How the Tea Party Paved the Way for Donald Trump
The Tea Party that arose in 2009 seemed initially focused on bailouts, health care, and taxes. But new research suggests that concerns about cultural change and distrust of distant elites, the same themes that drove Trump supporters, were also central to the Tea Party—not just in the electorate but among activists and even for aligned Members of Congress. Bryan Gervais finds that Tea Partiers in Congress veered rightward on racial concerns and pioneered the social media incivility now associated with President Trump. Rachel Blum finds that the activist network of the Tea Party worked as a party within the Republican Party to reorient its ideology to focus on cultural threats.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 20-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, how the Tea Party led the way to Donald Trump. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. The Tea Party that arose in 2009 seemed initially focused on bailouts, healthcare and taxes, but new research suggests that the concerns about cultural change and distrust of elites that animated Trump supporters were also essential to the Tea Party, not just in the electorate, but among activists and even for aligned members of Congress. I talked to Brian Gervais of the University of Texas at San Antonio about his new book with Irwin Morris, Reactionary Republicanism, from Oxford University Press.
They find that Tea Partiers in Congress veered right on racial concerns and pioneered the social media incivility now associated with President Trump. The wider Tea Party activists and organizational network also reoriented the American Republican party, paving the way for Trump, according to Rachel Blum of Miami University of Ohio. Her new book manuscript, Party Takeover, finds that Tea Party worked as a party within the Republican party to reorient its ideology to focus on cultural threats. Tea Partiers held signs about being taxed enough already, and protested Obamacare, but Brian Gervais says a closer look at the movement in Congress reveals that social and racial concerns and a fighting style set Tea Party members apart.
Gervais: What made the Tea Partiers in Congress different from your average Republican, the so-called establishment Republicans, was not their position on fiscal or economic matters. Instead, it was they had different positions on civil rights and social policies. They were also more likely to use civility in the social media rhetoric and present a gloom and doom message about the state of the United States. They had this idea that Americans have been failed by a federal government that was uncaring, that certain groups were given preferential treatment in the United States, and that the country overall was in a decline. The rhetoric that they utilized, especially on social media, we argue, helped to make voters more inclined to support and vote for Donald Trump, or a candidate like him, in 2016.
Grossmann: The Tea Party was not a fringe element. Gervais and Morris find that a large portion of House Republicans were either supported by them or sought to link themselves to the movement.
Gervais: We find that in the 112th Congress, about 40 percent of the GOP conference had no connection to the Tea Party in either dimension, meaning 60 percent did. On the 113th, that changes a little bit because a Tea Party caucus that the formal caucus ceases to exist, or really organize or meet at all, so it fades from existence, but we still find that a third of the GOP conference had tea party ties, right, so still very significant part of the Republican conference was connected to the tea party in some way.
Grossmann: And they weren’t ineffective backbenchers either.
Gervais: There’s this perception of Tea Party legislators being these neophyte backbenchers, right, who could obstruct but had limited legislative success themselves. We don’t find a lot of evidence for that perception. We find that members associated with the Tea Party weren’t any less active when it came to drafting legislation, and they were just as effective when it came to getting it passed. They weren’t just obstructionists, right, that didn’t know what they were doing. We find some evidence to the contrary, a little bit of evidence to the contrary.
Grossmann: And Gervais says the Tea Party drew from the same electoral constituency as Trump and served as a halfway house between the Bush and Trump eras.
Gervais: Trump and the Tea Party are sort of endogenous to this same sort of cultural change happening among the Tea Party electorate, but the Tea Party played a crucial role in sort of placing the path and making a candidate like Trump possible. It took the Tea Party to sort of make that path from the electorate moving from the neo-Conservative era of the Republican party to the Trump era.
Grossmann: In the book, Change They Can’t Believe In, Chris Parker and Matt Barreto had previously shown that the Tea Party’s mass supporters stood out for their racial concerns, not their economic views. Gervais and Morris finds that it was not just voters, but legislators who stood out mainly on cultural concerns.
