MAGA Is No Tea Party
Trump's movement seeks only to gain state power, not curb it
Shutterstock. Lisa Young
The obvious recent analog to this year’s midterms is the 2010 midterms. In both elections: the incumbent president was a first-term Democrat; the Republican Party was expected to retake one or both houses of Congress; and a right-wing grassroots movement had a loud and provocative presence in the national debate. In 2010, that movement was the Tea Party. In 2022, it’s the post-liberal, MAGA right.
But those broad similarities belie a major and lamentable difference between these two movements and, by extension, the two elections: The Tea Party presented itself as a movement for longstanding principles of limited government and constitutional constraints on state power. A dozen years later, that’s exactly what the MAGA movement rejects. If limited government libertarianism ever was “the very heart” of the American right generally and the Republican Party specifically—as was claimed for decades, though I have my doubts, at this stage—it is a heart that no longer beats.
The most cynical assessment of the Tea Party era holds that the limited government stuff was always a ploy, a respectable cover for simple partisan ambition—or, worse, racial dominance, as exemplified in challenges to former President Barack Obama’s birthplace and religion. In some cases that was undoubtedly true although of course it’s impossible to put windows to peer into the souls of Tea Partiers. But the record is also clear that, as uneven and unsophisticated as their thinking could be, Tea Party activists were consistent in telling pollsters and reporters that their motivating concern was dramatically shrinking the federal government.
That record matches my own recollection of the movement. Working in college activism as a young libertarian, my assessment at the time was that the Tea Partiers were not philosophical libertarians who carried their anti-government reflex to its logical conclusion across all policy issues. Like Fox News’ ultra-MAGA host Tucker Carlson, who was then a self-described “big pro-choicer” and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, I remember wanting the Tea Party to go further and take on bigger ticket items—especially military spending—instead of focusing narrowly on ObamaCare and government “waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Still, for all its flaws, Tea Partiers’ anger at Washington’s diktats had found expression in policy demands that philosophical libertarians shared. They could work together where those interests overlapped and hope that the movement might portend the libertarian moment yet to come.
In retrospect, those hopes were false. Indeed, in 2022, the Tea Party looks less like a portent than the last grassroots gasp of the old fusionist consensus. Back then, that profession of fidelity to small government principles was why Carlson was able to critique Tea Partiers for overwhelmingly wanting, as polling at the time revealed, to save entitlement spending from their own axe. It’s why we laughed when photos—which may have been fake, or maybe evidence of trollish counter-protesters—emerged showing Tea Partiers with placards, “Keep the Government Out of my Medicare” signs.
The joke is gone in this new era. There’s nothing to laugh at because there’s no profession of any commitment to limited government anymore. Indeed, on the MAGA right, the point isn’t limits but power.
“Imagine how quickly the political landscape would change,” urged a speaker at the third National Conservative conference last month, “if we had a core contingent of elected Republicans who were committed to using power to defund and humiliate the institutional centers of power of the left.”
“Conservatives must get over their fear of actually using political power,” pundit Josh Hammer has repeatedly declared, “and wield the levers … ‘to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).’” (When a column in which he used the phrase stirred up controversy this past summer, Hammer edited it to “the rewarding of good and the punishing of evil,” appending a note saying he saw the two versions as “interchangeable.”)
Government spending, regulation, and state selection of winners and losers have all become acceptable on the right—so long as the left loses. Even opposition to ObamaCare is forgotten. The GOP’s “Commitment to America,” a one-pager of policy aspirations for the 2022 race, makes no mention of the Affordable Care Act. “I think it’s probably here to stay,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told NBC News this month. Joe O’Dea, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Colorado, goes further and outright opposes its repeal.
This embrace of illiberalism is masked by the new right’s vestigial rhetoric and aesthetic of liberty. You’ll still see people cosplaying the Founding Fathers at MAGA rallies, just as they did at Tea Parties. The new right still talks in terms of freedom vs. tyranny, elite vs. local control. It still flies the Gadsden flags adorned with molon labe.
