Liberals were right about the tea party. So argues Jonathan Chait in a column for New York today. Donald Trump, Chait contends, proves that the tea party’s underlying motivation wasn’t fiscal conservatism or adherence to the Constitution, but bigotry, as many Democrats then insisted. How else to explain conservatism’s sudden knuckling under to a big-government corporatist who recently advocated more stimulus? “It’s one thing to suspect tea-party rhetoric was phony,” Chait writes, “quite another to believe the entire GOP could disregard every single putative principle of the movement even before it had its hands on power.” Yet that’s exactly what happened.
Except it’s not, not entirely. Donald Trump is nobody’s idea of a Revolutionary War reenactor, but many of his stated priorities align with the tea party: repealing Obamacare, reining in the EPA, cutting taxes, reducing the national debt, nominating a conservative justice to the Supreme Court. The tea party-minded voters with whom I spoke during the campaign were by no means ardent about Trump, but most had decided to reluctantly vote for him on the basis of those issues (for some, it was SCOTUS alone). Conceding some infrastructure spending hikes if it means repealing Obamacare is pragmatism, not evidence of latent racism. And many of the tea party’s putative leaders—Glenn Beck, Jenny Beth Martin, Ben Sasse—did oppose Trump, and fiercely.
But enough. I’ll acknowledge that explanation alone can’t refute Chait’s point. The tea party wasn’t some peripatetic gathering of besieged voters, pragmatically opting for whatever scraps lawmakers tossed their way; they were a political force, one that used to make congressional phones explode out of their cradles. How did they yield someone as ideologically incompatible as Donald Trump?
RELATED: What’s the point of Evan McMullin?
The answer to that question can be found in the period following the 2012 election. For conservatives, these were days of rage, both at the victorious Barack Obama and the Republican establishment who foisted on them the hapless Mitt Romney. The tea party had always been a fragile movement. It was genuinely libertarian—attendees I interviewed at rallies chattered excitedly about slashing spending and enforcing the Tenth Amendment—but it was also populist, and the former was always at risk of being shattered by the latter. Following Romney’s loss, that’s exactly what happened. The policy innovations provided by the libertarian wing of the tea party were consumed by the raw, inchoate, aimless energy of populism, more against everything than for anything, impatient with gradualist congressional change, eventually intensifying into antimatter against whatever “the establishment” was presently regarded as. The worst instincts of the tea party were thus exacerbated. Immigration, an easy target for oppositionists, became the new centerpiece issue.
I still remember talking to an older colleague of mine back in 2014, a conservative who had been running to head a local GOP chapter and was starting to regret it. Somehow, Republican voters had tagged him as the “establishment candidate” and his town halls had turned into gauntlets, with attendees teasing out heretical clauses from articles he’d written and accusing him of RINO sympathies. “It’s all about immigration now,” he told me. “They’re obsessed with that.” A couple months later, Dave Brat would beat then-House majority leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia district’s Republican primary. Brat was essentially a tea partier but the focus of his campaign had been almost exclusively on securing the border, a harbinger of what was to come.
The conservative movement was changing yet again, though even then its current mutation wasn’t yet clear. Early on in the 2016 primary, I believed a tea party candidate could win so long as he enveloped his ideas in that anti-establishment sentiment; I never foresaw a contender whose sole consistent stance was anti-establishment sentiment emerging and winning. Conservatives had become so irate at a class of elites that didn’t share their principles, they ended up nominating someone from that class of elites, someone who didn’t share their principles, because he hated all the right people at maximum volume.
So, no, despite the alt-right lurking around the periphery, ethnonationalism is not at the heart of the Trump phenomenon. Oppositionist hatred of the ruling class, at the expense of ideas, is. For those of us who supported the tea party as a risky but necessary correction to the hidebound post-Bush GOP, it’s a real shame.