The Tea Party Is Alive and Well

They’d fit right in at a Trump rally, and for good reason. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Remember the tea party? Ten years ago its activists looked omnipresent. They railed against the Affordable Care Act, swept a slate of far-right Republicans into office, got Paul Ryan on the GOP’s 2012 presidential ticket, and helped force generous tax cuts. Then they dissipated, casualties of a Republican presidency that will not solve the budget deficit. At least, that’s the gist of a piece in the New York Times. On Wednesday, reporter Jeremy Peters asserted that the movement’s principles “have been largely abandoned by Republicans under President Trump.” The Affordable Care Act survives, and so does the deficit.

Peters does not quite say that the movement is totally defunct. “Even if the Tea Party’s ideas are dead, its attitude lives on,” he writes. But is difficult to prise out a meaningful difference between the movement’s ideas, and its attitude; the latter was indelibly shaped by the former. As long as its attitude persists, so do its ideas. Both find their natural expression in the person of Donald Trump. Though Peters claims the president “cares little” for the tea party’s “founding ideas,” that narrow framing asks us to believe that the tea party patriots of recent history actually cared about budget deficits.

Instead, it’s obvious that the tea party’s deficit obsession was a façade. Behind it lurked a specific racial politics that informed its commitment to small government. Think back again to the bad old days. If any single person deserves credit for sparking the tea party movement, it’s Rick Santelli. Though it’s undeniable now that the Obama administration failed homeowners rocked by the foreclosure crisis, its halting efforts still outraged Santelli. On an infamous CNBC broadcast in 2009, the stock-market analyst used the issue to call for the creation of a new “tea party.”

“This is America!” he screamed. Turning to the traders behind him, he yelled, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise your hands!” The traders, who were mostly white, did not raise their hands. They booed. They did not object to government spending per se; Santelli wasn’t complaining about defense spending. They booed the nation’s first black president for spending public money on people who — in their estimation — did not deserve it. The tea party amplified white, middle-class resentment. It embodied the same fear of falling that would later make Trump president.

Peters does mention in passing that Obama allies believed the tea party gave “cover and a voice to those who wanted to attack the first black president — people who in some cases showed up at rallies waving signs with racist caricatures and references.” Not only is that conclusion obviously right; it’s central to any sensible understanding of the tea party. Racism was its animating force. The movement was revanchist to its core. Its “bare-knuckle, brawling style,” as a source described matters to Peters, was a reaction to Obama’s blackness as much as it was to his perceived socialism. Peters does not mention birtherism in his piece, but the claim — which combined anti-black racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia into one Franken-theory about Obama’s ineligibility to be president — was popular among tea party activists. Further, though Peters refers to it as a “mass uprising,” it was not a spontaneous, organic populist movement, at least not entirely. It was Astroturf, too, funded by libertarian donors like the late and little-lamented David Koch.

Koch is no more, but his brother is still around. So is the family’s money, and so are the libertarian ideals they toiled for decades to push into the mainstream. Though the Kochs have soured on Trump, along with the tea party activists Peters quotes in his piece, the president is mostly aligned with their point of view. If Mick Mulvaney, former tea party congressman, is happy to work for him, it’s not proof of Mulvaney’s hypocrisy. Trump slashed taxes on “the capitalists,” as Santelli called them. He’s doing his utmost to shrink the federal government. The damage is subtle, sometimes, but it’s present. Departmental vacancies go unfilled. He’s packed his government with opponents of industry regulation. Betsy DeVos has delivered the Department of Education to unscrupulous student lenders and for-profit colleges with a bow tied around it.

And then there’s the matter of government spending. To understand exactly how Trump delivers on old tea party demands, it’s important to remember that the tea party itself didn’t deviate much from Republican norms. As the political theorist Corey Robin has argued, the tea party’s ideas were unoriginal at the time. By 2009, Republicans had been railing against “welfare queens” for years. The phrase “personal responsibility” already signaled a form of denialism, where Republicans and centrist Democrats alike blamed poverty on the lifestyle choices of the poor rather than the priorities of lawmakers. The tea party’s central innovation was to take these older ideas and incorporate them into a broad critique of government spending.

Some activists did seek cuts to defense spending, and so did a few allied members of Congress. And if you look no further than the budget deficit, and the fact that it still exists, perhaps it does seem as if the tea party ultimately lost. But the tea party had other ideas too. Its activists despised welfare, and so, too, does the Trump administration. From food stamps to Medicaid, Trump officials pursue welfare cuts with single-minded diligence. The Baltimore Sun reported last week that the Department of Agriculture’s proposed changes to SNAP would kick around 15,000 Baltimore residents off food assistance. “Those people are living in hell in Baltimore,” Trump told the press in July. “They’re largely African-American … and they really appreciate what I’m doing, and they let me know it.” Trump’s comments weren’t inspired by the USDA’s SNAP cuts, but by his grudge match with Representative Elijah Cummings. But they are revealing, nonetheless. In rhetoric and policy, the administration’s disdain for “those people” is a universal and palpable wound.

Years after Santelli screamed “This is America!” into the stale air of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Trump promised to make a threatened homeland great again. In this way, he is Santelli’s president. He is the president of birthers and small-government hysterics. He might not be a tea party purist, but he’s clearly a believer.

The tea party is not dead, and neither are its ideas. We look not at its defeat but at its victory — incomplete, but real all the same.

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