From Tea Party to Trump Is Not That Long a Journey

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These guys didn't have to look very far to find a leader in Donald Trump.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today the conservative blogger, television personality, and would-be ideological commissar Erick Erickson wrote a remarkable piece at his recently established anti-Trump site the Resurgent: an obituary for the tea-party movement, with which he had been allied for years. Erickson unsurprisingly discerned the end of the tea party in the demise earlier this week of Trump-associated fringe Republican Senate primary candidates in Arizona and Florida. But he more generally argued that Donald Trump’s candidacy reflected a steady corruption of the tea folk from the lofty and principled heights of their beginnings to the nasty bigotry, conspiracy-mongering, and political fratricide to which the tribe had become prone more recently.

Ah, sighs Erickson, for those salad days in 2009 when Rick Santelli of CNBC started the whole thing with a televised “rant” that went viral and then spawned anti-tax and limited-government groups all over the country composed of people angry at corporate bailouts and creeping socialism.

That’s one narrative. I have another.

Santelli’s “rant” was not really aimed at Big Government or corporate cronyism or high tax levels or corruption or any of the targets soon claimed for the tea party. It was a rant at those shiftless poor people who took out mortgages they should have known they could not repay and then expected virtuous successful people like Santelli himself to rescue them with his tax dollars. Perhaps Santelli did not have a racist bone in his body — how should I know? — but he was pushing a narrative beloved of racists at all times and in all places. They resent those people who seek to escape their just desserts via force, whether it’s through street crime or the organized larceny of government redistribution.

Soon the tea-party movement became identified with furious resistance to the enactment and implementation of Obamacare, described incessantly as a threat not just to individual freedom and market-based health-care solutions but as a redirection of public funds from Medicare — the government program for virtuous old folks who worked hard for their retirement benefits — in order to reward Obama’s young and minority constituents. Could anyone have possibly missed the racial subtext of these appeals?

As early as 2010, the identification of the tea-party movement with a race-and-generation-tinged fight over federal resources was noted by veteran journalist Thomas Edsall:

This year’s elections offer a preview of how Republicans intend to use the vulnerability of these [redistribution] programs to attack Democrats. That is, there’s some indication that they will return to the racially tinged backlash politics of the ’70s and ’80s. Newt Gingrich, who has re-emerged as a particularly active rhetorician for the Tea Party, has supplied a large number of phrases redolent of that era. He has described the Democrats as the “party of food stamps.” That’s a slightly softer version of the line trumpeted by Glenn Beck that explicitly decries Obama for acting out a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

According to the Erickson account, the tea-party movement descended gradually into a credulous addiction to conspiracy theories out of rage and frustration at the unwillingness or inability of Republican elected officials to deliver on their promises of a radical rollback of the Obama administration’s (and for that matter, the Clinton and Bush administrations’) domestic agenda.

I seem to remember tea folk embracing conspiracy theories well earlier than Erickson recalls: the Community Reinvestment Act conspiracy to demand uncreditworthy mortgages, the ACORN conspiracy to register unqualified voters, the New Black Panther Party conspiracy to intimidate legitimate (white) voters, the Alinsky/community organizer conspiracy to suppress conservative opinion, a host of conspiracies (e.g., the Obamaphone giveaway) to buy Democratic votes, and, of course, the Manchurian candidate conspiracy to impose an unqualified president on the country, which only the “birthers” understood. You will note a common thread in all of these conspiracy theories, which have nothing to do with Republican elites or their corporate cronies, either.

Erickson argues it took a lot of bad luck and bad leadership to produce a large body of Republicans willing to flock to the banner of Donald Trump:

They rallied to Donald Trump, not so much because they agreed with him, but because they were desperate. They had become convinced there was no hope, 2016 could mean the end of America, and they must take drastic measures to turn the tide.

I don’t know; for many it must not have been much of a leap. Here was a guy free of all of the nefarious Washington ties they feared. He had been a pioneer birther. He defended “their” Medicare and Social Security benefits. He fulminated against the dark people allegedly besieging the border, and the darker people allegedly besieging the police and the law-abiding people of the cities. He bought into the idea that an elite-underclass coalition was prepared to “rig” elections. Despite his crudeness, his every pronouncement on policy, foreign or domestic, was suffused with the iron certainty and self-righteousness of a suburban retiree with a paid-up house and a private pension fulminating against “the blacks.”

I’m sure many tea folk looked at Trump and saw not the hideous charlatan that Erickson (who coined the term “Cheeto Jesus” for the “monster” who won the presidential nomination of his party) sees, but someone standing up against all of the forces trying to change the white Christian America of their earlier days into something immoral and foreign. Just like Erickson looked at Rick Santelli and saw a crusader for limited government.