Gervais: We find that no real difference between members connected to the Tea Party and other Republicans when it came to fiscal issues, right, and fiscal roll calls. However, that’s not the case when it comes to things like votes related to civil rights. By civil rights, we’d be talking about things like limiting the Department of Justice’s ability to deal with or challenge controversial state immigration laws, limiting the DOJ’s ability to help out African farmers who are claiming discrimination, votes having to do with limiting or blocking DACA and policies having to do with things like fair housing and wages, policies that disproportionately affect minority communities. That’s one area where we see some differences. Tea Party members were much more conservative, or voted more conservative on those issues.
Grossmann: Only the organizational elites of the Tea Party were economically focused.
Gervais: In terms of the Tea Party organizations, I think they were absolutely interested in lots of fiscal conservatism, and this is really what their ultimate goals were, were to see fiscally conservative policy passed, but they saw in the Tea Party movement, or the feelings of resentment in the electorate as an opportunity, and I argue it was the same case with House leadership as well. Going into 2010, Paul Ryan, Eric Canter, Kevin McCarthy and John Boehner as well, saw an opportunity here, saw an energy that could be utilized to retake the House and perhaps pass fiscally conservative legislation. It’s sort of a means to an end, sort of this latent resentment here, is there to be mined and utilized, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the rhetoric or agree with the goals of the Tea Party in the electorate.
Grossmann: Gervais and Morris even find that Trump’s tweeting style had precedent in Tea Party members of Congress when they checked these tweets for incivility.
Gervais: Not a huge percentage of them were uncivil. It was about one-and-a-half percent, an average of about 112th, 113th Congress, a little bit more incivility in the 113th congress than the 112th; however, even though incivility was relatively rare, there was a whole lot of variability amongst the members.
Tea Partiers were much more uncivil than other Republicans, and what we found was a very good predictor, being uncivil on Twitter was Tea Party attachment.
Grossmann: Members like Steve King of Iowa presaged Trump in both concerns and tweet style.
Gervais: Steve King, member of Congress from Iowa, just the types of things he was saying, I think ties into some of the stuff we’d see from Trump later, the same sort of rhetoric. He was tweeting about illegals, and this was the term he was using, on a bus heading to Iowa. He was telling his constituents, warning them to be on the lookout for illegal, unaccompanied children coming, invading their homes and things like this.
And then we get to Trump in 2015 coming down the elevator of Trump tower, making the announcement about illegals coming over the border with their drugs, and crime, and things like this.
This is really an echo of stuff we were seeing from some of the folks like Steve King as well, and he wasn’t alone in that regard.
Grossmann: They also used Trumpian rhetoric about the fall of America and the need for resurgence.
Gervais: It’s no surprise this “Make American Great Again” message we argue resonates with so many Republican voters because it’s the answer to the issues being raised by a number of Tea Party Republicans four years prior to Trump running, right? It’s the message that the U.S. really just needs to be completely overhauled and fixed.
Grossmann: Rachel Blum says the Tea Party should be thought of as an integrated effort to take over and redirect the Republican party.
Blum: We often talk about the Tea Party as this sort of one-off movement. It’s easy to paint it as crazy or angry, but in reality, it had a particular political structure. It was a faction inside of a major party, and it’s not the first major faction like this. It’s just the first one really in our lifetime, and what we see with the Tea Party is a group of people who didn’t feel represented particularly by the big umbrella of the Republican party, who maybe in another country would’ve become a third party, a minor party.
But here, they found a different way to channel their goals through the machinery of the Republican party.
Grossmann: It was a lot more than a series of protests.
Blum: The Tea Party isn’t just, or never was, just a protest movement. Instead, it’s a faction that exists despite its name changing. So, to jump to Congress for a second, the House Freedom Caucus is probably the most clear iteration of the Tea Party’s goals in Congress, even though they don’t call themselves the Tea Party caucus.
My corrective, I guess, to the conventional narrative on this is that the Tea Party wasn’t just a group of angry people wearing three quartered hats and waving flags. It was and is this sustained alternative energy within the Republican Party.
Grossmann: And the movement opened the Republican Party to Trump’s nomination.
Blum: Trump is a kind of candidate you would expect from a movement or a faction that was most concerned with preserving a certain way of life, kind of protecting themselves from anyone they saw as threatening, whether that was an elite, someone in the swamp, or an ethno-cultural outsider.
