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When the Party’s Over

A tenth anniversary Tea Party rally shows a movement in decline

It should be considered a bad omen when the most exciting moment of a heavily advertised rally right in front of the U.S. Capitol is getting into an argument with a seemingly self-appointed press flack over whether you, a freelance journalist for several “fake news” publications, are permitted to take a selfie with known beard-haver and once-suspected Zodiac Killer, Ted Cruz.

On the afternoon of September 19, some 100 to 150 “patriots”—the preferred descriptor of a mix of pro-Trump and Tea Party rallygoers from across the country—descended upon the Capitol’s West Lawn for the Tea Party Patriots’ recent “Stop Socialism Choose Freedom” event. Standing alongside a cadre of fifty-to-sixty-something-year-old men and women chatting up and snapping pictures with Cruz, I realized that the rally’s lackluster attendance made my original, proposed journalistic assignment impossible.

The message was clear, at least to an outside observer: the Tea Party as we knew it in 2009 has ceased to exist.

The tide broke. I began to wander over to Cruz’s posse, alongside Jared Holt of Right Wing Watch. Despite engaging in some brief banter with one of the event volunteers, we were immediately intercepted by a rally organizer who shut the whole idea down.

“You can’t go there,” she told us.

“I just want to get a photo,” I replied. Holt backed me up.

She glared at me. She had already told us—and only us, it seems—that we couldn’t walk around the event because we lacked the “official” Capitol Hill press passes that are largely given out to journalists who do full-time reporting work on the Hill. It’s such a mind-bogglingly asinine rule that neither of us had abided by it; after all, several reporters from Glenn Beck and conservative talk radio personality Mark Levin’s BlazeTV were wandering freely.

“You don’t really want a photo,” she said, her voice dripping with contempt as she chased us back to the appointed media corner. I messaged my editor to say I was a failure of a reporter.

The Tea Party Patriots’ rally had been billed as a blockbuster, featuring a wide array of Republican members of Congress, activists, and, yes, Ted Cruz. It was, after all, in honor of the movement’s ten years of success. But if the event on September 19 was meant to evoke the enthusiasm of the Tea Party’s (in)famous Taxpayer March on Washington a decade prior, it had failed. Long gone are the days of rallygoers dressed up as Uncle Sam or in revolutionary-era garb. There wasn’t even an abundance of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Instead, the crowd could be better described as a sea—if a sparsely attended rally can constitute a “sea”—of “Make America Great Again” hats and generic signs decrying socialism that had been provided by the Tea Party Patriots.

The message was clear, at least to an outside observer: the Tea Party as we knew it in 2009 has ceased to exist. But it’s not as if the movement has disappeared. On the contrary, whatever momentum it had going into the 2016 presidential campaign has been subsumed by the monstrosity that is Trumpism.

The movement that came to be known as the Tea Party took root in early 2009, in the midst of government efforts to relieve the economic burden brought on by the global financial meltdown the year prior. Less than six months after Lehman Brothers, one of the firms at the heart of the mortgage-backed securities crisis that caused the American economy to cave in on itself, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, CNBC television reporter Rick Santelli burst into a tirade—his own Network-style “mad as hell” moment—that would help shape conservative politics for years to come. “We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July,” shouted Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan—I’m going to start organizing.”

The “not-so-silent majority,” as Santelli’s amused coworkers at CNBC called the gaggle of raucous supporters standing behind him, cheered while he berated President Barack Obama’s efforts to bail out homeowners who were feeling the market’s crunch. The CNBC host’s disgust with the bailouts—and supporting the “bad behavior” of those with underwater mortgages—came to form the backbone of one of the largest conservative uprisings in American history. Days after Santelli’s rant, coordinated protests cropped up in around forty cities. While supporters of the movement and some media outlets depicted it as born primarily out of grassroots energy, it was all-too-conveniently supported and backed by wealthy conservative institutions throughout the United States. The Koch brothers, who had mobilized during Obama’s campaign and subsequent electoral win in 2008, seized upon their own institutional networks and vast personal wealth to support the budding Tea Party. And it was clear that groups like the Tea Party Patriots—the organizers of the September 19 rally and one of the most prominent and powerful Tea Party groups—had friends. As one NPR report from 2010 noted, after an anonymous donor threw $1 million their way, these scrappy groups were sure “getting a lot of help from the well-heeled folks in the luxury skyboxes.” The organization FreedomWorks, part of the sprawling “Kochtopus,” proved to be a major sponsor of the movement.

