The tea party movement was just getting started when I began writing a history of the Republican Party in 2009. I viewed the movement as the latest iteration of a basically cyclical populist phenomenon. It would push American politics to the right, I thought at the time, but eventually its impact would dissipate. The country would then swing back toward the center for a number of years until the next conservative counter-reaction.
But the tea party never really faded away. It mutated. It became the Trump movement, which is likely to dominate the Republican Party and have a major impact on politics for years to come. If the best guide to conservatism was once Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History,” now it might be Leon Trotsky’s “The Permanent Revolution.” Conservatism’s familiar pattern of advance, consolidation, retrenchment and renewal has vanished. In its place is something that looks like #MAGA Forever.
Periodic upwellings of grass-roots anger and enthusiasm have energized the conservative movement for decades. The first outbreak dates to the “America First” isolationist and nativist groundswell of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare followed in the early ’50s. Next came the insurgency around Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964 and the similar movement around Ronald Reagan’s presidential candidacies in 1976 and 1980. Then there was the surge that won a Republican House majority in 1994 — and made Newt Gingrich speaker — and, finally, the tea party.
These outbreaks had somewhat different causes and met with varying degrees of success. They shared a basically populist character and to some extent opposed the Republican establishment as well as Democrats; their energies peaked and then diminished, followed, until the tea party, by 10- to 15-year periods of quiescence.
Why did this cycle persist? For one thing, it’s hard to keep any political movement going at full steam for a long time. Activists can put their jobs and personal lives on hold for a while when their efforts gather force and advance toward victory, but that’s not sustainable indefinitely. Equally important is that these different conservative movements succeeded in electing at least some people who sincerely tried to address the grievances and aspirations that animated the grass-roots activism. These activists turned legislators chose, in short, to govern.
But the very acts of becoming educated about the political process, working through the system to pass legislation or undo progressive excesses, and attracting new constituencies to win reelection led most conservative firebrands to become more moderate — or at least more pragmatic. When I interviewed former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), he recalled how the Goldwater movement followed this pattern after propelling a number of right-wing hotheads into political offices in Washington state. Over the next decade, they adapted. Reagan’s supporters then ran against the Goldwaterites. The Reaganites who succeeded, in their turn, became more pragmatic in attempting to govern and win reelection. A dozen or so years later, they were deposed by the Gingrichites to their right, who reigned until the cycle repeated itself with the tea party movement.
“The people who are in party organizations and want to win elections have to make certain compromises,” Gorton told me, “and then they get thrown out by the true believers.” A perfect example was John Boehner, who had been a right-wing bomb-thrower during the Gingrich era but became the embodiment of the GOP establishment until tea partyers made his job as House speaker so miserable that he resigned in 2015.
The tea party, though, was something new. It departed from the cyclical pattern of previous conservative movements. The 87 Republicans swept into the House by the tea party wave in 2010 mostly came from gerrymandered conservative districts, so they had no need to moderate to win over Democratic and independent voters; their only threat to reelection was being outflanked from the right in a GOP primary. But while they could have had long political careers, comparatively few did. A 2016 profile of the tea party class observed that by that time, nearly a quarter were gone, many of them having “decided after just five years that they’ve had enough of Congress.” By 2018, nearly half had left the House (although some went on to the Senate or other political offices).
Many of these legislators genuinely hated being in government — and so, unsurprisingly, were lousy at governing. They achieved some success in rolling back regulations and cutting spending, but unlike their predecessors, they proved unwilling or unable to engage in the hard work and unsatisfactory compromises that governing requires. Their mission to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama came to grief largely because they never came up with any substitute.
The tea party cohort was notable mainly for its anti-institutionalism and breaking of norms. Its principal accomplishment was the Budget Control Act of 2011, with its spending caps and sequestrations, but its more symbolic action was the 2013 government shutdown. That negativity carried into the formation of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015. The caucus was not much more ideologically conservative than other GOP factions, but it was distinctive for its determination to destroy bipartisan cooperation, deny Obama any legislative achievements or real legitimacy, and dethrone Boehner, who appeared too willing to cut deals with the Democrats.
