A piece by Michael Lind in Politico Magazine this week makes the case that the Tea Party isn't libertarian as was once widely assumed, but populist, which seems to be gelling into current conventional wisdom. And it's true that the Tea Party was never libertarian in any doctrinaire sense. They certainly claimed to be for low taxes and against big government, particularly if it tried to create a system by which most Americans could buy affordable health insurance; but beyond that it always got a little bit vague. Its members talked a lot about liberty but they referred less to esoteric notions of property rights and individual liberty than to moral values and religion -- which are hardly a tenet of Randian libertarianism. They did rail some about bailouts, but they certainly didn't put the kind of energy into opposing AIG or Fed reform that they put into opposing Obamacare and supporting gun rights.
Lind further argues that Trump's rise and his popularity among self-identified Tea Partiers proves that the Tea Party has always been populist in the tradition of William Jennings Bryant and Huey Long. He writes:
Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.
Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
It may seem odd that populists would choose a bombastic billionaire to express their concerns but it must be noted that unlike any of the rest of the GOP field he has supported tax hikes on the wealthy, gone after hedge funds, and picked a big fight with the Club for Growth.
Even still, let's be real: The focus of American right wing populism is generally aimed downward at immigrants and poor people, not upward at the wealthy. The Republican base may have an abstract beef with "bail-outs" for the rich but they are utterly convinced that the government's primary mission is to take their hard earned money and give it to lazy undeserving people who refuse to work.
So, by these definitions, Lind is correct: the Tea Party is much more populist than libertarian. But we've known who they really are since at least 2010 when the New York Times polled them, and it goes beyond ideology:
Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.
The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.
They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people...
They are far more pessimistic than Americans in general about the economy. More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with about 60 percent of the general public. About 6 in 10 say “America’s best years are behind us” when it comes to the availability of good jobs for American workers.
They also wanted to gut government spending for everyone but themselves, particularly social security and Medicare. Later, sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson surveyed the beliefs and ideology of the Tea Party for a book called "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism" and validated those results. They reported this for the NY Times during the presidential primary in 2011:
[W]e identified as Tea Partiers’ most fundamental concern ... their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young. Young people “just feel like they are entitled,” one member of the Massachusetts Tea Party told us. A Virginia interviewee said that today’s youth “have lost the value of work.”
These views were occasionally tinged with ethnic stereotypes about immigrants “stealing” from tax-funded programs, or minorities with a “plantation mentality.” [...]
Immigration was always a central, and sometimes the central, concern expressed by Tea Party activists, usually as a symbol of a broader national decline. Asked why she was a member of the movement, a woman from Virginia asked rhetorically, “what is going on in this country? What is going on with immigration?” A Tea Party leader in Massachusetts expressed her desire to stand on the border “with a gun” while an activist in Arizona jokingly referred to an immigration plan in the form of a “12 million passenger bus” to send unauthorized immigrants out of the United States. In a survey of Tea Party members in Massachusetts we conducted, immigration was second only to deficits on the list of issues the party should address.
Other pollsters studied different aspects of the Tea Party:
A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues. And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. It's Donald Trump's agenda. He is the ultimate Tea Party candidate, with a strong anti-Washington, anti-immigration, nationalist message combined with his assiduous cultivation of the religious right. And the fact that his followers don't all identify as members of the Tea Party doesn't mean anything because the movement itself was never really a discrete political faction but rather a reaction to the loss of the presidency to an African American Democrat, the embarrassment of George W. Bush's massive failure and the usual sense of grievance that has characterized the right wing of the Republican Party for decades. The Tea Party was simply a re-branding of the conservative movement after a catastrophic market failure.
Is the conservative movement populist? Yes, in many respects. But it's also nationalistic, theocratic and libertarian which is exactly how Donald Trump is packaging his campaign as a conservative movement hero. All you have to do verify that is take a look at right wing radio. The hosts aren't just obsequious. They are fawning fanboys and fangirls. Indeed, Trump is largely a talk radio phenomenon, with rare exceptions the obvious favorite among the biggest start from Limbaugh to Savage to Ingraham. These media stars don't identify as Tea Partyers or populists or libertarians. They identify as conservatives. The fact that they are supporting him as if he is the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan says everything you need to know about the Trump phenomenon. Trump's agenda is simply the conservative agenda, circa 2015, nothing more, nothing less.