Grossmann: But rather than through isolated candidates, the Tea Party succeeded by mirroring the Republican party’s organization, but pursuing new priorities.
Blum: We should, and I think do, see it having its own miniature party structure, right, so there is a Tea Party in government, there is a Tea Party in organization, and there is a Tea Party in the electorate, and it’s similar to the actual party. The Tea Party and the electorate is exactly the people that Chris Parker, and Matt Barreto interview, or survey. The Tea Party as an organization is a little bit more difficult, as you pointed out, to define because there were these umbrella groups, but they weren’t necessarily consistent with what the activists were pushing. I think the corrective there is that for this faction, the activist groups were more of the organizational apparatus.
I can go on about that forever, really, but then the Tea Party in government has mainly a congressional component, which I pull apart in the book by looking at the voting behavior, the co-sponsorship behavior, and even the rhetoric in press releases. I find that a congressional component certainly existed basically as we move through the Tea Party era into 2015 when the House Freedom Caucus emerges. By this point, we have a distinct group of Republicans who have this affiliation, who are co-sponsoring together, voting together across a range of types of legislation, and even emphasizing different things in their press releases.
Grossmann: And the movement took the long-running revolutionary base identified by Parker and Barreto, and brought it into the party mainstream.
Blum: We can’t just say, “Well, it’s part of the electorate or it’s part of the GOP.” Well, now, even if it only is part of the GOP, it’s the part that’s in control, at least of the presidency, at least of a lot of that party’s rhetoric of who insiders are now. So, what I’m working on currently is arguing that this is more of an ideological reassociation.
What you get out of the Tea Party is a shift in the Republican party’s priorities, and if we can kind of think about this in a stylized way, since the realignment that culminates in the 1980s, the Republican party has been conceived as this fusion, right, between social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and war hawks.
Left out of that narrative was a group of people that Chris Parker points to, and a lot of other people point to as having existed for a very long time as well, which are the reactionary Conservatives, the people who were the McCarthy-ites, the America-firsters, the John Birch Society, the Southern Democrats turned Reagan Republicans.
So, they’ve always been there. They’ve been unacknowledged.
Grossmann: Because Blum grew up on the political right, she was focused on the role of activists in setting party priorities.
Blum: I grew up in conservative movement politics, so my parents were very much part of the Christian right, the homeschooling movement, and they kind of had me involved in all of this stuff that I didn’t even understand. I eventually departed from that, especially as I went through college and grad school, but it meant that I had a sense of how conservatives do things in movement politics. I knew from how I grew up and the people I was around that a lot of it really is these activists who are doing what Carmines and Stimson explained in 1989…they’re forming this bridge between the elites and their messaging and maybe less attentive voters.
This is exactly what I think made the Tea Party so powerful because you had this incredibly organized network of activists groups who managed to be iterating versions of the same message, but with enough local variation that they were kind of sympathetic to people in their region.
Grossmann: And she found they voiced disillusionment with elites, but also revealed the cultural basis of their concerns.
Blum: The interesting thing about talking to Tea Partiers is that they mostly were aware that they could be pinpointed as racist or having some sort of threat-centric disposition, and they were very careful, or at least they thought, to work around that, and it’s exactly as you put it. The language that they went back to was language of distrust, of elites, of outsiders, and it put a gloss on this kind of reactionary threat-based ideology. But in a good interviewing fashion, as soon as they started to talk about this, they would get a little bit off their cue card, and then it would start to come out, what exactly is it that they’re afraid of elites? Because well, elites aren’t like them.
These cultural outsiders don’t share their work ethic or their vision of America. So, in terms of why they oppose a Republican party initially, why they started primarying Republican candidates, it very much came from this place of, “Well, those are establishment elite insiders. They aren’t like us.” And I think as it’s evolved, it’s given way to maybe what was underneath it all along, which was this ideology that put avoiding this threat above other elements of conservatism.
Grossmann: Blum sees the Dixiecrats as a useful historical precedent, placing both in the category of party within a party, a faction with broad goals.
