Friday, January 22, 2016

Palin and Trump in Iowa: is the (Tea) Party over?

It had a pretty good run, didn't it? The oft-cited, usually maligned, rarely understood (in Medialand) Tea Party changed the political landscape of the United States. It delivered Senate and House seats to the Republican Party; it served up a complete flipping of power in State legislatures across the country, where Republicans managed to achieve control even in some supposedly hard-core blue States. It provided a national platform for some politicians, doomed some others (despite their supposed conservative bona fides), and—let's be honest—fattened the wallets of far too many people who tried to assume ownership of the movement or otherwise used it for their own agendas.

I've discussed the actual background of the Tea Party before, the background that most in the media rarely seem to understand. Short and sweet, the movement began during the Bush Administration, circa 2008, then hit its stride under the Obama Administration during the 2010 midterms. It was a response to the bailouts under Bush, the Stimulus under Obama, and the general lack of fiscal responsibility exhibited by leaders in every level of government. As early as 2011, people in the media began to predict its demise, but it continued, propelling more new faces in both 2012 and 2014, though it also led to some notable failures, not the least of which was the reelection of Obama in 2012.

Throughout this period, from late 2008 until now, the Tea Party movement (because that's what it really is: a movement, not a political party) has had to deal with two primary problems: first, the willful ignorance displayed by people in the mainstream media with regard to the movement, and second, the attempt by social conservatives and other agenda-driven groups to co-opt the movement for their own purposes.

With regard to the first, the ignorance of the media by and large is easy to understand: the people really participating in the movement didn't fit the media's preconceived notions with regard to the Far Right (which the media mistakenly assumed to be the primary impetus of the movement). The core Tea Partiers came from all walks of life, men and women were equally represented, and most were political novices, not hardened partisan activists. This was something most in the media simply could not comprehend (even those who tended to lean Right).

The consequence? The media—spurred on by a fearful Democratic Party (whose leadership could see the consequences in the rise of an unchecked grass roots movement that opposed Big Government)—tended to focus on outliers in the movement, the small numbers who showed up to events with dim-witted signs (often racist) about Obama, thinking the movement was fundamentally an "anti-Obama" one. Thus, we were treated to years of articles and debates over the racist elements in the Tea Party, as opposed to rational analysis of just what was going on in the movement, what it was really about, and why it was having so much success in political races, despite being populated by political novices.

This has always been something of an albatross for the Tea Party movement, this lack of thoughtful analysis and understanding in the media and elsewhere. It became something that had to be countered, but by people who lacked the access and experience to offer an effective retort.

And really, this is what made the Tea Party movement a ripe target for being co-opted by other groups, the second major issue with which it's membership has had to contend. Because it was on the outside of the political structure, had no actual leadership, and no requirements for membership (all one had to do was say they were a member), there was nothing to prevent someone from using the movement as a platform for some other issue. Thus, we saw many social conservatives flock to the Tea Party banner, along with some nastier sorts of people like racists, homophobes, and xenophobes.

From this co-opting, a number of organizations sprung up who attempted to claim some level of leadership for the movement as whole, like FreedomWorks, Americans For Prosperity, and Tea Party Patriots. Tellingly, a number of the the earliest leaders of the movement (who never actually claimed leadership) never tried to set up such organizations and are rarely heard from these days. Regardless, these orgs successfully used the Tea Party movement to grow themselves and impact politics, sometimes for causes consistent with the movement, and sometimes for ones unrelated to the same. But either way, these orgs where and are more about sustaining themselves then about sustaining the movement as a whole. They seek funding and in that respect are in competition with each other for the same dollars. That's not a grass roots movement. It can't be.

Still, as I noted, the Tea Party movement kept going well into 2014, despite all of this co-opting by other orgs and groups and despite the high level of ignorance in the media, proper.

But now it's 2016. Is there still a Tea Party to speak of? My twitter feed says yes there is. Sort of. It's not what it once was. Many highly active Tea Party supporters have gone quiet in the last several years. But others push on, undeterred by the seemingly decreasing footprint of the Tea Party on social media.

In the media proper, the Tea Party is still used—sometimes as nothing more than a simple pejorative—though usually in reference to a particular politician, rather than in reference to the actual movement. And really, that's understandable. There aren't any true grass roots Tea Party events taking place these days. People who claimed membership in the movement have chosen up sides, whether a side is one of the above-mentioned orgs or the supporters of a politician or national figure.

