The Tea Party was always tragically miscast. The angry oldsters who formed its white-hot core fancied themselves tax protesters. Their self-image was informed, inflamed and more than occasionally exploited by conservative operations ranging from Fox News to FreedomWorks and a phalanx of right-wing grifters who dealt themselves into the action.
There is a long tradition of supporting state spending on yourself (hands off my Medicare) while opposing the allocation of tax dollars to someone else (Obamacare is tyranny). The Tea Party covered this mundane transaction in a powdered wig.
Until Donald Trump came along.
Trump, whose genuine populist instincts appear unconscious of, and unencumbered by, American history, dispensed with the tri-corner hats. His offer required no validation from neo-colonials, no resort to hallowed principles of limited government. Trump’s deal was straight up: He would secure the government programs — Social Security, Medicare — that benefit older, whiter Tea Party voters while chasing younger, browner Americans away from the public trough. He would even clear out of the country anyone who failed to prove citizenship.
The Tea Party is now indistinguishable from the Trump Party. Liberals have had a rollicking good time watching Trump peel the Indian paint off the erstwhile rebels. Brian Beutler of the New Republic routinely responds to racist outbursts among Trump supporters with a mock lament for the “economic anxiety” purportedly driving their allegiance to Trump.
Competing arguments that Trump supporters are motivated by declining economic prospects versus racial resentment are not mutually exclusive. But a deep analysis of Trump supporters released last week by Gallup shows that the economic angle is the more convoluted and uncertain one.
The evidence “is mixed as to how economic hardship affects Trump’s popularity,” wrote economist Jonathan Rothwell. “Racial isolation and lack of exposure to Hispanic immigrants raise the likelihood of Trump support. Meanwhile, Trump support falls as exposure to trade and immigration increases, which is the opposite of the predicted relationship.”
That last part was the bomb. Trump’s signature issues are trade and immigration. Yet his supporters appear less exposed to negative effects from trade and immigration than people who don’t support him. Rothwell’s findings didn’t eliminate economic anxiety as a factor in support for Trump. Although Trump supporters are relatively well off — not surprising given that they are older, whiter and more Republican than average — they may still be concerned about both social dissolution in their communities and the economic prospects of their children and grandchildren.
But the greatest source of anxiety appears to be cultural, not economic. “People living in zip codes with disproportionately high shares of white residents are significantly and robustly more likely to view Trump favorably,” the Gallup report states. “Racial isolation and lack of exposure to Hispanic immigrants” may once have bred political complacency and a sense of security in culturally conservative white communities. But with a black family in the White House, and an Hispanic tide at the voting booth, alarms are ringing.
In “The End of White Christian America,” Robert Jones writes that there are many Southern and Midwestern towns where white protestant conservatives continue to dominate society and politics. “But even within these reassuringly insular settings,” he writes, “it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole.”
For Tea Party Trumpsters, for whom white dominance was once a comfortable given, the enemy isn’t the tax code. It’s Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist. If you’re white, conservative and old, the playlist reads like an itemized list of cultural alienation. Caetano Veloso. Chance the Rapper. Your president is dangerously fluent in a foreign language.
Far lesser provocations have produced racist outbursts on social media. A 2013 television ad featuring an interracial family enjoying Cheerios had no content capable of offending anyone who is not opposed to milk, oats or miscegenation. Yet it produced a “backlash.” Beyonce channeling Huey P. Newton in a dance routine at the Super Bowl guaranteed outrage.
Reaction can still generate ratings, power the House of Representatives and dominate state legislatures. It can flirt with violence at Trump rallies, or fawn over his attacks on women and minorities. But it can’t commandeer a culture in which it is now a decidedly junior partner.
The Tea Party’s revolutionary-era antecedents were never the bold conspirators in Boston Harbor. They were colonial loyalists. Desperate to retain existing political structures and social hierarchies, loyalists resisted the change brewing in the colonies and undermined the new creation. After their side lost the war, thousands fled, settling in Canada or England.
Yet not every loyalist was a bitter dead-ender. Many stayed put, and grudgingly went along to get along in the new America, their descendants readily merging into subsequent iterations of the national experiment. Today’s Tea Party refugees could do worse than becoming American loyalists.