Unlike previous iterations of the conservative movement, the tea party’s opposition to governing and its own party’s establishment was an enduring feature. Its House caucus was defunct by 2012, when most grass-roots tea party activism had also sputtered out. But the tea party ideal lived on — mostly online and out of public view — through the continuing radicalization of its remaining followers.
The tea party’s characteristic mistrust of norms was evident from the beginning in its embrace of birtherism, the racist conspiracy theory that claimed without evidence that Obama was secretly a foreign-born Muslim and ineligible for the presidency. Social media accelerated the spread of such conspiratorial beliefs, which further dissolved trust in established institutions and objective truth. This meant that the tea party never really died; its energies were reactivated with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump — who of course was the leading purveyor of birtherism.
Trump in 2016 articulated grievances that were based on the real problems of non-college-educated Americans in rural regions and postindustrial towns, communities that have been destroyed by job losses, family dysfunction, and epidemics of drug and alcohol addiction. The tea party had also channeled the anger and disappointment of Americans who had lost manufacturing jobs to automation and globalization, who sensed that both parties had permitted much of the economy’s gains to be captured by special interests, and who felt disdained by the cultural elite and ignored by the political elite. But both the tea party and Trump’s movement also were rooted in fact-free conspiracy theories about the treachery of Democrats and elites, who allegedly plotted to destroy the livelihoods and traditions of “real Americans” for their own benefit.
Trump himself was well aware of the continuity between the tea party movement and his own. “Those people are still there. They haven’t changed their views,” he told reporter Tim Alberta. “The Tea Party still exists — except now it’s called Make America Great Again.”
Trump and Republicans in Congress could have chosen to pursue policies that would have improved the lives of their supporters. But the tea party’s contempt for policymaking carried over into the Trump administration; the GOP couldn’t even be bothered to assemble a platform at this year’s convention. Although the tea party claimed that its most sacred principle was fiscal conservatism, Trump’s supporters raised no objections when budget deficits grew by nearly $4 trillion during his term. And despite the administration’s shameful failure to contain the pandemic that by now has killed about 270,000 Americans, conservatives increasingly are drawn to the grotesque QAnon conspiracy theory that portrays Trump as a surpassingly competent leader locked in apocalyptic struggle with child-devouring, Satan-worshiping Democrats.
And so conservatism under Trump has reached the point that it is weirdly closer to Trotsky’s concept of an endless, all-encompassing, worldwide struggle against established authority than to any political movement, including conservative movements over the past century. The tea party-Trump tribe loosely corresponds to Trotsky’s proletarian class, pursuing its own interests against those of every other class in society, without alliance or compromise. And Trotsky’s idea of worldwide revolution finds a distant echo in the affinities between Trumpian populism and the illiberal nationalism of leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who share an interest in weakening America’s international commitments and the postwar, U.S.-led global order.
Trump’s permanent revolution has no fixed principles other than smashing a nebulous “deep state,” forcing all institutions of society to bend to its will, and waging never-ending war against Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans. It has become a perpetual grievance machine unwilling (and unable) to address those grievances through governance or the legislative process. And in refusing to accept Trump’s defeat, the conservative movement increasingly insists that the rule of law, truth and democracy are what the revolution says they are.
More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump. He and his supporters will indulge in an orgy of fantasies about a stolen election for years to come. Any Republicans who hope to succeed him as president will have to parrot his claims that he won in a landslide, that American democracy is corrupt and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.
When all is said and done, though, Trump lost reelection despite the political advantages that accrue to an incumbent president. That strongly suggests that he did not somehow repeal every law of political gravity. At some point, a party has to deliver more than grievance-mongering. The GOP’s donors will want something to show for their investments. The party’s constituents — especially the non-college-educated, working-class citizens who make up much of the Republican base — need the government’s help with their problems. And the party’s long-term viability may be in doubt if a strategy of mindless, implacable obstruction endangers the stability and prosperity of the country, causing too many voters to consider it an existential threat. Cynical political realism, if nothing else, suggests that the Republican Party can’t carry on forever as a permanent revolution.