U.S.

The Return of the Tea Party

People hold signs and American flags as hundreds protest against the state’s extended stay-at-home order at the Capitol building in Olympia, Wash., April 19, 2020. R (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)
Being told what to do by epidemiologists and officials wielding SCIENCE as their authority has been enough to bring Tea Party–era liberty back in vogue.

It’s 2009 again, or feels like it.

That was when spontaneous, grassroots protests against overweening government sprang up and were widely derided in the media as dangerous and wrong-headed.

The protesters then were inveighing against Obamacare; the protesters now are striking out against the coronavirus lockdowns.

The anti-lockdown agitation shows that, despite the revolution in Republican politics wrought by President Donald Trump, opposition to government impositions is deeply embedded in the DNA of the Right and likely will reemerge even more starkly if former vice president Joe Biden is elected president.

The Tea Party that was so powerful in the Obama years, roiling Republican Party politics and making stars out of the likes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, sputtered out and was subsumed by the Trump movement in 2016.

The emphasis on constitutionalism, opposition to deficit spending, and American exceptionalism gave way to an emphasis on American strength, opposition to immigration, and nationalism.

The differences shouldn’t be exaggerated — the Tea Party was opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and Trump has faithfully nominated constitutionalist judges. The Tea Party, like Trump, hated the mainstream media with a passion. But the shift from an overwhelming focus on fiscal issues to Trumpian cultural politics was very real.

The change was exemplified by the House Freedom Caucus, founded in 2015 and defined by its hard line on government spending, reliably lining up behind Donald Trump, who has pursued a notably expansionary fiscal policy — with huge budget deficits — even before the coronavirus crisis.

The intellectual fashion among populists and religious traditionalists has been to attempt to establish a post-liberty or “post-liberal” agenda to forge a deeper foundation for the new Republican Party. Instead of obsessing over freedom and rights, conservatives would look to government to protect the common good.

This project, though, has been rocked by its first real-life encounter with governments acting to protect, as they see it, the common good.

One of its architects, the editor of the religious journal First Things, R. R. Reno, has sounded during the crisis like one of the libertarians he so scorns. First, he complained that he might get shamed if he were to host a dinner party during the height of the pandemic, although delaying a party would seem a small price to pay for someone so intensely committed to the common good.

More recently, he went on a tirade against wearing masks. Reno is apparently fine with a much stronger government, as long as it never issues public-health guidance not to his liking.

Reno has published vituperative attacks on the conservative writer (and my friend and former colleague) David French, supposedly for having a blinkered commitment to classical liberalism. But it is the hated French who has actually tried to thoughtfully balance liberty and the common good during the crisis, favoring the lockdowns at first and favoring reopening now that the lockdowns’ goals have been achieved.

What’s happened during the lockdowns is that the natural distrust that populists have of experts has expressed itself in opposition to government rules. Being told what to do by epidemiologists and government officials wielding all-caps SCIENCE as their authority has been enough to bring Tea Party–era liberty back in vogue.

We’ve also seen a return of the glue that has held moral traditionalists and libertarians together in the conservative coalition for so long — the belief that big government is a threat to traditional institutions. Hence, the focus on resuming church services.

In retrospect, the Tea Party wasn’t as much a purely liberty movement as it seemed at the time. A populist anti-elitism was an enormously important factor, which is why it faded into the Trump movement so seamlessly. On the other hand, Trumpian populism has a big streak of liberty to it.

All it has taken to bring it to the fore is extraordinary government intrusion into our lives. If Biden is elected president, there’s more where that came from.

© 2020 by King Features Syndicate

Most Popular

Year Zero

Every cultural revolution starts at year zero, whether explicitly or implicitly. The French Revolution recalibrated the calendar to begin anew, and the genocidal Pol Pot declared his own Cambodian revolutionary ascension as the beginning of time. Somewhere after May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd, while ... Read More

Year Zero

Every cultural revolution starts at year zero, whether explicitly or implicitly. The French Revolution recalibrated the calendar to begin anew, and the genocidal Pol Pot declared his own Cambodian revolutionary ascension as the beginning of time. Somewhere after May 25, 2020, the death of George Floyd, while ... Read More
U.S.

A Data Double Take: Police Shootings

In a recent article, social scientist Patrick Ball revisited his and Kristian Lum’s 2015 study, which made a compelling argument for the underreporting of lethal police shootings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Lum and Ball’s study may be old, but it bears revisiting amid debates over the American ... Read More
U.S.

A Data Double Take: Police Shootings

In a recent article, social scientist Patrick Ball revisited his and Kristian Lum’s 2015 study, which made a compelling argument for the underreporting of lethal police shootings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Lum and Ball’s study may be old, but it bears revisiting amid debates over the American ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Culture

How Long Will Margaret Sanger Last?

Much of the radical Left is at present consumed by a feverish desire to erase from U.S. history anyone whom they’ve deemed in some way insufficiently loyal to the progressive creed of 2020. The statue-toppling brigades have exercised little discretion in determining which of our leaders are no longer fit for ... Read More
Culture

How Long Will Margaret Sanger Last?

Much of the radical Left is at present consumed by a feverish desire to erase from U.S. history anyone whom they’ve deemed in some way insufficiently loyal to the progressive creed of 2020. The statue-toppling brigades have exercised little discretion in determining which of our leaders are no longer fit for ... Read More
Education

Meritocracy without Meeting

Harvard University announced that it was canceling in-person classes for the entire upcoming academic year because of COVID-19. Students can attend digital Harvard for the exact same price. Some of my fellow conservatives are wondering if the stresses of pandemic conditions will finally pop an over-inflated ... Read More
Education

Meritocracy without Meeting

Harvard University announced that it was canceling in-person classes for the entire upcoming academic year because of COVID-19. Students can attend digital Harvard for the exact same price. Some of my fellow conservatives are wondering if the stresses of pandemic conditions will finally pop an over-inflated ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More