The Tea Party is back — for Donald Trump.
A decade after the anti-government, anti-tax, and anti-Obama insurgency emerged, and eight years after the movement fueled the midterm elections that gave the Republican Party control of the House of Representatives and sent conservatives like Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Mark Meadows to Congress, Tea Party activists are getting active again in midterm races.
This time they’re not trying to blow up the system or fight big government. They’re here to support President Trump, no matter that he’s the biggest big-government Republican of them all. And in 2018, they’re trying to get more Donald Trumps into office — from state-level races to the halls of Congress.
In more than a dozen state-level races in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia, Tea Party groups are backing conservative challengers to both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Most of the Tea Party contenders aren’t expected to win. But they could still become a big problem for the GOP.
With control of Congress in the balance, mainstream candidates are concerned that, like Roy Moore in Alabama last year, Tea Party-supported Trumpian contenders will force Republican frontrunners into a battle royal to prove who can hew closest to Trump’s political vision, putting them at major risk in November’s general elections. In Ohio, one Tea Party candidate was described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Brent Larkin as “a candidate for Congress in a rock-solid Republican district who is easily capable of losing that safe seat to a Democrat next November.”
Trumpian candidates are the new Tea Party candidates
Ohio Tea Party candidate Christina Hagan ran against Anthony Gonzalez (a former Ohio State football player) in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania. She lost, but she ran hard on Trumpian rhetoric and picked up a sizable share of the vote: 41 percent.
She described herself as “anti-establishment, pro-Trump” on her website. One of her campaign ads included video of people streaming across a wall seemingly on America’s border with Mexico (it was actually footage of migrants entering Morocco), and she shared a news article on Twitter about an undocumented immigrant arrested for drug offenses, who happened to have the last name “Gonzalez.” Ohio Republican leaders pleaded with her to take down the tweet.
Her campaign website boasted of endorsements from conservative advocacy groups like FreedomWorks. “Currently, most Republican politicians claim the mantle of being a conservative,” Hagan told me. “So I am thankful that grassroots organizations and leaders within the Tea Party are speaking up about who actually advocates and has executed on limited government principles.”
FreedomWorks, which has funded Tea Party activities for nearly a decade, is supporting more than 25 candidates nationwide this fall. All of them fit the Trumpian mold, from Missouri’s Josh Hawley, who hosted President Trump at a fundraiser in March, to Wisconsin’s Kevin Nicholson, a onetime Democratic rising star who recrafted himself as a conservative Republican and major Trump supporter (and who said of veterans who vote for Democrats, “I question their cognitive thought process”), to Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, who told the Washington Examiner that Trump had saved the Republican Party.
Many of these candidates are either, like Hawley, in extremely tight races or, like Nicholson, running far behind their Democratic opponents in areas the GOP needs to win to maintain control of Congress.
From tricorn hats to Trump rallies
When Trump won the White House in 2016, many Tea Party activists were thrilled. Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots, wrote after the election in November, “Far from being dead, the tea party movement has much to celebrate and much to do. Our values prevailed in the 2016 general election.”
This was a big shift in tone for Martin from earlier in 2016, when she told a crowd at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, “Donald Trump loves himself first, last and everywhere in between. He loves himself more than our country, he loves himself more than the Constitution.”
The Tea Party’s transition from anti-big government to pro-Trump is a story of how a movement adapts to maintain its influence and power. The Tea Party rose to power by dragging mainstream Republicans further and further to the right, effectively shifting the center of the party. But Trump is the manifestation of opposition to mainstream Republicans, so the Tea Party has positioned itself next to him, where it can continue to influence conservative politics.
The Tea Party’s beginnings are hazy, with some activists seeing the movement’s origins in David and Charles Koch’s libertarian organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded in 1984. (FreedomWorks is an offshoot of CSE, now called Americans for Prosperity.) Others saw the Tea Party’s origins in Ron Paul’s fundraising efforts for his failed 2008 presidential run.
Immigration, too, played a role: Eric Cantor lost his House seat to a Tea Party challenger who said that Cantor’s support for the DREAM Act meant he favored “amnesty” for “illegals.” Many more were motivated to get involved in Tea Party groups by the big bank bailouts of the late 2000s, specifically the passage of the controversial Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, signed into law by President George W. Bush, who said that in doing so, “I’ve abandoned free market principles” but added he signed the legislation “to save the free market system.”
But for many, the first time they heard of a “Tea Party” outside of a Revolutionary War reenactment was on CNBC on February 19, 2009, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli gave a monologue on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “Government is promoting bad behavior!” he shouted. “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” He added, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July!” saying that traders could gather and dump derivative securities in Lake Michigan.
Santelli’s rant was aimed at President Obama; specifically, Obama’s Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan. And his rant proved potent among conservatives who reacted much more aggressively to Obama’s health care plan than to, say, Bush’s massive deficit spending. As conservative commentator Glenn Beck told Business Insider in 2014, “A lot of people have been credited with starting the modern-day Tea Party but make no mistake, it was Rick Santelli.”