When the Trump campaign began to get serious traction last year, many assumed the Tea Party was lining up behind the brash-talking king of self-promotion. There was plenty of pushback in that regard, as this piece from Reason notes. Little that Trump was saying was actually consistent with the Tea Party's original ideology. Still, the maverick nature of the Trump campaign and the way the candidate and his supporters were (and are) treated by the media, this was all very familiar. So unsurprisingly, the assumption of a strong Tea Party element supporting Trump is standard fare, despite the protestations.

And as far as the media is concerned, the deal was sealed a few days ago when the supposed Queen of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, took the stage at a Trump event in Iowa and endorsed the real estate tycoon for President.

Still. There is nothing about Trump's platform that meshes with the original ideology of the Tea Party movement. Well, maybe that's not entirely accurate. The problem is, Trump doesn't really have a platform, just some slogans, a self-righteous nationalism, and a liberal dose of bigotry. As such, his Tea Party appeal is securely rooted in the worst elements of the movement, the late-comers who misread it from the beginning and the agenda-driven crowd who sought to co-opt the movement for their own purposes.

So why is Palin endorsing Trump now? Short answer: she's abandoned the Tea Party movement. And she craves the spotlight, above all else. Which is, in my view, kind of a shame. Back in 2008/2009, Palin was a breathe of fresh air on the political scene, despite her many shortcomings. And true enough, she was saying the right things—from the movement's perspective—even when those things had a negative impact on the McCain campaign.

Now? She's talking gibberish. And there's a good reason for such gibberish: she's no intellectual giant and she can't effectively manufacture a link from what she used to say and stand for to what Trump is saying now. So she babbles incoherently in an attempt to justify her endorsement of Trump as being an endorsement by the Tea Party movement as awhole. It's not going to fly. Or at least it shouldn't. And yet...who is there to contradict her, really? Who is there to tell Trump that the Tea Party is not in his corner?

Well, there is Ted Cruz. And Rand Paul. And Marco Rubio.

But despite the past support these three enjoyed from the Tea Party movement, none can claim a mandate from it now. Hell, Paul can't even claim 3% of the overall vote. Cruz and Rubio are at war, with both fixated on the establishment/non-establishment issue (very possibly the dumbest political issue in decades).

And this speaks to something about the Tea Party movement that most have forgotten: it's both localized and nebulous. Its effectiveness in political campaigns was always limited to smaller races because of this reality: a national movement, true, but never a national, unified party. The attempt to create the latter—by individual politicians and by national orgs—has failed. It was always going to fail. All that's left now is the terminology, the name, and the sense of history behind it. But the movement itself is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Over. Kaput.

It's been a slow death, to be sure. And as I noted, previous claims of this nature were proved wrong. But this time it's different. The fact of the matter is that the money involved here, the donations exhorted from people in the movement to fund FreedomWorks et al, was always poison to the Tea Party movement. Death was inevitable from that moment on. But the final nails in the coffin were driven home by Palin and other pseudo-members by raising the banner in support of Donald Trump. Because the Tea Party movement was, if anything, always anti-authoritarian. In contrast, Trump is very much an authoritarian. In fact, he may be an actual fascist, the first one to ever have a legitimate shot at the Presidency in the United States since...well, since FDR, but maybe that's a discussion for a different day.

Rest in peace, Tea Party. It's been a helluva ride.


  1. 98% agreement. It's just that, by my definition, the Tea Party is not dead. It just went under the radar. Individual political affiliations have been established, and are being maintained. The reasons for these have only become stronger, and so the value increased. I have one suggestion for you, straight from the Show Me State.

    Hide in the bushes, and watch.


  2. Meh. The Tea Party started out as a grass routes group of people who wanted to stop excessive taxation and restore financial integrity to government. Then people like Sarah showed up and said, "Hey. By golly gee, yur right. I'll be your leader. You betcha." And that's exactly when it went south.

    That's when conservatives stopped being conservatives and started being racists, sexists, bigots, and stupid. And it's about the same time that I decided I'd stop calling myself a conservative because we no longer shared the same values.

    That's a simplification, of course. But it's close enough. There are lots of other reasons I don't think those that call themselves conservatives are conservatives. And I could go on and on on that, but I think it's time for a scotch.