Trump and the Tea Party

Just a short post to draw your attention to a piece by Charles Homans in yesterday’s New York Times magazine, exploring the nature and origins of the movement that promotes Donald Trump’s allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election – the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement. It’s one of the best things I’ve read on the subject.

Homans gives plenty of colorful detail as well as analysis of the movement’s goals. But the thing that particularly struck me was the continuity he shows between it and the “Tea Party” – the loose coalition of Republican groups that appeared in 2009 to mobilise opposition to then-president Barack Obama.

It hasn’t been a prominent topic for a while, but I’ve written about the Tea Party quite a bit over the years. In May 2010, for example, I noted that “While the tea partiers mostly talk about economics, the demons of racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism never seem to be far behind.” In January 2013 I drew attention to the “debate about whether the tea party are basically the same cranky white racists who hounded Bill Clinton, or whether they’re an exciting new breed of fiscal libertarians,” while noting that “I lean more to the first view.”

By mid-2013 there was more evidence that the movement was driven by a racialised hostility towards Obama. Michael O’Donnell summarised one academic study:

The problem is not merely that Obama is a black man, but that he symbolizes everything that Tea Partiers dislike about the direction of the country. Thus Obama’s skin color is part of the equation, but so are his international background, his exotic-sounding name, his past work on behalf of the inner-city poor, his urban and openly intellectual affiliations, and the demographic change that he represents.

Or, as Homans puts it, the Tea Partiers embraced “a narrative of dispossession in which true Americans were losing their country to actors from outside the proper bounds of public life.”

But even the advent of Trump didn’t disabuse everyone. Many anti-Trump Republicans contrasted his demagoguery with the supposedly pure intentions of the Tea Party; what one of them, Ben Howe, described as “principled, fiscal conservatism and a desire to return to the things that had made America great.”

Homans suggests that, on the contrary, Trump and the Tea Party were on the same side all along: Trump, he says, “offered the 2016 Republican field’s fullest expression of the cultural-pessimist id of the movement.” And its conspiracist ways of thinking made it a natural home for increasingly outlandish claims about election fraud, in which fear of immigrants and foreigners meshed neatly with a view of the Democrats as inherently un-American.

Opposition to fair elections had not initially been part of the Tea Party outlook; for all its willingness to bend the rules in its favor, the pre-Trump Republican Party never contemplated a frontal assault on democracy. But as Homans puts it towards the end of his narrative:

Trump had jolted American politics, probably irrevocably, by urging his supporters to see themselves as an American people distinct from the American population — a people whose particular loyalties, identities and values designated them as the nation’s true inheritors, regardless of what the ballots might have said.

The question for the future is whether that shift really is irrevocable. Can a post-Trump Republican Party return to some sort of sanity, or has it come too far to ever go back?

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