Blum: We do see a couple historical instances of this. The Dixiecrats are one of my favorites because they just so clearly followed this pathway. They were part of the Democratic Coalition. They didn’t just want a particular person elected, and they didn’t want to just change what it meant to be liberal, per se. They literally wanted to change the course of the Democratic party to focus on an entirely different set of ideological concerns.
Grossmann: But the Tea Party succeeded by sidelining the concerns of other factions rather than by taking opposite positions.
Blum: The way I’m conceiving it is not that any group within the Republican party, any member of their coalition, has to care about one and only one dimension of their ideology, but it’s a priority structure. So, it should make sense that we see the Tea Party, especially the activists who were really tied to that name, taxed enough already, emphasizing economic issues, but what’s significant is that they don’t just emphasize the economic issues that their movement was purportedly all about. They also find time to bring in issues on immigration, law and order, making America great again. If you look at the terms they’re actually using to describe these issues, you get a gloss on immigration that’s a little bit different than what you might’ve seen before.
Grossmann: And Gervais agrees that the current administration shows the Tea Party became fully institutionalized rather than died.
Gervais: It’s more institutionalized than it was in the past. Even as things like the Tea Party caucus, even though we don’t hear members identifying as Tea Parties any more, we see the freedom caucus continuing to be an important factor in the House as evidence of the Tea Party still being a major player, and now we see the Tea Party, at least in the House, even grow from outside the legislative branch to the executive as well. There’s a number of Tea Party veterans of the House who have served or are currently serving in the Trump administration. Mike Pence, the current Vice resident of the United States, was a founding member of the Tea Party caucus. So, in some ways the Tea Party caucus we’d argue is at the pinnacle of its power, or the Tea party in the House is at the pinnacle. It’s expanded now from the legislative branch to the executive branch as well.
Grossmann: Gervais says the left is unlikely to match the tea party, as its leaders tend to police uncivil behavior.
Gervais: There seem to be more generally a willingness among Democrats to try and regulate their own, not to say that Democrats or liberals aren’t uncivil. They are, but there seems to be Democrat, or Liberal and Democratic elites that tend to be more willing to admonish and scold members for doing those sort of things. I think some of it has to do with the fact that again, the Democratic party, it’s got programmatic goals, and wants to see policies pass, and in some ways, incivility is bad for legislating, or at least that’s an argument we make. It’s bad for deal-making, so it really doesn’t advance Democratic cause.
Grossmann: And Blum says the left has not organized the same way, or nearly as effectively in practical politics.
Blum: As soon as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wins, right, everybody starts writing about the tea party on the left, and to me, the question is, “What is the Tea Party if it is on the left, right?” What is this actual phenomenon that we’re observing?” The problem so far with the idea of the Tea Party on the left, or the Democratic Socialists being that, is that it is a very personalistic movement right now. So, it’s had a couple of magnetic individuals; Bernie, Alexandria, a few other high-profile cases, but it doesn’t have what the Tea Party had, which was this factional structure that actually kind of ran parallel to, mirrored within, however you want to put it, the structure of their party. What would need to happen for the Democratic socialists to be as effective as the Tea Partiers is that they’d need to get very, very good at working the party system.
Blum: A lot of them had been members of the Republican party more generally for a long time. They were used to going to meetings, to canvassing, to working through low-profile local offices all the way up to gaming convention systems so that they could get a better arrangement for themselves. So, by the time you see David Bratt beating Eric Cantor, which is a similar kind of high-profile episode, you already had an apparatus that was so strong that without any kind of fundraising or elite support, the seven Tea Party groups in VA-7 had organized this massive get out the vote effort for David Bratt.
Grossmann: Gervais sees a lesson for traditional party leaders in the Tea Party. You can provoke the base’s primal concerns, but it may come back to bite you.
Gervais: Leaders like McCarthy, Kevin McCarthy, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and even Eric Cant0r, we see them early on sort of embracing the Tea Party, trying to utilize it. The moral of the story is one day, you are the insurgency, and the next day, you are the target because each of these individuals, to an extent, has been stymied by the Tea Party or elements of the Tea Party in Congress.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Readers Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Rachel Blum and Brian Gervais for joining me. Join us next time to find out how inequality and social sorting drive polarization.