Seven and a half years ago, I was sitting on the couch in my tiny 5th floor apartment in Boston’s North End pretending to study for the LSAT. But I couldn’t focus on the future prospect of law school because I was distracted by a congressional vote that had me both angry and depressed. I watched in disgust as our elected officials passed the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the corporate bailout that both John McCain and Barack Obama supported just weeks before the 2008 presidential election.
I remember that feeling of hopelessness quite well. The knowledge that a Republican president who started his term with what should have been a conservative Congress was going out in a blaze of corporate welfare glory. What was the point, I wondered, of electing Republicans if they were going to govern in a manner virtually indistinguishable from Democrats?
I was coming down off of my first year and a half of political activism in the insurgent Ron Paul for President movement. Not even a year prior to the bailout I had been one of the organizers of “The Boston Tea Party Freedom Rally,” held in support of a money bomb grassroots activists had put together for Paul’s campaign. Because we were the Boston Ron Paul Meetup group and our event was tea party themed, we thought we had a chance at getting Ron Paul himself to our rally. Instead, we struck a compromise.
We were told by the campaign that we should reach out to a Paul family member. It’s not Ron himself we thought, but at least we’d get to hear from someone who knows him well and is a pretty eloquent political activist in his own right. That’s when I got a message from a guy named Rand Paul. He told me he’d keynote our rally, and made it to Faneuil Hall despite the blizzard ravaging Boston that mid-December day.
Just under a year later, it felt like those efforts had been in vain. I watched in horror as McCain suspended his campaign to support a corporatist attack on the free market. And I wasn’t shocked by Barack Obama’s sweeping victory and resulting control of Congress. But I was somewhat surprised – in a good way – when months later I learned about the emergent plan for tea party rallies.
I hadn’t heard the original rant where Rick Santelli called for a tea party on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade at the time (though it’s still epic and I suggest you watch it). But I sure as hell understood the tea party sentiment instinctively. It was a reaction not just to President Obama, but to the whole government-financial complex. So I signed up to be the Boston organizer through the Tax Day Tea Party website that listed the points of contact for the April 15th, 2009 rallies.
The original tea party rallies brought a diverse cross-section of people together. You had individuals from across the political spectrum, not to mention frustrated apolitical types, many of whom were hurting economically and opposed the whole notion of corporate welfare. As the movement grew from rallies into political action, it focused more highly on the core principles of free markets and limited government. And quite honestly, the electoral results were impressive.
The tea party sweep of Congress in 2010 was no small feat, and there were many repeat victories in 2012. The fruits of this are seen in the current presidential election in Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. All three of these men, though they hold diverse views and align with various wings of the conservative movement, have one thing in common: They ran insurgent campaigns based on free market principles that took out the establishment-standard bearer during their senate primaries with grassroots tea party support.
Paul, Rubio and Cruz represent what the tea party movement’s groundwork matured into. Donald Trump, even as he showcases his endorsement from self-styled tea party advocate Sarah Palin, does not. I’ve gotten into this both on Twitter and in a Boston Herald Radio interview in the days since the incoherent Palin speech that spawned a thousand “The Tea Party is Dead” think pieces. There are several angles that need to be considered here that I think are largely being overlooked.
Number one is the overly broad conflation of right-wing populism and the tea party. Insofar as restrictionist views on immigration and trade protectionism can be considered right-wing populist, and in a subset of the movement they are (see Pat Buchanan and paleoconservatism generally) it’s possible to put Trump in that category – though even that is tricky given his very recent history as a liberal Democrat – but there’s no doubt he appeals to some people in that camp.
The tea party is also a form right-wing populism, but it was born of support for free markets in response to the pernicious corporatism of George Bush, Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. There’s no doubt that some tea party supporters, particularly those who liked the movement more for the anti-Obama entertainment factor than the policy fights, have gravitated toward Trump. But polling has consistently demonstrated that the most conservative voters reject Trump and that his base of support is disaffected moderates and independents.
Palin, who let’s not forget came on the national scene because McCain tapped her as his vice presidential pick right before he suspended his campaign to support the Wall Street bailout, latched onto the tea party movement as a rally fixture due to its popularity. She has no doubt enjoyed an enthusiastic audience among some tea partiers, and that speaks to a divide that exists in all political movements – identity and entertainment versus policy and governing.
As Jim Antle aptly pointed out at The Week, “Palin’s appeal has always been as much about who she is and what she represents as much as what she believes. She was the Bible-studying, gun-toting, hockey mom who affirmed social conservatism while defying stereotypes about what a social conservative — normally depicted as prudish men seeking to control women’s bodies rather than independent women — looked like.”
And really, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Both the left and the right engage in their own forms of identity politicking. But the tea party has always been more than its entertainment wing, which is why Palin’s decision to latch onto Trump’s traveling circus is far from its death knell. We’ve seen the fruits of hard fought tea party victories translated into policy during presidential debates when Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz duke it out with the other candidates over the details of their remarkably conservative tax plans. We see it in the House Freedom Caucus and the once unthinkable fact that John Boehner and Eric Cantor are no longer members of Congress. And we see it from the ground-up as tea party organizers continue to impact both the Republican Party and their local government.
Yes, it’s remarkably frustrating to those of us who poured blood, sweat and tears into electing strong tea party conservatives to see an undesirable form of right-wing populism take the hot seat while ours gets less policy and media attention. In some ways, the same sense of hopelessness I felt during the bailout vote has returned. But this is the normal ebb and flow of politics. The right-wing entertainment circuit will travel on, as will the toilers who work to elect fiscal conservatives concerned with limited government principles.
Donald Trump and Sarah Palin might be dominating the news cycle, but don’t forget that the tea party movement put three strong presidential candidates on the stage. The truth of the matter is that the tea party isn’t dead, it’s just different now. Seven years in, it would be impossible to expect a populist movement that coalesced around a single issue to not have fractured. The early tea party organizers are busy supporting candidates of their choice, and many have made big impacts in their local and state government. Neither Trump nor Palin will ultimately kill this ongoing grassroots work.
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Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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