Today brought news that Sarah Palin is endorsing Donald Trump.
Trump’s an odd figure to win the heart of a public figure once so synonymous with the tea-party movement. He boasts of the influence his money has bought him with politicians, including Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and Harry Reid, some of the movement’s biggest enemies. He supported the TARP and auto bailouts and praised socialized medicine. He’s currently touting ethanol subsidies to the rafters in Iowa, and his tax plan would increase the deficit by $10 trillion, according to the Tax Foundation. The day the Tea Party debuted, he praised Obama as “a champion.”
And yet, here we are. The woman who became the Tea Party’s biggest star is officially behind Trump. How did the movement come to this? Why is it so marginal compared to the heights of its power in 2009 and 2010? Is it even a coherent political force anymore?
Theory One: Too many of the Tea Party’s leaders left office and moved on.
Quite a few of the political figures most associated with the movement are no longer in public office. Representative Michele Bachmann retired after the 2014 cycle. Former Senator Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate to take over the Heritage Foundation. Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli lost his bid for governor in 2013 and now runs the Senate Conservatives Fund. The governor he sought to replace, Bob McDonnell, is currently appealing his conviction on federal corruption charges. Former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown was once hailed for winning “the Tea Party’s first electoral victory.” He lost his reelection bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012, and a subsequent race for the Senate in New Hampshire last cycle.
How did the movement come to this? Why is it so marginal compared to the heights of its power in 2009 and 2010?
Then there’s Palin. She announced her resignation as governor barely five months after Obama’s inauguration. Through much of 2010, she was one of the movement’s driving forces, providing much-needed endorsements to lesser-known GOP primary challengers. Throughout 2011 and 2012, her fans eagerly awaited a campaign for the presidency that never materialized. She’s since written best-selling books and sustained a lucrative career as a TV star, without ever again giving serious thought to running for office.
Theory Two: Too many embarrassing candidates tainted the movement’s reputation.
Christine O’Donnell sticks out as one of the Tea Party’s worst candidates. She lost her 2010 Senate race by 16 points, is perhaps best remembered for her “I’m not a witch, I’m you” ad, and is currently fighting the Federal Election Commission over allegations that she and her former campaign manager diverted $20,000 in political contributions for personal use. Several other tea-party candidates flopped against Democratic opponents perceived to be beatable: Sharron Angle and Ken Buck lost winnable Senate races in 2010, as did Richard Mourdock in 2012.
All political movements have their disappointments, but there’s no doubt that by spotlighting passionate amateurs and untested candidates, the Tea Party helped shove some candidates who were simply unelectable into the spotlight. These candidates helped a hostile media paint the movement as extreme and unhinged.
After the 2014 midterms, the Republican party enjoyed a roaring comeback; all told, they’ve now picked up 11 governorships, 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, and 30 state legislative chambers in the Obama era. But the Tea Party’s reputation never recovered. In 2011, 30 percent of Americans told Gallup they considered themselves “tea-party supporters.” By October 2015, only 17 percent said the same.
Theory Three: The Tea Party actually won, and now represents the true GOP “establishment.”
As Mark Antonio Wright points out, it’s jarring to hear Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Trey Gowdy now described as “Establishment” figures. The Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, and Palin all cheered when Mitt Romney picked Ryan as his running mate. How quickly the outsiders become insiders.
The 2016 Republican presidential field burst at the seams with Republican officials once considered tea-party favorites: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas. A 2010 Newsweek piece on the Tea Party included Carly Fiorina’s Senate bid in California, and even John Kasich ran that year by saying, “I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party.” Ted Cruz, of course, gave the movement one of its biggest victories when he upset Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in the 2012 Texas senatorial primary.
Yet, none of these candidates have galvanized and united the movement that roared in 2010. Perhaps Cruz comes closest, but as Palin’s endorsement of Trump demonstrates, he’s not everyone’s first choice.
Theory Four: Most members of the Tea Party actually never cared much about ideology or governing philosophy, just attitude.
At the height of the movement’s cultural power, disdainful liberals enjoyed citing the nonsensical “keep your government hands off my Medicare” as a Tea Party rallying cry and arguing that most Tea Party members were in fact comfortable with big government, even if they were too stupid to realize it. Another favorite left-wing line of thinking was that the movement didn’t object to big-government spending in general so much as big-government spending on other people.
The movement has indisputably undergone some uncomfortable ideological contortions over time, as most movements do. Folks who roared with fury about Obama’s big-spending early years showed little appetite for entitlement reform. Those who once fumed about runaway government invading the citizenry’s privacy appear comfortable enough with Big Brother as long as he’s leaving them alone.
In September, Glenn Beck, one of the few big-name tea partiers who have been resolutely opposed to Trump since the beginning, suggested that he doubted any real members of the movement supported Trump — and that any that did were, in fact, driven by the racism that critics carped about.
“I don’t think these are Tea Party people who are following [Trump],” Beck said. “Some of them may be, but I think these — I mean, you can’t — if you were a Tea Party person, then you were lying. You were lying. It was about Barack Obama being black. It was about him being a Democrat, because this guy is offering you many of the same things, as shallow as the same way.”
Maybe the Tea Party isn’t splintered and weak. Maybe it’s dead.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.