Anti-Trump Republicans fall into two broad categories. One category reviles the nominee for having exposed and exploited deep strains of nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and bigotry on the right. For instance, Robert Kagan calls Trump “the party’s creation, its Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker.” The other category persists as seeing Trump as a strange mistake, a non-ideological figure, or even a liberal. This account does not explain why Trump decided to invade the Republican primary rather than run as a Democrat, but it does conveniently absolve the conservative movement of all his sins. An example of this latter school of thought comes from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who blames Trump for diverting the tea party from its sincere concerns about the Constitution:
He has, for now, managed to do what the Democrats and the media have been attempting for most of the Obama era: to kill off the tea party as a national force.
By dividing it, eclipsing it and making its animating concerns of limited government and constitutionalism into after-thoughts, Trump has neutered a heretofore potent vehicle against Big Government.
Lowry is repeating the story mainstream conservatives like to tell about conservatism during the Obama era. That story is that President Obama’s domestic agenda violated the Constitution — perhaps not the actual written text of the Constitution, because then the Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court could have stopped him, but certainly the broader spirit of the Constitution, which is about preventing liberals from passing big laws conservatives hate. They were animated by the spirit of what they called “Constitutional conservatism.” This was a new movement that connected abstract beliefs about limited government with the vision of the Founders. Writers like Charles Krauthammer lauded “a popular reaction, identified with the Tea Party but in reality far more widespread, calling for a more restrictive vision of government more consistent with the Founders’ intent.” The influential Republican intellectual Yuval Levin enthused in 2011:
[T]he Tea Party has focused on restraining government. It originated in outrage about federal bailouts, and has directed its energies toward pulling back the cost and reach of the state. It has asked for fewer government giveaways, not more. It has even given voice to a tight-money populism, criticizing the Federal Reserve for inviting inflation — a far cry from populists of old. And the Tea Party has also been intensely focused on recovering the U.S. Constitution, and especially its limits on government power (and therefore on the public’s power) — another very unusual goal for a populist movement.
The image of a mass army of principled constitutionalists agitating to carry out Paul Ryan’s domestic-policy vision, while irresistibly useful as conservative propaganda, was a fantasy all along. The backlash against Obamacare did not rest upon any abstract theory about the role of the state. It drew its power from the fear that subsidized (private) insurance would come at the expense of the (single-payer) health care that old people love. Activists flooding health-care town halls in 2009, the core of the right-wing populist revolt, denounced mythical “death panels,” and Republican messaging focused on the (actual) Medicare cuts to finance a program that’s “not for you.”
Researchers Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin closely studied the tea party and found its members driven by something very different than a passion for small government. “Opposition is concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government ‘handouts’ to ‘undeserving’ groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes,” they wrote in 2011. “More broadly, Tea Party concerns exist within the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in American society.” They also found that, contrary to the myth that deficits obsessed tea-party activists, “In interviews, Tea Partiers who talk about immigration control regularly mention the security of the US border with Mexico, suggesting that their primary concern is with Latino immigration.” A 2013 close study of Republican voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner reached similar conclusions: “the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.”
The white racial identity, the fear of social change — all of these things perfectly predicted Trump’s rise. But conservatives ignored these findings because they implied that the tea party was not a movement of amateur enthusiasts for the Lochner Constitution, and that the fierce conservative antipathy toward Obama did not arise out of Obamacare’s particular design features or the legislative tactics by which it passed. The tea party was an ethno-nationalist revolt against Obama rooted in fear of social change. Conservative leaders pretended this revolt was a demand for their agenda, but the dissatisfaction of the base implies that the conservative agenda was never the thing that motivated it. Trump hasn’t hijacked the tea party. He’s un-hijacked it.