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Opinion Conservatives think they’ve found their new tea party

Parents and community members protest after a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn on Tuesday was halted by the board because the crowd refused to quiet down. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The early days of the Biden presidency have been unsettling for many on the right, not only because a Democrat is in the White House making policy but also because conservatives have struggled to find a unifying theme to their opposition. They’ve failed to persuade even their own people to loathe Joe Biden with the boiling intensity they felt for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; their preferred insult is that President Biden is a doddering old man controlled by others, which doesn’t exactly stir one to heights of terror and rage.

But now they think they’ve found the key, the controversy that will bring them back to the glorious days of the tea party, as Politico reports:

Former top aides to President Donald Trump have begun an aggressive push to combat the teaching of critical race theory and capitalize on the issue politically, confident that a backlash will vault them back into power. [...]
“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser who has zeroed in on local school board fights over critical race theory, said in an interview. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

Bannon is blowing smoke; there’s no evidence that “mainstream suburban moms” are the ones screaming at their local school boards in protest of an imaginary curriculum their children are not actually being taught. But the comparison with the tea party is instructive, not so much for what the conservatives’ con over critical race theory actually is, but what they’re hoping to turn it into.

The tea party erupted after the election of Obama, and one of its most important purposes was to give paper-thin cover to a mass right-wing panic over a Black man getting elected president. It presented itself as worried about government spending (though it was strangely unconcerned when George W. Bush was ballooning the deficit) and devoted to the principles of the nation’s founding. Substantively, the latter consisted mostly of a bunch of absurd Founding Father cosplay, often in the form of nincompoops running around in tricorn hats.

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In contrast, the anti-CRT eruption (it’s far too early to call it a movement) has race right up front; there’s no pretension to a policy agenda other than passing laws forbidding teachers from discussing the existence of racism. In some ways it’s the natural landing point for the right after the Trump presidency: After four years spent worshiping someone who barely tried to hide his bigotry, conservatism has now devoted itself entirely to White grievance, at least for the moment.

One way the anti-CRT effort is definitely like the tea party is that elite Republicans are dashing to the front of the parade. It’s not just semi-fringe white nationalists like Bannon; everyone on the right is getting in on the act. The website of the Heritage Foundation now features a whole section devoted to critical race theory fear-mongering.

And, of course, Fox News was central to both. The network relentlessly promoted the tea party in 2009 when it began, pounding home the message to conservatives across the country that they should get on board; at one point management had to tell Sean Hannity that for him to literally headline tea party rallies was probably going too far. Today Fox has set aside a good portion of its schedule to decrying CRT; according to the liberal group Media Matters, the network mentioned it no fewer than 1,300 times in the past few months. Then as now, GOP elites saw the rage of the party faithful as a tool they could wield for their own benefit, even if keeping it under control might not always be easy.

What particularly excited the tea party’s adherents was the association with righteous principles and rebellion against power; by embracing it you could imagine yourself the heir to a noble tradition dating back to the country’s founding. But if you say the same about opposition to any discussion of the way racism operates in institutions, you’d pretty much be making the critical race theorists’ point for them. Oh, the irony!

That brings us to a critical point of divergence. The tea party was relentlessly focused on Obama, and just as Democrats found eight years later, opposition to the president as an individual can be incredibly powerful. He’s in the news every day, doing things you don’t like; it’s easy to stay mad at him.

That anger sustained itself for two years, which is why Republicans managed a huge wave election that gave them control of the House in 2010. Democrats did the same in 2018, fed by their anger at Donald Trump.

But try to imagine that a year and a half from now, the Republican base will still be so mad about critical race theory that it will swamp the polls and deliver yet another wave election for Republicans. It seems unlikely.

Not that Republicans may not get their wave election; they well could. But it’ll be built on other things the base is mad about. There’s only so long they’ll be able to sustain the rage at critical race theory before it peters out and they have to find a new target.

So this probably won’t be the new tea party, though it might resemble it in some ways. But don’t worry: Right-wing rage is always ready to reignite. Republicans just have to keep finding new sparks.