Why you should care
Because this movement helped define the politics of the Obama era.
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After millions marched against President Donald Trump the day after his inauguration, the phone calls and emails started flying in from around the country to Debbie Dooley. It got to the point where she had to disconnect in order to get anything done in her day job as president of the advocacy group Conservatives for Energy Freedom. Her persistent interrogators wanted to know: “Where is the tea party?”
Splintered by the presidential primary and lacking a strong voice, the tea party is far from the force it was in the early Barack Obama years. In October 2015, Gallup measured public approval for the movement at a mere 17 percent. It’s now searching for a revival as Trump’s backbone — a striking evolution for a protest movement.
We’re not protesting against anything. We’re supporting Mr. Trump’s America First agenda.
Debbie Dooley, tea party organizer
Dooley, one of the movement’s founders in Atlanta, and Ralph King, a tea party leader in Cleveland, are organizing rallies across the country to support Trump on Feb. 27, the eighth anniversary of the first tea party gatherings, and on March 4. Rather than the Revolutionary War-inspired theme of the original installment, party members are hitting the streets as “Main Street Patriots” — Trump’s blue-collar, nationalist voting coalition. Though reignited by the resistance to Trump on the left, the “Spirit of America” rallies are the start of a pivot to positivity — which means they may have a hard time matching the energy of the women’s marches or the tea party rallies of 2009. “We’re not protesting against anything,” Dooley tells OZY. “We’re supporting Mr. Trump’s America First agenda.”
Born in opposition to Great Recession bailouts and stimulus spending, the tea party movement took off in protesting Obamacare. There were mass rallies at the Capitol and shouting matches with members of Congress. The law still passed, but Republicans took the House in a 2010 midterm wave by pledging to halt Obama’s liberal agenda. The Koch brothers’ financial network, among others, branded themselves as tea party backers as they funded free-market ideals long championed by conservatives.
“It was never about small government; it was about small government for the elites who latched on,” says Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor and co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. “For the grassroots back then, it was about making sure the government didn’t spend on the wrong people. Rarely did anyone criticize Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits — the big-ticket items.” The biggest common theme, she says: “cracking down on immigration.”
Fast-forward to 2015, when a billionaire descended the lobby escalator at Trump Tower and started talking about building a big, beautiful wall. The Trump attitude and message was tea party, but “more masculine,” says Skocpol. His rise provoked a sharp division. His rival Sen. Ted Cruz had spent years courting the activists, and his 2012 senatorial victory in Texas — defeating an establishment-backed primary opponent — was one of the crowning achievements of the tea party’s middle years, when it sought to purge Republicans seen as too comfortable with the status quo. Cruz hit all the right ideological notes, while Trump seemed to care little for conservative principles. In a March 2016 op-ed, Tea Party Patriots head Jenny Beth Martin called Trump a “disaster for conservatives and the tea party” if he wins the presidency. In November after Trump won, Martin declared “we couldn’t be happier.”
But her network was breaking down. In May, Conrad Quagliaroli, chairman of the Cherokee County Tea Party, stopped holding his regular meetings outside Atlanta. Many others in Georgia stopped meeting as well, he says. Quagliaroli blames disorganization, a lack of focus and poor tactics in cannibalizing Republicans rather than electing more of them. “The tea party is just a shell of what it once was,” Quagliaroli says. “I assume it’s just going to continue to limp along, and it’s not going to be very effective.”
The tea party brand has long been damaged. It became identified with the extremism and racism voiced by some of its members. A slew of pop-up groups attached “tea party” to urgent calls to donate $10 and send a message to Washington, pledging to attack leading Republicans but in reality doing little more than lining consultants’ pockets. “It’s a problem,” says Tea Party Express executive director Taylor Budowich.
But Budowich is energized by a “giddy” base eager to accomplish goals like repealing Obamacare at long last. He says the movement’s legacy will lie in all those it inspired to get into politics for the first time, who now serve as elected officials and party leaders. A political action committee, Budowich’s group has its eye on a filibuster-proof 60 Republicans in the U.S. Senate after the 2018 midterms. He hopes for a better relationship with Washington Republicans than in cycles past, when there were primary clashes. Trump’s victory, Budowich says, should prove the electoral power of Republican candidates who don’t come out of chamber of commerce central casting.
Trump, too, is keeping an eye on stirring the masses in service of his agenda by more than just tweeting. Former campaign aides recently launched a nonprofit called America First Policies to fund grassroots efforts for Trump in a similar fashion to Obama’s Organizing for America. Among the founders of America First Policies is Katrina Pierson, a prominent tea party figure in Texas before becoming a Trump campaign spokeswoman.
Dooley says more money for the cause is a good thing, but her group will be more bare-bones. They plan to pressure members of Congress who break with Trump or pursue policies that go against the platform on which he was elected. One example: A national antiunion “right to work” law, long sought by conservatives, could alienate rank-and-file union members who powered Trump’s Rust Belt success. Organizers don’t expect many people to show up to the first Main Street Patriots marches, certainly not the millions who opposed Trump the day after his inauguration. Amid the noise on the left, Ralph King says he wants to send a simple message: “We’re still here.”