On September 12, 2009—seven months after Santelli’s outburst and following a string of Tax Day rallies—the Tea Party movement seemingly exploded in popularity. A crowd of roughly 75,000, according to one estimate, marched on Washington, D.C., in a show of frustration with both the Obama administration and politics writ large. The goal, as one Fox News dispatch put it, was to “conquer Washington”—or, in later Trumpian parlance, “drain the swamp.” The Tea Party, where “tea” was also said to stand for “taxed enough already,” sought to harken back to the revolutionary fervor of the United States’ founding. (Hence, you know, the goofy period costumes.) But supporters also advocated for a set of policy ideas, including limited government, opposition to “unearned” entitlements and Obamacare (as opposed to Social Security and Medicare), strong immigration restrictions, and an end to affirmative action.

Trump’s malevolent and acrimonious 2015 campaign announcement had an established audience—an audience that was unafraid of Trump’s incivility or his attacks on fellow Republicans.

What united them first and foremost, though, was an opposition to the Obama administration—albeit one steeped in racial resentment and “a general out-group anxiety.” According to one study conducted at the movement’s height, some 90 percent of Tea Party supporters believed Obama was a socialist, and as such, viewed him as a “defining and motivating threat to the country and its well-being.” Obama’s perceived “foreignness”—which was infamously a point of obsession for Trump himself back in the day—and the right’s efforts to paint him as a socialist were crucial to the movement. Indeed, the Tea Party’s obsession with anti-socialist fear-mongering has now become institutionalized. Look no further than Trump’s solemn vow earlier this year that “America will never be a socialist country,” or the right-wing media’s use (and abuse) of the concept as a means to stump for Trump’s reelection.

But the Tea Party has succeeded in other ways as well. The pressure it generated fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party, resulting in dramatic GOP electoral wins in the House of Representatives in 2010. It helped to make the careers of Mick Mulvaney, the current White House budget director, and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state. Then, of course, there’s Paul Ryan, whose political stardom was enabled by his enthusiastic support of the Tea Party. But as the New York Times noted in summer 2016, such loyalty could come at a cost. Ryan, “facing forces he inadvertently helped unleash” (i.e. Trump), opted to retire instead of continuing alongside the Trumpian ogre, having made limited headway toward his dream of dismantling the social safety net.

Later academic studies of the Tea Party were quick to argue that the perception of its members as “unreconstructed racists” didn’t always jibe with on-the-ground realities, as Harvard professor Theda Skocpol and her co-author Vanessa Williamson argue in their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Rather, they write, “us versus them” mentalities, which were divided “along racial and ethnic fault lines,” underpinned the “worldview of many people active in the Tea Party, although raw expressions of this outlook tend to occur in public political contexts more than in discussions or interviews.” This “racial resentment” or “symbolic racism” added a layer of supposed complication and plausible deniability to the movement. Rather than outright slurs, then, the Tea Party’s anti-black racial animus tended to be expressed by downplaying the impact of decades-long racist policies while also portraying “blacks [as if they] are in violation of the Protestant work ethic,” according to Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto.

As the glaring elisions of a recent New York Times piece reflecting on the legacy of the Tea Party demonstrated, such racial resentment cannot be overlooked. If, as Bryan Gervais and Irwin Morris contend in their 2018 book Reactionary Republicanism, “Tea Party rhetoric served as a bridge to Trumpian bombast,” the movement’s rhetoric about immigrants was key to this connection. Among the Tea Party’s most common stated issues with immigration was their belief that so-called “illegal immigrants” or “illegals” had gained access to public funds and resources (e.g. voting rights) that ought to be designated for “real” Americans. Like Trump, and unlike the more staid Republican lawmakers still enamored with notions of “compassionate conservatism,” the Tea Party was brash. The fact that, as one study of Tea Party groups noted, “80 percent of Tea Party activists see illegal immigration as a serious problem,” means that Trump’s malevolent and acrimonious 2015 campaign announcement had an established audience—an audience that was unafraid of Trump’s incivility or his attacks on fellow Republicans.

Ten years on, what remains of the original Tea Party infrastructure, along with the rest of the Republican Party, marches in lockstep with the beat of Trumpism’s drum. Like the once Trump-wary (and recently deceased) David Koch, who ultimately attended the president’s victory party and privately met with him at Mar-a-Lago, former anti-Trump figures like Mark Levin and Ted Cruz now uplift the president as the righteous inheritor of the movement.

At the September 19, rally, Levin, once a staunch Never Trumper who criticized the president for being insufficiently conservative, extolled Trump’s virtues on stage. “We have a president of the United States who is taking on all these enemies,” he cried, moments after running through the various groups—Democrats, “illegal” immigrants, and the press—who seek the destruction of America. “We may not agree with him on every single thing. [But] it really doesn’t matter.” Trump, he continued, “is stronger than most men, who gets up every morning to a media . . . who have as their purpose to destroy him, his family, his businesses, his reputation.” Echoing Levin, Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots explained that the president’s bravery lay in the fact that “he’s willing to stand and fight, and do things alone . . . if he has to.” (That was, it seemed, a nice way of acknowledging that one of the Trump administration’s most defining characteristics has been its never-ending turnover.)

