When 2016 began, tea party activists were hardly supporters of Donald Trump. While many had gotten used to backing Republican candidates that they didn’t see as “true” conservatives, Trump was another thing entirely. He had embraced liberal policy positions for years, and he was far from the “statesmen” that most tea party activists typically revered.
But by the time we got to Election Day, the tea party had rallied behind the GOP nominee, with many activists campaigning on his behalf. How and why this happened says a lot about the changing Republican Party and the potential role of tea party conservatives in the new administration. After helping Trump to victory, these activists expect results.
I gained insight into this process through the research I’ve conducted on tea party activists in Virginia off and on for nearly four years. Beginning in January 2016, I conducted several dozen in-depth interviews, mostly in the Richmond area. I also observed dozens of tea party and Republican Party events.
Since mobilizing in 2009, the movement has established a powerful network of grass-roots activists across the state. They call themselves “conservatives,” as opposed to “establishment” Republicans. Tea party networks are active in other states as well, including Ohio, Texas and North Carolina.
Initially, most tea party activists opposed Trump
In my interviews, I learned that while a vocal minority of tea party activists were early and avid Trump supporters, the majority opposed his campaign in favor of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). For them, the overwhelming reaction to Trump was a mixture of shock, disgust and confusion.
“I don’t have a clue about Trump,” one told me. “I cannot figure out or understand why even very close, personal friends of mine — who are well-educated people — are supporting Trump vs. Cruz. It’s like a no-brainer.”
They had two complaints: First, tea party activists do not consider Trump a conservative. Until recently he was a Democrat who praised national health care systems and supported abortion rights.
Second, many are offended by his demeanor, language and ego. For a group that reveres “statesmen” like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Trump is anathema. As one activist said, “I think he lies with abandon. … I think he is truly a crony capitalist. … I believe in property rights, and he clearly doesn’t.”
Trump’s anti-establishment and immigration views appealed to the tea party
This division within the tea party was more surprising because both the pro- and anti-Trump factions seemed to agree on everything else.
Even the anti-Trump faction generally agreed with his characterization of undocumented immigrants and refugees as threats to the United States. While many didn’t think Trump was likely to implement mass deportations, they agreed that “illegal immigrants” were unfairly benefiting from tax dollars. They were often also fearful of Muslim refugees, who most believed to be both a physical and cultural threat. Only two people I interviewed volunteered that Trump was racist or bigoted, and they were two of his strongest opponents.
Neither did the factions disagree on Trump’s ideology: The pro-Trump activists didn’t claim Trump was “a conservative.” Yet, they argued, he was the only candidate who could “take down” the Republican establishment — a goal widely shared within the tea party.
This struggle with the establishment is not hyperbole. Many tea party activists seek to integrate into the local Republican Party machine at the county and state level, but in Virginia, these efforts have met with fierce resistance. Activists frequently tell stories of establishment operatives using their knowledge and mastery of the party machine to exclude them from power and participation. For many, Trump’s battle with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney reflected their own struggle with the party.
After the primaries, Trump supporters turned to the tea party network
After Trump received the Republican nomination, many tea party activists immediately turned to support him. They saw the election in stark terms: The Democrats represented creeping socialism that threatened American democracy.
For those who remained unmoved, pro-Trump supporters used the tea party network to try to reel them in.
Ironically, it was the tea party’s successful efforts to gain access to the Republican Party apparatus — the establishment itself — that brought some reluctant activists into Trump’s camp. Those with formal roles in the GOP became obligated to mobilize for the Republican nominee. In a number of instances, activists who disliked Trump and had previously told me they would not personally do anything to support him wound up doing so through their participation in the GOP or other races.
In addition, holdouts faced pressure to support Trump. In the six tea party meetings I attended in the fall of 2016, not once did I hear opposition to Trump voiced publicly. Instead, speakers, (presenting on unrelated topics), often made personal — if implicit — plugs for Trump. They warned about the dangers of four more years of “progressives” and implored tea party people to get themselves and their friends out to vote. Trump volunteers or GOP officials stopped by tea party meetings to make requests for volunteers, and Trump bumper stickers and signs were always on hand. A couple of groups showed films condemning the Democrats or Hillary Clinton in particular. Tea party leaders welcomed Trump opponents to speak, but none did.
The tea party’s transformation — from Trump skeptics to boosters — reflects the movement’s deep hostility toward both Democrats and establishment Republicans. It also shows the organizational strength of the movement and the important role of the conservative faction in the GOP.
Trump is not a tea party president, but many tea party activists see his election as an opportunity to pursue an agenda unfettered by the establishment that has blocked their advances. “This was a great election,” explained one activist, “because it’s going to separate the herd,” eliminating “progressives” from the Republican Party.
Of course, whether tea party activists get what they want will depend on whether Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the GOP leadership can hold their congressional caucuses together. But in this moment of deep political division, the tea party will attempt to leverage its organizational strength to persuade this administration to pursue what it regards as a more truly conservative agenda.
Elizabeth A. Yates is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She researches social movements and conservative politics.