The Tea Party is Dead - And It's Never Coming Back


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Break out the shovels.

Turn out the lights.

The party is over.

The long, slow death of the tea party movement has met an unexpectedly quick end. Battles between "the establishment" and conservatives will continue on as they have have for decades, but the haphazardly organized movement is no longer something to respect or fear. The writing has been on the wall for some time but the battles cries - they just want to fight for conservatism and win, they said - still resonate.

When the movement was ideologically rigid it was at least fighting for an idea. But the battle-cry conservatism is now a facade. Conservatism is not what the movement is about anymore. So where did it all go wrong?

The rise of big-government Republicanism that led to the a Democratic takeover in 2008subsequently led to a fairly potent conservative uprising. In 2010, the resulting electoral wave gave us US Senators Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey,  Rand Paul, Ron Johnson and Mike Lee. Of them, only Rand Paul and Mike Lee would later embrace the tea party label and Paul would even write books claiming the tea party mantle. While their victories tapped into growing frustration at the establishment, the "tea party movement" hadn't yet evolved from an organic grassroots movement into a self-defeating farce. But it would.

By 2012, the tea party had turned from a legitimate political uprising into an outright anti-Republican outfit armed with hundreds of profit-making "tea party" organizations masquerading as efforts to advance conservatism.

Money would be raised and then mostly spent on salaries or raising more money. But some success would still come. Ted Cruz and Deb Fischer would be the highlights of the movement that year. Both were endorsed by then-popular Sarah Palin, and that seemed to be the tipping point as they went on to win their primary and then the general election.

(Fisher wasn't even a tea party candidate, but her gender-based endorsement from Palin was enough and further proof that the tea party movement was less about conservatism and more about sticking it to the establishment.)  In Indiana, Richard Mourdock ousted incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary only to be trip over his tongue and lose in the general election. But honestly, no big loss.

The cracks really started to show in the 2012 presidential primaries. The movement jumped in seizure-inducing fashion from one anybody-but-Romney candidate to the next. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all took turns yo-yo-ing up and down the Republican leader board. In the case of Santorum and Gingrich, the support barely made sense. Mitt Romney was running decidedly to the right of both, especially Newt Gingrich who pandered for just about every subsidy in every early voting state. Santorum's political record wasn't exactly ringing with rigid conservatism itself. But so motivated to oppose the best the GOP offered that year - and yes that was Romney - Santorum became a thing.

By 2014, the tea party declined further. Fewer and fewer Republicans identified with the movement.

The best run was by Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, a race I hoped he would win. Senate races in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas were flops. The tea party was absent in the biggest upset of the year where David Brat ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the primary. (Don't worry, they would later claim credit.) But David Brat's victory was his own. The GOP did exceptionally well across the board and elected good conservatives mostly without tea party influence or "help." Joni Ernst in Iowa, Dan Sullivan in Alaska, Ben Sasse in Nebraska, and Tom Cotton in Arkansas were all solid conservatives who rejected being locked in the tea party box and went on to take out incumbents. Conservatism proved it was alive and well, and alive and well without the tea party.

And then came the end.

Enter Donald Trump.

If there was any question as to whether the tea party movement was devoted to conservatism or devoted to bashing the establishment, the Donald Trump saga permanently answers the question. Here, the "movement" pushed Trump to the top of many polls based on, apparently, the idea that he "yells it like it is." Apparently the very high standard that tea party conservatives now demand of their leaders includes being insufferably obnoxious. Trump screams about the border, promising impossible solutions and pretending like he is the first person to ever talk about immigration. Many of his supporters agree. But it was conservatives who stopped the Bush-McCain amnesty from a decade ago. They stopped the Gang of Eight. They convinced every Republican not named Jeb Bush to drop comprehensive immigration reform with requirements that the border is secured first. To pretend that nobody was talking about the border is to admit that you either just didn't know the debate was happening or you only care if someone goes about it in the least presidential, least productive way.

And never mind the details. Never mind that Trump's position on immigration - which includes a path to legalization after the border is secured - is virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the field. Never mind that Trump hardly talks about anything else beyond the border or demanding that his opponents take IQ tests. Because, classy. Never mind that Trump wasn't even a Republican and opposed tea party candidates in 2010.

Never-mind that, until twenty seconds ago, Trump's preferred presidential picks were Bob Kerrey in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Never mind that Trump was an extreme pro-abortion supporter, favored amnesty, opposed the second amendment, proposed a double-digit wealth tax, called universal healthcare a necessity and currently finds his long history of buying off politicians for favors a brag-worthy accomplishment. Never mind that he has never done a single thing for conservatism.

Never-mind he held all of these positions until some point in 2011, when he gained an audience from tea party "conservatives" who got excited when Trump became the birther-in-chief. Oh, Trump had audiences before, mostly on TV, but none that took him as a serious person. But now that he was sending investigators to Hawaii to research Obama's birth certificate, he had an audience for politics. And because he craves nothing else but attention, this was good enough for him and he was suddenly a conservative Republican. The audience that had eluded him from the left despite two decades of generously giving to and supporting every left-wing politician with any power became his with minimal effort. And then he "evolved" politically. And apparently that's fine and dandy these days with "conservatives." (Unless you are Mitt Romney, who evolved on far less.) They don't even care. Confront a Trumpian with this information and be prepared to hear how, naturally, he tells it like it is and how  "the establishment" opposes him.

But how do you know that something is "telling it like it is" when you don't even know what "it" "is" in the first place? Being irrational overrides any requirement for actually being a conservative, having fought for conservatism at some point, or being a decent human being. So basically, Trump 2016, or something.

And so dies the tea party movement. It will be starved from the outside. No serious politician will want to be associated with the movement that exists solely to bash Republicans, ideology is secondary. Nobody wants to be part of the movement that thinks Donald Trump is a good thing. There will continue to be tea party candidates. They will be fringier and more obnoxious than ever. They will exist mostly to promote themselves, not to win. No worries, because win they will not. (The thing about tea party movement is they've never been financially supportive of candidates, and Trump is proving no exception.) I suspect many will occasionally do well. Conservatism will live on. Candidates like Rubio, Toomey, Ernst, Cotton, and Sullivan will hopefully continue to emerge. They are the type of candidates the then-organic tea party movement backed in 2010, back before they became an establishment of their own. An establishment worse than the one they oppose.

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Your Citation
Hawkins, Marcus. "The Tea Party is Dead - And It's Never Coming Back." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Hawkins, Marcus. (2016, August 23). The Tea Party is Dead - And It's Never Coming Back. Retrieved from Hawkins, Marcus. "The Tea Party is Dead - And It's Never Coming Back." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 12, 2017).