Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump Exposes the Hollow Core of the Tea Party Movement

Remember how the Tea Party was going to remake America through the principles of constitutional conservatism? From the famous rant by CNBC Reporter Rick Santelli in 2009 (when he proclaimed on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that taxpayers should not be forced to bail out irresponsible holders of subprime mortgages) to the anti-tax protests by conservatives in tri-corner hats to the wave of “Teapublicans” elected to Congress in the 2010 midterms on platforms to oppose Obama and the bailouts, a new conservative movement (with Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh at their back) appeared poised to upset the Washington establishment from the right.

All that seems so, so long ago. In just a few short years, the new freshman Tea Party class became tainted with their own inevitable association with “Washington insiders.”  A surprisingly large proportion of the TeaParty class of 2010 has already been booted or have otherwise retired--18 out of the 84 who won office on the Tea Party wave have already left.

In fact, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (both elected to the Senate on a broad wave of Tea Party discontent) have been faced with the conundrum of how to deliver to their constituents while maintaining near impossible standards of ideological purity. The two freshman senators took different routes. Rubio tried to deliver on the goods. In the process, however, he compromised his ideological bona fides (and his chances at the White House, according to many Tea Party supporters) with his effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform as a member of the famed ‘Gang of Eight.’ Cruz, on the other hand, sacrificed his constituent interests on the altar of ideological consistency, making a name for himself by helping to shut down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund Obamacare.  Although earning the contempt of nearly all of his colleagues in the Senate, Cruz set himself up nicely for a presidential run with the support of a very pissed off conservative base.

Today, the Tea Party struggles to remain relevant in Trump’s America. For years, the movement has been in decline. From a high of 52 percent in late 2010, the popularity of the Tea Party among Republicans alone has dropped to 38 percent in 2014-15. Today, only 17 percent of Americans identify with them overall, although they remain a sizeable (and mobilized) group in the GOP.

Enter Trump. From the time he descended on that elevator to announce his candidacy in June 2015 to the present, Trump has not only divided (and thus neutered) the evangelical voting bloc in the primary, but he also reveals the hollow core of the Tea Party movement.

The majority of Tea Party supporters today support Trump, many positions of whom run almost directly counter to fiscal conservativism. A Feb. 25 poll by Quinnipiac University found that Trump had the support of more than half of Republicans who identified as Tea Party supporters. Cruz had 28 percent among that group. Rubio, who was carried into the Senate in 2010 with Tea Party support, was backed by just 13 percent.

Trump represents an odd choice for those who identify as libertarians.

The Tea (“Taxed Enough Already”) Party had been founded on the principles of lower taxes, reducing the size of government, reduced regulations, and challenging the constitutionality of entitlement programs. Below are the 10 points of the 2010 Contract from America. Penned by a Tea Party activist, these are widely taken to be articles of faith of the Tea Party as a whole, having been culled from thousands of ideas solicited from the rank and file. 

  1. Identify constitutionality of every new law:
  2. Reject emissions trading:
  3. Demand a balanced federal budget:
  4. Simplify the tax system:
  5. Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality:
  6. Limit annual growth in federal spending:
  7. Repeal the health care legislation passed on March 23, 2010:
  8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy:
  9. Reduce Earmarks:
  10. Reduce Taxes:
The Koch brothers and their well-heeled associates played a key role in curating the list, and their hand can be seen at every turn--points 2 and 8 are about deregulating energy production and sales; points 1, 3, 5, 6, and 9 are about limiting the federal government, and no. 4 and 10 are about reduced taxation. These are the long-held policy priorities of the two billionaire oil tycoons. In fact, in his 1980 presidential run, Charles Koch railed against taxes and vowed to tear the government out "by the root."

However libertarian positions are not nearly so beloved by the Tea Party base, and Trump has since blown apart the fragile policy alliance.

To Tea Party supporters and other traditional GOP voters, Trump has made a diametrically opposite pitch. His biggest selling point in the election cycle has been his much-derided “big beautiful wall,” which would be erected on the southern border with Mexico to keep “illegals” out. He also supports deporting the 11 million-odd undocumented residents in the US, enacting protectionist policies to support American businesses, preventing the offshoring of American jobs, using torture against "our enemies," using the threat of nuclear weapons in negotiating with hostile powers, and "taking out" ISIS and their families through a massive bombing campaign. As for the constitution (much revered by Tea Party supporters), Trump appears to regard it as little more than inconsequential regulations standing in the way of his policy agenda--whether it be eliminating birthright citizenship (actually in the constitution itself!) or achieving policy change through executive orders (thus circumventing Congress). Trump is anti-free trade, anti-free borders, and favors a strong and intrusive executive leader, much like Vladimir Putin, whose virtues he has in the past extolled.  Apparently, the feeling is mutual

How could self-described fiscal conservative free traders (as Tea Party supporters claim to be) throw their enthusiastic support behind a populist nationalist who supports generous use (or threat) of trade barriers, a giant physical wall on the southern border and a ban (however temporary) on Muslims traveling to the United States?

The reason is that Tea Party base was never really on board with the corporate or corporate-backed funders of the movement such as Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action, and FreedomWorks. Researchers have discovered, in fact, that the Tea Party movement has not been so much animated by fiscal conservativism, but rather by reactionary reactionary movement by the white majority who see themselves falling behind, and by strong elements of social conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism. It turns out that many Tea Party supporters (like many in the current Republican base) actually prefer a strong authoritarian leader who promises to return them (disproportionately white, male, older) to a time when they were on top, when they didn’t have to think about—let alone share power with—women, minorities or non-Christians. A time when their beliefs about the correct social order matched that of reality.

Simply put, the Tea Party base never really took its proclaimed principles to heart. Journalist Matt Taibbi conducted research the movement and observed that Tea Partiers were anti-tax and anti-entitlement, except when it came to their own entitlements. He concludes:

“the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.”

What are they motivated by? Tribalism, pure and simple:

“The core of the Tea Party was little more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do — and, it would seem, no matter what their own leaders like Rand Paul [and lately, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz] do.”

In the end, the Trump insurgency is probably just one more step in the gradual collapse of the GOP coalition. However, it is also possible that it heralds something more serious and much more dangerous. That we may be in the midst of a fascist moment is a possibility raised by a number of commentators. Noam Chomsky spoke of just such a danger decades ago

“The marginalization of the population and its separation from institutions could potentially lead to a mass base for a fascist movement. We’ve been extremely lucky in the United States that we’ve never really had a charismatic leader who was capable or organizing people around power and its use. There were people who came close, but most of them couldn’t make it... In a depoliticized society with few mechanisms for people to express their fears and needs and to participate constructively in managing the affairs of life, someone could come along who was interested not in personal gain, but in power. That could be very dangerous.”