From the Tea Party to Trump (With a John Boehner cameo)

Returning to the most recent episode of The Remnant, with Jonah Goldberg interviewing Matthew Continetti about the history of modern conservatism, I have thoughts about another brief interlude (~51:30-55:00 or so) in which Goldberg suggests that one of the signal moments pointing toward our current, more populist moment was the Tea Party, but specifically how that movement was treated.

He notes that the Tea Party, devoted to fiscal responsibility and Constitutional conservatism, was about the only populist movement he could ever back.  Goldberg observed that while many Tea party leaders were African-American and the focus was on excessive spending, the left (and the media particularly) nevertheless chose to paint the movement as fascist and racist.  He theorizes this was responsible for a “psychic break” that led to Trumpian populism.

I think this is part of the story, but not all of the story.

Looking back at this April 2010 NYT/CBS poll with a large subsample of Tea Party supporters tells part of the rest of the story.  The major concerns of the subsample remained the economy and jobs; the budget deficit ranked fourth, behind “politicians/government.”  A near-majority disapproved of their own Representative in Congress.  They were far less likely to blame the Bush administration or Wall Street and more likely to blame Congress for the Great Recession.

A majority of Tea Party supporters described themselves as “angry” with the way things were going in DC, but a majority didn’t want a third party.  Those who were angry were angriest about the government not representing the people and Obama’s healthcare reform than government spending.

Over 90% of Tea Party supporters wanted a smaller government, with 73% agreeing even if that meant cuts to Social Security, Medicare, defense and education.  But they preferred cutting taxes to cutting the deficit.  And 62% thought Social Security and Medicare were worth the cost — less than the 73% approval among the general sample, but not drastically so.

While 78% of Tea Partiers prioritized economic issues over social ones, they were significantly more concerned about illegal immigration, significantly less concerned about global warming, significantly more opposed to same sex marriage, significantly more pro-life and pro-Second Amendment.

And though Goldberg is correct that the Tea Party generally welcomed African-Americans, esp. wrt leadership, only 16% thought white people have a better chance at getting ahead than blacks and a majority thought too much had been made of the problems facing black people.  Both of those findings are markedly different from the overall sample.

This data does not show the Tea Party was fascist.  It does tend to underscore how much concerns of about “the swamp” were driving things above and beyond concerns about spending in particular.  The data doesn’t establish the Tea Party was racist, either — but it might suggest that the potential for white identity politics was there despite the popularity of figures like Heman Cain, Ben Carson, or Allen West.

Another part of the story might be seen anecdotally in a Peggy Noonan column on the Tea Party I have referred to previously.  In writing about the “yardstick” and the “clock” she sketched the portrait of a movement that viewed the GOP apparat as always losing to the forces of big government in the face of conditions they “fear[ed] will end America as we know it, as they promised it to their children.”  How far a drive is it from this description to MAGAworld and the Flight 93 election?  Not very far at all.

Goldberg is probably right that the media’s demonization of the Tea Party helped push them that extra mile.  But I’d suggest that the way they were treated by the GOP apparat was just as important.

To illustrate this point, I’d recommend a re-read of the somewhat viral POLITICO profile of fmr House Speaker John Boehner.  Therein, Boehner refers to Rep. Jim Jordan, the founding chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, this way: “A terrorist. A legislative terrorist.”  Someone who speaks of a duly-elected member of his caucus this way, even as casual hyperbole, probably is not going to be good at managing his caucus.  And his inability to manage his caucus was why Pres. Obama and Sen. Maj. Ldr. Harry Reid didn’t take him seriously.

Later in the profile, Boehner chooses to blame partisan media and social media for the polarization he believes doomed his Speakership:

He continues: ‘I always liked Rush [Limbaugh]. When I went to Palm Beach I would always meet with Rush and we’d go play golf. But you know, who was that right-wing guy, [Mark] Levin? He went really crazy right and got a big audience, and he dragged [Sean] Hannity to the dark side. He dragged Rush to the dark side. And these guys—I used to talk to them all the time. And suddenly they’re beating the living shit out of me.’ Boehner, seated in his favorite recliner, lights another cigarette. ‘I had a conversation with Hannity, probably about the beginning of 2015. I called him and said, “Listen, you’re nuts.” We had this really blunt conversation. Things were better for a few months, and then it got back to being the same-old, same-old. Because I wasn’t going to be a right-wing idiot.’

Does Boehner have a case?  Sure.  But isn’t the fact that he used to talk to those guys all the time a tell here?  Having: (a) one conversation; (b) with Hannity, easily the most pliable of the three; (c) in early 2015 sounds like an entirely inadequate response needed to the populist rage that had already been boiling on talk radio and among the Republican base for several years.

It’s not that Boehner had no case to make to the angry mob; he did.  But when you view this segment of your base as terrorists, you’re probably not inclined to make it.  The result was a vicious cycle: Boehner cutting deals that fueled the anger at the GOP Congress, kept the pressure on Freedom Caucus types to oppose him, and ultimately opened the door for a Trump (or a Cruz) to exploit fury over so-called “failure theater.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20.  But the road to Trumpist populism was always there and the degree to which that road was being paved by the GOP establishment was noted by pundits like Noonan in real time.  Whatever my opinions about Limbaugh, Hannity, or even Levin (the last onboard the Trump Train, it should be noted), they were reflecting their audiences as much or more than they were driving them.  The “psychic break” Goldberg describes can be laid at the feet of the GOP apparat as much as it can be pinned on a scornful establishment media.

Moreover, while I have placed blame with Trump for his inability to lead a Congress that is ostensibly of his own party, the Congressional dysfunction that has marked 2017 (so far — we’ll see how they ultimately do with tax reform) also looks a lot like the Congressional dysfunction that existed before Trump’s election.  I don’t envy the Congressional leadership’s task in managing their coalition (or, more broadly, the GOP coalition).  But someone may want to rethink their approach, lest the midterms look especially ugly.

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