I spoke with Jennifer Stefano, who first got involved with the Tea Party back in 2008 and is now vice president of Americans for Prosperity. She told me that the movement’s basic ethos is: “We want a limited government that respects the rights of the individuals over the state. We fought and still fight for economic freedom so all Americans can have opportunity, economic prosperity, independence and fairness from their government.”
Stefano added that in her view, much of the Tea Party’s activism was intended to be a rejection of Republican economic policies, not a response to Obama. “There was no chance that we were going to embrace Republican messaging.” she said. “We were furious at the bailouts that began under President George W. Bush, and many of us felt that the Republican Party betrayed what they were supposed to stand for, namely a limited government whose policies allow individual the opportunity to flourish. Bailing out corporations with taxpayer money is antithetical to that.”
Yet Republicans, like former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, were more than willing to wear the Tea Party mantle. Palin spoke at the first national Tea Party convention held in Nashville in 2010, telling delegates that America was “ready for another revolution.”
Cruz’s successful 2012 Senate campaign was made possible in part by support from major Tea Party figures and organizations, like FreedomWorks. When Cruz ran for president in 2016, he was endorsed by the Tea Party Patriots. In an interview with NPR in March 2016, Bill Pascoe, a consultant for the Tea Party Patriots, said the endorsement made sense because “the one thing that you can say about Ted Cruz is that he’s a man who — he ran on tea party values. He was elected on tea party values with tea party support.” About Trump, Pascoe said, “At any given time on any given issue, Donald Trump can be counted on to take the position that serves his own interests at that time.”
Then something strange happened: Trump, who espoused little public interest in fiscal conservatism and promised Americans he would repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact some form of universal health care, won the White House.
And since Inauguration Day, Martin has been one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, even writing lauding op-eds about Trump appointees, like embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.
But Trump isn’t much of a Tea Partier
On its face, Tea Party support for Trump doesn’t make much sense. First and foremost, in April 2009, when Tea Party activists staged their first major protest, Trump told television host Larry King, “I don’t march with the Tea Party.”
The Tea Party’s message was incredibly simple: shrink the federal government and federal spending. Trump’s messaging, and actions while in office are different. He had and has little interest in curtailing deficit spending; in fact, he loves debt (and has said so, repeatedly.)
As conservative writer John Podhoretz wrote in February after Trump signed the massive omnibus spending bill into law, “In the passage of the two-year budget featuring several hundred billion in new spending, the Tea Party years came to an end. The unifying glue of the GOP in the early years of the second decade of the 21st century came apart.”
Stefano, the Americans for Prosperity vice president, concurred in an op-ed for the New York Times on the budget titled “This Isn’t What the Tea Party Fought For.” She wrote: “Partisan majorities do not guarantee good public policy. A Republican president and Congress still could not enact balanced fiscal policy, with tax cuts and spending decreases.”
Stefano told me she’s still proud to have gotten involved in the Tea Party (saying, “I believe my work is a legacy I will pass on to my children and my grandchildren”) but that a lot of the efforts undertaken by Tea Party activists she saw as most effective were in public policy, not elections or candidates.
Of course, Trump supporters and Tea Party activists could certainly find common cause on some issues, particularly immigration. I spoke with Vanessa Williamson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution with a focus on governance studies, about the connections between the Tea Party and support for Trump. In her view, “Anti-immigration passions were a primary driver of Tea Party activism, and a primary reason for Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 Republican primary. The slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ and the promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico echoes the nostalgia and xenophobia that motivated many Tea Party activists.”
Perhaps the biggest motivating factor in Tea Party support for Trump in 2016 wasn’t Trump at all — it was his opponent, Hillary Clinton. In July 2016, Martin, of the Tea Party Patriots, wrote an op-ed explaining why, saying “While it is true that some tea party voters are not yet sold on Donald Trump as the GOP nominee, there is virtually 100 percent unanimity that they are opposed to Mrs. Clinton.” She added:
Tea party voters are looking for leaders who are open and honest about their plans, beliefs, and motivations; Hillary Clinton is neither.
Tea party voters are looking for leaders who recognize that it is the American people, not the American government, that has made our nation the last, best hope of mankind; Hillary Clinton does not.
When I spoke with Martin, she said that for members of her organization, support for Trump made sense: Tea Partiers generally support Republicans. As she told me, Tea Party supporters “may have wanted someone different in the primary,” but they quickly unified behind Trump once he won the Republican nomination.
She added that much of her group’s efforts were now aimed at establishment figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, whom they view as unable to deliver for conservative voters. (On McConnell, the TPP wrote in October, “Mitch McConnell has had his chance. He has failed to deliver. It is TIME FOR HIM TO GO.”)
For the Tea Party, winning control of Congress and the White House was the easy part (granted, made possible through millions of phone calls and hundreds of GOTV events). But now comes the hard part: trying to make real change, through a candidate who didn’t support their movement and through a political environment rife with distractions and calamities.
Martin said that members of her organization weren’t deterred by current events, like the omnibus spending bill to which Stefano and other conservatives were so opposed, or the strange world of Republican politics in Washington. “Our supporters understand from their own experience in trying to make a difference in Washington that it’s very difficult to get the establishment to move in the way that you want. You push as hard as you can, and when you don’t win, you regroup and continue to push for it. You don’t give up because things did not go as you hoped they would.”