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How the Tea Party became a statist-populist movement

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“People are tired of the nanny state and the growth of government, tired of having our money basically robbed,” said a demonstrator at a tea party rally in 2009. “[We] want to return to constitutional form of government, limited government that allows people to be free and independent.”

“I think it’s only a matter of time before these people quit carrying signs and start doing something else,” said Ed McQueen, an Ohio resident who attended a rally in Chicago. “What that is, I don’t know. Quit paying taxes? Are they going to start carrying sticks and clubs? I don’t know.”

A decade later, now we know what it is they’d do as an act of rebellion: support Donald Trump.

A recent analysis by Pew Research finds that Republicans who had positive views of the Tea Party movement in 2014 or 2015 were among Trump’s most enthusiastic backers during the 2016 campaign, and continued to have very positive feelings about the president through his first year in office.

In one sense this might be surprising. Imagine traveling back to a Tea Party rally in March 2009 and telling the people like Mr. McQueen—people protesting Democrats, high taxes, stimulus spending, and Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—that in a decade their favorite politician/president would be a man who was (right then, in 2009) a registered Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton, donated to Chuck Schumer, and endorsed TARP, and who would (in the future, as a Republican president) propose more stimulus spending than Obama and impose the largest tax hike in post-World War II history. They would have thought you were slandering them and their movement as hypocrites.

But in another sense it’s not surprising at all. For the tea party “movement” was never a movement in the sense of being motivated by a clear set of issues and principles. This was clear to political observers less than a year after tea party protests began.

“Having looked at the swelling of the Tea Party,” said Paul Gottfried in The American Conservative, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a uniform movement. There are at least three different movements trying to give the impression of being one. The most influential of these movements is the one that fits most easily into the GOP.”

And as Matthew Continetti said in The Weekly Standard in June 2010,

There is no single Tea Party. The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic.

Indeed, the main faction of the Tea Party was merely subset of the religious right. A Quinnipiac University poll in 2010 asked basic demographic information, revealing that 20 percent of white evangelicals considered themselves part of the tea party movement. Another survey showed that nearly half (47 percent) of those affiliated with the tea party considered themselves to be part of the conservative Christian movement. And despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the most commonly held views were not economic but social. For example, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of tea partiers said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. Fifty-five percent of people who say they are part of the tea party agreed that, “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation.”

The main difference between Christian conservatives and Tea Partiers was their source of news: more than half (57 percent) of Tea Partiers said Fox News was their most trusted source for “accurate information about politics and current events” while only 39 percent of the Christian conservatives said that.

Yet despite being dominated by religious people, the Tea Party organizations never focused on social conservative issues. There was, in fact, little agreement on which issues were significant. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups in 2010, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern. (Today, as Tea Party organizations have been taken over by populist grifters, then number who would prioritize fiscal conservatism is likely to be even smaller.)

So if the Tea Party is not a principled movement, what was it? Mostly a marketing tactic—an attempt at rebranding the GOP. The term Tea Party was mainly a label for populist Republicans and independents who always vote for the GOP, even when they shun the Republican label. Using the Tea Party label was a way to set themselves apart from the despised ruling class and others they considered RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

At it’s true that during the presidency of George W. Bush the conservative brand became almost meaningless. Even the so-called conservative media used the label, without irony, to refer to politicians who supported increases in government spending (Bush), amnesty for illegal aliens (John McCain), government-sponsored universal health care (Mitt Romney), and abortion and gay marriage (Rudy Giuliani). When “conservatives” could embrace the core of the liberal agenda, what did the term mean?

The original Tea Party events in 2009 provided a way frustrated Republican populists to answer that question, however vaguely, by declaring we are this and not that. What many wanted was not full-spectrum conservatism, but a more Republican form of progressivism.

Eventually, the GOP establishment realized that tapping into the Tea Party’s energy would help them take back Congress. The New York Times identified 138 candidates for Congress with significant Tea Party support in the 2010 mid-term elections. Out of that group, 50 percent were elected to the Senate and 31 percent to the House. One of those candidates was Justin Amash, a self-described Hayekian libertarian who explained his approach to voting on legislation, by saying, “I follow a set of principles. I follow the Constitution. And that’s what I base my votes on. Limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty.”

In 2011 Amash co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a group in the House of Representatives that consisted of Tea Party conservatives and libertarians. This month, Amash had to resign. The reason: he supports the impeachment of Trump.

Had Amash supported impeaching Obama on the same grounds, the Tea Party and GOP would be championing him. But because the economic liberal in the White House is a Republican, Amash has become a pariah to both the Tea Party and his fellow Republicans. As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf’s notes, “Even the other members of the House Freedom Caucus, the most freedom-loving, freedom-supporting members of Congress, have sided against one of their own to please an erratic big-government authoritarian.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, “Justin Amash can determine his own future, but I think in a philosophical basis he is probably in a different place than a majority of Republicans.” That’s certainly true. Whatever his other faults, Amash’s “philosophical basis” remains a commitment to “Limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty.” That’s not something the “majority of Republicans” support. That’s not even what the majority of Tea Partiers support.

How did the Tea Party go from being a movement of committed conservatives and libertarians to being synonymous with Big Government statism and economically liberal populism? As those of us who were paying attention over the past decade could have told you, the vast majority of grassroots Tea Party supporters were never concerned with limiting government power or spending or promoting liberty. What Tea Party progressives really wanted—just like what most other hyper-partisan liberals want—was to crush their enemies to the left. They wanted a demagogue who would “own the libs” while still promoting liberal fiscal policies. And that’s just what they got.

The Tea Party has not completed its transformation, though. Within another decade those who align with the Tea Party today will support a president who endorses forty percent of the liberal economic agenda of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as long as that president will also constantly rant against someone like AOC. What the Tea Party wants is performative demagoguery rather than principled constitutionalism. And if the political alliances on the conservative/libertarian wing continue to be corrupt and craven, that’s just what they’ll get.

Correction: The article originally claimed that Rep. Amash resigned from the House Liberty Caucus. He remains in that group. I apologize for the error.

Image source: Wikipedia

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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