The tea party, like the Roman Empire, disintegrated slowly such that it is impossible to precisely mark the date of its expiration. But yesterday could be as good a moment as any to connote its demise — or, more precisely, the demise of the fiction that created and sustained it.
The event in question is Representative Justin Amash’s departure (on bad terms) from the House Freedom Caucus. The caucus was formed by several tea-party veterans for the ostensible purpose of promoting strictly limited government. It founding priorities were “open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law.” Its austere vision represented the conservative indictment of President Obama, who allegedly abused his authority, spent too much money, and — most offensively — engaged in “crony capitalism.”
The tea party may have represented this ideal, or claimed to, in its purest and most austere form, but Obama-era Republicans made it the centerpiece of their vision. Mitt Romney turned one loan to Solyndra into a synecdoche for the Obama administration’s green-energy policies in particular and alleged crony capitalism in general. In reality, Solyndra did not benefit from preferential treatment, despite an exhaustive Republican attempt to find any; it was just a solar company that bet on the wrong technology while other firms that received subsidies thrived. But conservatives turned the very idea of supporting a particular firm for any reason into a kind of scandal.
It is important to understand that this was not merely one anti-Obama talking point on a checklist. Intellectuals like Ross Douthat made opposition to the administration’s “cronyist liberalism” the foundation of their effort to redefine conservatism, and Republican politicians used these ideas to present their agenda as populist and new. “Elites in Washington should NOT be picking winners & losers — that’s a recipe for a closed economy — for cronyism,” promised Paul Ryan.
The Republican attack on crony capitalism never had any serious policy content, though. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who turned the state into a laboratory for the ideas Ryan was promoting on the national level, created the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private agency, in his first weeks in office. The agency has in fact been a poster child for crony capitalism. Its method of handing out tax credits to firms promising jobs has amounted to the crudest form of picking winners. Its most spectacular flame-out is Foxconn, which received $3 billion in subsidies for which it has delivered almost nothing other than a splashy groundbreaking ceremony attended by Walker, Ryan, and President Trump.
A new state audit finds the agency’s operations have been rife with mismanagement since Walker created it. Only 35 percent of the jobs it promised (and paid firms lavishly for) actually materialized.
President Trump has of course rendered the anti-cronyism theme completely unusable. Trump has gone through the economy almost firm by firm, lavishing praise and special treatment upon his favorites, and using threats, retribution, and boycotts against those that displease him. He has meanwhile taken the imperial presidency to new heights.
The partisan turnabout is not wholly surprising. What’s telling, rather, is the role of the Freedom Caucus. You might expect this group to form a rump dissident wing, resisting the president’s cronyism and authoritarian tendencies even if it supports his more conventional policies. Instead, it has taken the opposite position. The House Freedom Caucus is the faction most supportive of Trump’s authoritarian power plays.
Thirteen House Republicans cast dissenting votes on a resolution of disapproval against Trump’s use of emergency powers to fund a border wall Congress declined to pay for. Only one of those 13 belonged to the House Freedom Caucus: Justin Amash.
Amash is leaving the House Freedom Caucus over his public statement that the Mueller report contains grounds for impeachment. The caucus’s defining feature no longer has any bearing at all on the rule of law or opposing crony capitalism. To hold to either of these principles now is to disqualify yourself from membership in the group altogether.