Erick Erickson is an author, former editor of Red State, a radio talk show host, and the editor of The Resurgent.
On February 19, 2009, CNBC editor Rick Santelli, stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and went on a tirade against the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, which bailed out individuals who had (mostly) knowingly entered terrible mortgages and could not pay them off. Santelli was so outraged he predicted a “Chicago Tea Party” would rise up.
His statement went viral within conservative media. Played over and over on talk radio and reposted on conservative websites, activists who already felt alienated by a Republican Party that had drifted toward corporatism and away from conservatism decided to mobilize. Local talk radio hosts around the country organized tea party protests on tax day. “Taxed Enough Already” signs sprouted up across conservative areas.
Those tea party groups organized and the Washington conservative apparatus stepped in to try to bring some focus, order, and assistance. Donors stepped up and helped fund other groups. Because of Citizens United, small dollar donors suddenly found themselves able to combine resources without a bunch of lawyers and compete against the big guys. Organized tea party groups sprang up, national tea party coalitions sprang up, other groups rose, and the C-Team and D-List celebrity consultants of the right decided to cash in.
Tea party activists were mad at both Republicans and Democrats. They were mad at Democrats for Obamacare and big government and keeping all their promises. They were mad at Republicans for TARP, the General Motors bail out, and breaking all their promises. Over the course of 2009, tea party activists became more and more organized and by 2010 decided to challenge long time Republicans they felt had broken promises while challenging Democrats as well in open seats.
The media portrayed them as racists. They were derisively called “tea baggers” by reporters and left-wing pundits. Republicans really did not know what to make of them. Democrats considered them a hate group. During the 2009 August recess, as Democrats sought to hide from voters, tea party activists showed up at townhall meetings and began embarrassing congressmen by proving these citizens actually knew what they were talking about. Union activists showed up to disrupt the recesses. While the media blamed tea partiers for violence, all but a handful of arrests made at the time were of union activists. Being beset by all sides fostered a lot of unity and solidarity. But then, after the 2010 election, the activists expected the GOP to actually use the power of the purse to hold the President accountable. It did not happen. In the minds of the activists, goal posts were moved by Republican leaders who’d promised action. Excuses were made. The activists got even angrier.
Tea Party activists learned, in the process, what pro-life activists had long known. Many Republicans would tell them they supported their cause, but behind the scenes would mock the tea party activists as hicks and rubes. Their checks were appreciated, but their opinions were not. Pro-life activists had long gotten used to this, but still pushed and cajoled and tried to work from within and without to incrementally advance their agenda. The anger built. Activists began to suspect Republican leaders had no willingness to act and Republican leaders concluded the activists did not understand how the system worked.
As the anger grew within the tea party activists, something vital to their cause never did — discernment. Some activists decided they could make a quick buck. Some consultants learned quickly they could profit off scamPACs and take advantage of tea party activists. The activists could never discern the good from the bad. Sometimes it was because of friendships, but not all the time. It started to become a real problem though and when some began calling out the con-artists and charlatans, they were branded as too Washington friendly. The grassroots tea party activists grew more cynical and distrustful.
The national tea party groups started fighting internally and with each other. The local groups felt like the national groups were of no help. That distrust, over the next few years, would poison the well. With a lack of trust in any group from Washington, no matter the bona fides of the organization, and with a serious lack of discernment, tea party activists finally took a go-it-alone approach in recruitment. They began finding the most socially maladjusted candidates to run for office — people who showed up at all the rallies and who, frankly, had been the volunteers most candidates left in the back of the office putting stamps on envelopes. Now, suddenly, they were the candidates because they had put in the sweat equity and were true believers. In still other cases, candidates sprang up, bought tables at tea party events, threw red meat to the crowd, and got endorsements without ever really believing what they were saying.
Considerations of electability were set aside because these were the people the local activists could trust. When national groups stepped forward, whose core competencies were fielding grassroots conservatives candidates, the tea party activists chose to ignore their advice. Consequently, multiple true-believer conservatives started entering primaries against a conservative who could win and an establishment candidate. The true-believers attacked the conservative who could win as a poseur standing between the tea party and the establishment.
The damage became immense as the Republican establishment struck back. Groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club For Growth were getting blamed for awful candidates running for office who they not only did not fund, but never actually supported and actively tried to dissuade from running.
As this confluence of malevolence, incompetence, and distrust built energy, the tea party began to fracture. Many of its members decided the only way to win was to adopt the tactics of the left.
Unfortunately, they defined those tactics as behaving like thugs and jackasses. The left won, they thought, by being nasty. So they would be nasty too. The face of grassroots conservatism became a face of anger.
When conservatives stepped forward to promote the idea of the happy warrior, the angry activists accused them of surrender and compromise. Eventually, conservatives began stepping back and the angry grew more suspicious of anyone and everyone within a few degrees of Washington, D.C. All the while, the ever more corporatist Republican establishment played on and off these divisions, smearing legitimate conservative organizations as profiteers while continually breaking promises.
When Jeb Bush entered the Presidential race, the angry and suspicious became the angry and paranoid. They rallied to Donald Trump, not so much because they agreed with him, but because they were desperate. They had become convinced there was no hope, 2016 could mean the end of America, and they must take drastic measures to turn the tide. Drastic measures meant Trump. The conservatives, like Paul, Rubio and Cruz, could not be trusted because they were of Washington. That they had opposed Washington to varying degrees made no difference. The angry and paranoid concluded they were infected by establishmentarianism.
This all finally came to a head on Tuesday night. The angry and paranoid put forward Kelli Ward in Arizona, who believed in chem trails, and Carlos Beruff in Florida. Both reflected the bleak black hearts of the remains of a movement no longer driven by shared believe in limited government and instead driven by crazy town. Both were defeated and deservedly so. A tea party movement that stopped listening to sound advice and turned inward and tribal needed to lose.
After Trump’s loss in November, the angry-paranoid remnant of the tea party movement will not go away. It will still fester and troll. But those who developed the discernment to realize our ways are not the left’s ways and we do not have to proceed as they proceed will be the ones to help pick up the pieces. The others will, for the most part, be ignored.
The tea party began through common cause and it died because too many of its members failed at discernment and, as a result, were betrayed from within and from without only then to grow too angry for anyone to ever want to join their cause except the fringe. One silver lining of the movement was that it found a Republican Party of old white men and left it with younger, more diverse officials. The old white men did not back Allen West, Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tim Scott, and others. But the tea party movement did in its early days. Because of the tea party, for the first time since the Civil War, the congressional district wherein Fort Sumter resides had a black congressman and an Indian-American Governor. That congressman is now South Carolina’s Senator and that Governor may be a future Presidential contender. The group portrayed as racist by the media in 2009 and 2010 broadened the color spectrum of the GOP. That is worth remembering.