The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The old tea party may be over, but the new one is at peak power

With Mike Pompeo’s ascent to secretary of state, the tea party will be a true establishment power. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The tea party was over, we thought. Not quite a decade old, the right-wing populist movement that once seemed poised to be an enduring force in national politics had burned out, overtaken by a more virulent strand of populism led by President Trump.

But when Trump dismissed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state this past week, naming Mike Pompeo as his replacement, it was hard to deny that, in some ways, the tea party is at the apex of its power — even if, paradoxically, it is an establishment power. And it might be out for blood.

Pompeo’s ascent underscores just how many politicians who came to prominence with the tea party — including Vice President Pence, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney — now occupy powerful positions in Trump’s administration. Depending on how far Trump goes to try to remake the GOP in his image, tea party alumni may form the core of a new Republican establishment.

The grievances that animated the movement and fed Trump’s presidential candidacy live on. The tea party’s insurgent impulses have fused with his erratic populism to become one of the three contending forces in the Republican Party — the other two being establishment Republicanism and ideological conservatism. Tillerson’s fall is a prime example of how traditional Republicans are becoming yesterday’s men and women in the Trumpified GOP. Tomorrow, will it be the ideological conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan?

The Washington Post reported that Trump disdained Tillerson, the pro-big-business former ExxonMobil CEO, for being “too establishment” in his thinking, by which the president seems to have meant Tillerson’s prudence (at least in relation to Trump), adherence to traditional diplomatic protocols, and unwillingness to rip up trade agreements and the Iran nuclear deal.

Pompeo, on the other hand, first won election to Congress in 2010 as a tea party favorite, in a race where some of his supporters urged Kansans to “Vote American ” to defeat his Indian American opponent. Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo has tweeted his desire to roll back the Iran deal and has called for regime change in North Korea. As secretary of state, Pompeo presumably would be in tune with Trump’s “America First” positions and his contempt for diplomatic norms — characteristics that reflect the tea party outlook as well as Trump’s economic nationalism.

The tea party, whatever else may be said about it, was an example of popular democracy in action. The Republican Party benefited from the infusion of energy and commitment at the grass roots, which allowed the GOP to gain historic majorities in Congress and state legislatures across the country. At the same time, party leaders were uneasily aware that the tea party stood apart from the Republican Party and in some ways defined itself in angry opposition to the GOP establishment. (The divide plagued the speakership of John Boehner and ultimately helped lead to his resignation.)

That outrage was understandable. President George W. Bush had claimed to oppose big government but ended up further engorging it. Republican and Democratic leaders came across to tea party activists as equally uninterested in their worries about immigration, the loss of jobs and industry to global economic competition, and a social agenda of “political correctness” pushed by academia and the media. Trump built his movement by championing these issues both parties seemed to ignore and projecting a willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender.

In the long view of history, the tea party was one more episode in a series of right-wing populist revolts that marked the development of the modern conservative movement. In the past, establishment leaders often clamped down on such revolts. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, squelched Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, while the conservative intellectual champion William F. Buckley Jr. expelled the conspiracy-mongering John Birch Society from the respectable right. At other times, leaders like Ronald Reagan brought conservative activists into the mainstream of the GOP without permitting them to engage in intra-party fratricide.

Most Republican Party leaders hoped that tea party activists would continue to be foot soldiers for the GOP and that experience would dull their anti-establishment resentments. When the conservative supporters of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona came together in the early 1960s, for example, they took over many state and local party organizations and threw out anyone they deemed insufficiently committed to the cause. One such supporter was Dean Burch, appointed head of the Republican National Committee after Goldwater secured the 1964 presidential nomination. Burch proceeded to purge many long-serving officials and staffers whom he identified with the moderation of Eisenhower. But over time, the Goldwater people — including Burch -- became more pragmatic. Thomas Railsback of Illinois, for example, inspired by Goldwater to enter politics, was elected to the House in 1966. Once in office, however, Railsback moderated his views in response to the complexity of the issues as he understood them. He was one of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted to impeach Richard Nixon, and he went against the growing conservative movement on other issues, including regulation of “Saturday Night Special” handguns. Eventually, conservative supporters of Reagan organized against the newly moderate Goldwaterites and turned them out of office. The fact that Railsback represented the district where Reagan had grown up meant that Reagan conservatives had a special animus against him and they succeeded in defeating him in a primary in 1982. But even Reaganites became more pragmatic as they came to understand the realities of politics and government. As for Burch, after Goldwater’s massive defeat, he repented and told the RNC that “this party needs two wings, two wings and a center, or I fear it may never fly again.”

The tea party and its supporters, however, do not seem to have followed this pattern. A historically unusual number of tea party legislators elected to the House in the wave of 2010 are no longer in office, because many of them genuinely did hate government and had no interest in becoming experienced legislators. “I never intended to become a career politician,” said one of them, Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, before stepping aside last year. The grievances of most tea party supporters didn’t fade with time but were inflamed by Trump’s campaign, which strengthened the movement’s tendency to view opponents as illegitimate and un-American, and compromise as treason.

Republicans who hoped that Trump eventually would pivot toward more conventional presidential behavior, once he realized the gravity of the high office he occupied, have waited in vain. The Trump presidency appears less of a conventional administration and more of a permanent, tea-party-style insurgency. The president clearly enjoys campaigning more than governing and still causes GOP officeholders near-daily heartburn with his tweets. Nearly every historical understanding of what the Republican Party stands for has been upset by Trump’s impulsive policy proposals on trade, foreign alliances, immigration, the Second Amendment, due process, and on and on. The tea party scared the establishment, but Trump can take revenge on the establishment in ways the tea party only dreamed of doing.

Despite the tea party’s provenance as a conservative movement, there was little about past political patterns and practices that it wanted to conserve. Activists hoped not only to “throw the bums out” but also to get rid of anything that passed for the status quo. The affinity of tea party veterans for Trump is based in part on their common interest in disruption. Ryan may soon be in trouble because his authority and his orthodox conservatism have become another establishment to be overthrown — even though the tea party-Trump camp increasingly constitutes an establishment of its own.

The tea party is dead, but the insurgency lives on. It’s hard to know what test of reality the Trump administration may confront that would change that dynamic.

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