And many of the same people were involved in both movements at the grassroots and the national level alike. Carlson is a prominent—and perhaps the most egregious—example of a total volte face, but he’s far from an isolated case. Alaska’s Sarah Palin was a popular Tea Party speaker. She has since moved seamlessly into MAGA-world. Many GOP lawmakers first elected as Tea Party-linked candidates in 2010 and 2012 have become vocal allies of former President Donald Trump in recent years: Kentucky’s Rep. Thomas Massie; Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz; Trump’s chiefs of staff Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows; Michele Bachmann, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus who has now busied herself spreading the good news of the godliness of Trump. Former Vice President Mike Pence, then a Congressman from Indiana, was a caucus member, too. (Former Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left first the GOP and then Congress as it became ever clearer there was no place for his libertarianism in the MAGA-era Republican Party, is a lonely counter to the trend.)
Those developments, however, don’t diminish the reality of the rejection of the Tea Party’s best impulses. Rather, they highlight the tragedy of that loss. In the 2010 midterms, the locus of energy on the grassroots right was a movement that called for limited, constitutional governance. In 2022, even lip service to that liberalism is often too much to expect.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
The Tea Party as grass roots? Dick Armey’s tea party? The Koch Bros. Tea Party? The people that followed Glenn Beck ffs?
They were then and now simply a pack of rabid right wing pseudo republican “libertarians” that latched on to the momentum of Ron Paul. And do I ever regret supporting that family of grifters.
Look. From John Birch to Lewis Powell to a never ending consortium of Kochtopus “think tanks” and AEI and the Heritage Founation to Ron Reagan and then the absolute downward trajectory of Lee Atwater to Newt Gingrich to 911 insanity creating a pushback that on the outside has some legitimacy in trying to rein in the overreach of the growing surveillance and already fascist state to the faux rebellion of the astroturf Tea Party Nation et al. taking advantage of real citizens concerns only to move the goal posts once “FEAR OF A BLACK PRESIDENT” drove old racist America absolutely insane.
So there is your tea party. Co-opted at birth. Along came birtherism and the mango menace and voila! Maga fascism ascendent from the ashes of a tottering empire that has ignored its own citizens for decades while actively ginning up wealth inequality that is sold to the dim witted followers as “free market capitalism.”
Their new religion. Capitalism. A concept they don’t even understand. Let alone anything related to taxes or restoring the infrastructure or the manufacturing base is now considered as orthodoxy to be COMMUNISM.
I can’t believe how stupid so many of these suckers really are. They will gladly overpay their masters for the rope to hang themselves all in the name of “owning the libs.”
That’s my rant. I’m sticking to it.
But you want conclusive proof of my assertions?
Go to the source. The Ron Paul “libertarian” font that is Lew Rockwell dot com.
What once heralded freedom and all the usual buzzwords is now shackled at the hip to the glory of the orange fuhrer Donald Trump.
It’s pathetic. They are a walking example of fatal cognitive dissonance. They want free elections — if they win. They want law and order — but not if they are the ones getting caught breaking the law. They see the former guy as a successful bizness man — regardless of his inheritance, ripping off his father ffs and other family members, repeated bankruptcies, never questioning “why would this billionaire need to go on tv to make money to buoy his failing companies?
You seem like a smart lady. Perhaps in your research you became to invested with what people wanted to believe. Rethink and reevaluate the actual corruption inherent in the movement.
Rick Sanchez? Tricorner hats? Really? Old grumps on pensions screaming about government while receiving the checks?
They were pawns. In a media mirage. Wake up.
Btw. When I tried to talk to the OG tea party types back in the day they were simply parrots of talking points. Just like the Maga they turned into when their orange messiah came down an escalator with his plastic imported Barbie to a crowd of paid extras applauding him.
They are all
As in they’re not
The systematic character assassination of a legitimate grass-roots movement by the mainstream media further eroded its credibility with me at the time. Contrast with the glowing coverage of the "Occupy" movement at roughly the same time.
I think I wasn't the only one that was put off by the naked partisanship of the supposedly impartial mainstream outlets. People whine now about how no one believes their betters nowadays. They need to look in the mirror when they're looking for reasons why.