Rock Creek, Montana One of the books I had thrown in my bag as I left for Montana was an updated, reissued volume published by Oxford Press and sent to me at Social Policy, called The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol, a well-known scholar of American voluntary organizations, and Vanessa Williamson, now at the Brookings Institute. The book is an extensive look at the Tea Party from its inception in 2009 to its usurpation in 2011. They’ve added an epilogue that looked at the rise of Trump before he won the Republican nomination and noted many of the same fires that stoked both these engines, but that was more like waving a red flag for all of us who may have missed the book earlier, even if we couldn’t avoid the point now.
There’s no way to think of Trump and the phenomena he represents without also seeing him as the direct descendant of the outbreak and then successful cooptation of the Tea Party, and the fact that his candidacy offered the now dispersed Tea Party base an opportunity to rise again, expand, and express their continued, unmet demand to “take back America.” Trump is the proudly embraced Tea Party’s devil spawn.
The authors point out that at its heyday, a mere seven years ago, polling put the Tea Party support at around 20% of the American electorate, which at 46 million people would be difficult to ignore. Trying to calculate its actual organizational strength they settled at something like 200,000 members, defined as activists, in about 800 chapters around the country with an average of about 200 members per group. Importantly, they do a good job at looking at the contradictory political positions of this largely older, white political movement. They raised a big tent so there were extremes of the right and racists aplenty, but they were most stone cold in their consensus against immigration. On race they were welcoming of their few black members, embraced black speakers, and most of their leadership, the authors found, tried to hew them closer to middle ground. Yes, much like Trump. They flirt with racism, but steadfastly deny it. About immigration they have no such qualms.
Similarly on social programs, they were anti-welfare, but also opposed to privatization of Social Security and very much in favor of Medicare and other benefits and even in favor of expansion, including to children, despite their heavy mouth breathing about Obamacare. They also weren’t from Kansas, and were in support of public education. The authors also did not find a tight alignment of Tea Party views with the religious right. These were often two ships meeting in the night over abortion and same-sex issues, but a long way from synonymous, which I would argue also helps explain Trump’s ability to walk a line between these forces successfully.
They don’t spend a lot of time on the theme of how successful billionaires, like the Kochs, and media manipulators, like Fox News, seized the Tea Party momentum, and politicians like the wave of candidates elected in 2010 waving their banners so to speak, like Rubio, Cruz and others, usurped their issues, co-opted their energy, and tried to graft them onto their own, often self-serving programs and causes. This is a story waiting to be told and at the heart of understanding both the Trump phenomena as a revival of the same Tea Party protests in general and the estrangement between the Trump, the base, and Republican Party elites whether Speaker Paul Ryan, the Kochs, or countless think tanks, who were willing to play with the Tea Party fire, but never really understood the heat.
Trump did, perhaps intuitively, and 2016 election is the Tea Party fire this time without the party. If we all survive, there’s a lot to learn from all of this.