Even “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” gave a shout out to Trump, framing the president’s election as one of the Tea Party’s victories. “If you look back on the victories that the men and women gathered here—that you have won—it is extraordinary,” he told the crowd. “We have, number one, a Republican president—President Donald J. Trump.” They exploded into cheers. “And for two years . . . we won victory after victory after victory, delivering on our promises,” Cruz continued, citing tax cuts and squashing “hundreds of job-killing regulations” as evidence.

What became abundantly clear as the day went on, is that it’s Trump, not the tiny remnant of the Tea Party that had gathered at the Capitol, who is leading the charge. With the exception of a few conspiratorial asides about Democrats bolstering their voting numbers by enlisting masses of undocumented immigrants to vote, as well as Levin’s brief tirade about “hellhole” countries, the racial animus that once drove the Tea Party’s rebellion against Obama felt muted. It’s not that their racism has somehow disappeared—after all, one participant did refer to Iranians as “subhuman cockroaches”; rather, its absence at the center of the rally seemed a result of the fact that it has found an eager proponent in the White House. Instead, the day’s speakers opted to focus on the dangers posed by the radical left. Rep. Mo Brooks told the crowd that “entities like antifa . . . are fascists,” providing fodder for the president’s crusade against so-called leftist terrorism. But most used the podium to paint the 2020 election as a war between the forces of good and evil, of freedom and tyranny—that is, a war between socialism and democracy. Socialists, they insisted, have infected all corners of American politics. But this was also what had inspired the Tea Party to continue onwards. “Our movement is hardly ‘dead,’” wrote Jenny Beth Martin back in August. Rather, the fight continues in the form of a war against socialism.

The rot, they argue, started with the youth. Morgan Zegers—founder of Young Americans Against Socialism, a nonprofit that, in its own words, is dedicated to detailing “the failures of socialism using viral videos”—kicked off her speech at the Stop Socialism Choose Freedom event with a story from the trenches of higher education. Back in her days at American University, she witnessed just how many of her classmates had fallen under the spell of socialism. One of her “blonde-haired, blue-eyed, classic American” roommates, for instance, had decorated her room with flags and posters of Lenin, Stalin, and other infamous communist figureheads.

The crowd sighed, as if in mourning. But as Holt pointed out at Right Wing Watch, the poster she was describing sounded eerily familiar to “a​ mass-produced poster parodying the ‘Communist Party’” that’s readily available for purchase on Amazon. “She was incredibly well-intentioned,” Zegers continued, her voice dripping with a particular sort of condescension unique to far-right commentators trying to lead the blind, misguided youths from the depths of socialist despair.

Ten years on, what remains of the original Tea Party infrastructure, along with the rest of the Republican Party, marches in lockstep with the beat of the Trumpism’s drum.

But socialism was never really defined at the rally, even on a policy level. It simply took the shape of whatever speakers wanted it to. Gun control was socialism. World War II was a battle against “socialist Germany” in defense of “free enterprise.” (The Nazis? They were socialists, too. It’s in the name, libs.) A Minnesota Tea Party activist got in some airtime berating Ilhan Omar, one of the right’s newest and preferred rhetorical punching bags, whose occasionally imprecise tweets have come to represent the textual and digital equivalent of Stalin’s antisemitic Doctor’s Plot for the right. Meanwhile, billionaires, Rep. Louie Gohmert told the crowd, have spent “millions and millions” of dollars to “turn us socialist.” Levin bellowed out at one point that he’d “be damned if we’re gonna swap Bernie Sanders for George Washington.” (It remains unclear who exactly would propose this idea, or what it would entail, although Levin himself contended that socialism meant turning your soul over to Elizabeth Warren.)

These dire warnings, combined with a hodgepodge of miscellaneous talking points—including Rep. Paul Gosar’s shout-out to the “shadow banning” of conservatives on social media and Cruz’s senseless rambling about the absurdity of reproductive rights for trans people—differed little from the usual offerings of the right-wing outrage machine. The grassroots had become indistinguishable from the machine itself.

As the crowd dispersed around 1:45 p.m.—a mere three hours after the rally began—I wondered what conclusions attendees at the 2009 Taxpayers March on Washington would have drawn from the Tea Party gathered here today. Would they have seen a movement on its last legs? Or would this sparse attendance signify their victory, the absorption of their ideas into the mainstream? I thought back to Mike Pence’s speech on that September day some ten years prior. Pence, at the time a Republican representative from Indiana, told the eager crowd that he felt they were on “the verge of a great American awakening.” It would, he continued, “begin here and begin now and begin with you.”

The awakening did, indeed, come. Its leader? Donald J. Trump.