Tea party's bid to 'make the establishment great again'

After eight years of trying to bring down Washington elites, the populist movement finds itself in an unfamiliar position: holding the levers of power.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A "Spirit of America" rally in Atlanta drew about 150 people on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017.

If this was a Trump-era reprise of the tea party, it was a distinctly less energized one than eight years ago, when a horseback “Paul Revere” delighted a huge crowd of self-described patriots outside the Georgia Capitol.

On Monday in Atlanta, veteran tea party organizers were among about 150 people who gathered to wave placards, including one depicting “fake news media” personalities with their hair on fire while President Trump smiles in the background.

On Feb. 25, Mr. Trump had tweeted, “Maybe the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN should have their own rally. It would be the biggest of them all!”

But the Atlanta rally, though festive, portrayed an oddly subdued optic for a president who has repeatedly measured his popularity not by polls but by crowd sizes. Similar events in Louisiana and Colorado, part of a wave of some 70 "Spirit of America" rallies this week, also had only modest attendance – in contrast with the large, rowdy crowds that have turned out to protest the Trump administration.

While the largest gatherings are expected Saturday, the relatively small turnout of these pro-Trump rallies so far underscores concern that the largely white, middle-class conservatives who led an insurgency against the Washington establishment have yet to demonstrate as much strength in empowering Mr. Trump and other outsiders now that they're in government.

In some ways, that's only natural, say experts.

“Protests, even rallies, are tactics by people feeling disenfranchised – the tea party worked largely because the Democrats had the White House and Congress – so it makes sense now that … the ‘resistance’ [to Trump] movement is the one gaining traction,” says University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher, who studies social movements and civic participation. “So it seems a bit of a rookie move to call people to go to the streets to support you when you have all the power, because that strategy is hard to be successful at.”

But those allied with the tea party movement defend the somewhat counterintuitive bid by the tea party movement to essentially "make the establishment great again” – after spending the bulk of eight years knocking it down. “We are now in a position to be a positive working force for this country,” says B.J. Van Gundy, a former state GOP vice chair.

In defense mode

Eight years after at least 30,000 people took to the streets and 1,000 tea party groups bloomed in the wake of President Obama’s election and the 2008 Wall Street bailout, the tea party can in many ways claim not just Trump – the bull-in-a-china-shop outsider who speaks of a “leaner” American government – but a broader ideological victory. It has transformed the Republican Party while pushing the Democrats to the margins of power, except in the big cities.

Yet the mood at Monday’s Atlanta rally was less euphoric than defensive.

Tea Party Patriots founder and national political coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said complacency could lead to disappointment for conservatives, given a rising opposition tide. “We can’t just step back and expect Trump to make it all happen by himself,” she says.

To tea party leaders like Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, the movement's message is relevant not just in support of Mr. Trump, but also the continued necessity to keep both parties honest.

After all, he says, the tea party rose up as a Republican insurgency – and succeeded even as similar movements on the left, including Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Bros – largely failed, at least electorally.

“This push to protect basic rights for Americans is not controversial, and the vast majority of people are with us,” says Senator McKoon. “But they need encouragement. This goes deep, and it’s beyond any single party.”

Nevertheless, the tea party and Trump, some activists admit, are hardly a perfect fit. Trump’s policies threaten to drive up national debt, which the tea party sought to slash. And his administration has vowed to reassert federal authority on states’ rights issues like marijuana legalization.

At the same time, “We can’t have purity tests when it comes to politics,” says Mr. Van Gundy, who helped usher tea party candidates into the Georgia legislature. “Trump is headed in the right direction on a lot of things.”

'We got our guy in there'

After Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night, the Tea Party Express issued a statement saying that their usual annual rebuttal to the president's address wasn't necessary – because Trump essentially did their work for them.

“President Trump delivered an eloquent address, where he clearly and deliberately laid out his conservative vision for America,” the statement said. "It should now be clear to everyone that the Tea Party movement is more than rallies and protests. We have arrived in D.C., through our elected representatives, to fulfill our mission and finally rein in government."

Indeed, political scientists say the sparse attendance at Trump rallies underscores that “there’s not much energy on the right, because their grass-roots are kind of satisfied – ‘O.K., we got our guy in there, and we’ve got Congress’ – while the reluctant Trump voters are trying to absorb all this and figure out what it means,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “Meanwhile, [many Republicans] don’t realize they might be in trouble.”

In Georgia’s hotly contested Sixth Congressional District, for example, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 1 percentage point, a potential problem since it’s a conservative-leaning suburban district.

Add the galvanizing effect of constituent town halls on many voters, and that's created an opening for Jon Osoff, a 30-something Democrat with what the Daily Beast's Patricia Murphy calls “an economy-first pragmatism buttressed by unqualified support for liberal causes.”

Conservatives in office find themselves pressured by town halls, and the trouble such voter discontent may spell for 2018 midterm elections.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, usually a “conservative bulldog,” pushed for a substantial investigation into Russian election interference – despite Trump's dismissal of such claims as unfounded. In a recent US News & World Report piece, Yale University political scientist John Stoeher saw in that decision a a sign of concern about a looming pushback at the voting booth. Mr. Issa’s district, Mr. Stoeher pointed out, “is on the outskirts of Los Angeles and ... dramatically favored Clinton.”

Countering liberal activism

But now that the populist movement spawned by the tea party finds itself in power, critics would be remiss by reading too much into low attendance at such events, political scientists say.

More telling is whether a revived tea party can turn itself into a relevant counter-movement to what Ms. Fisher, the University of Maryland sociologist, says is a “building resistance” from the left to the new Trump establishment.

“Counting numbers does tell you some things, including that getting 150 people out to support an incumbent administration on a Monday is a fair amount,” says Michael Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The key thing is that it’s an opportunity for people to talk to one another and build a political organization. It’s really about how these rallies feed into their ability to plan future events.”

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