Stronger than Tea: The anti-Trump resistance is much bigger than the Tea Party — and it has to be

Pundits compare the anti-Trump movement to the Tea Party — but this resistance is much bigger and more organic

Published March 11, 2017 1:00PM (EST)

A group numbering in the hundreds gathered to protest the appearance of Mitch McConnell   (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
A group numbering in the hundreds gathered to protest the appearance of Mitch McConnell (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

The anti-Trump resistance is not like the Tea Party, to which it is frequently compared. It's much more serious, despite repeated denials in the mainstream media. True, it lacks a misleading, self-important moniker, and it’s only been around a few weeks or months, rather than years. But the Women’s March brought out more than 4 million people to more than 900 events on all seven continents. Tea Party protests on Tax Day in 2009 were an order of magnitude smaller in total, with the largest of them in the 10,000 range. Tea Party town halls didn’t gain steam until the August 2009 congressional recess, followed by the 9-12 rally that September, relentlessly hyped by Glenn Beck on Fox News, and falsely touted to have drawn 2 million people. It was really more like 70,000, as Nate Silver explained.  

Beyond all those particulars, the Tea Party was far more driven by outside money, organization and media promotion than the anti-Trump protests today. The Tea Party grew from more than 20 years of Astroturf organizing, financed largely by Big Tobacco, as well as Koch Brothers organizing, specifically employing the “Tea Party” brand since at least 2002. What's more, its level of popular support was always more limited as well, rarely rising above 30 percent. It never represented a majoritarian point of view.  

Even within the GOP itself, non-Tea Party Republicans opposed Tea Party ideas on some of its core economic thinking, as Greg Sargent highlighted in January 2014 (“The Tea Party and the Hammock Theory of Poverty”). Most tellingly, Tea Party Republicans (and GOP leaners) overwhelmingly opposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 65 percent to 33 percent, while non-Tea Party Republicans and leaners overwhelmingly supported it by precisely the opposite ratio. The Tea Party represented an isolated minority that was wildly out of step with the rest of the country but wielded extraordinary power within a severely dysfunctional party and political system. There has been no comparable polling on the anti-Trump protests, but President Trump’s approval ratings remain well below 50 percent, so opposing him is clearly a majoritarian position.

The Tea Party’s power came from the ability of an organized anti-government minority to wreak havoc in an already long-gridlocked system. They basically don’t believe in governance, and our democracy is fragile enough that they have been able to start dismantling it, though nowhere near as rapidly or radically as they’d like. Anti-Trump protesters want to block the president's agenda, clearly. But they’re definitely not anti-governance. To the contrary, they support significant enhancements in the effectiveness, responsiveness and scope of government to meet the challenges of the 21st century. They also embrace a much more diverse range of identities and confluence of movements.

It’s harder to build than to destroy, so the anti-Trump movement has a more difficult job before it, made even harder by the structures of American governance, the many veto points, and the enormous money power of the 1 percent. Facile comparisons that ignore these asymmetries misrepresent political reality, and serve to make the anti-Trump movement’s work even harder than it already is.  

While many mainstream pundits have equated the two movements, conservatives muddle things even more. A typical example is Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, a House Freedom Caucus leader, who recently described the Tea Party as "a large group of people that organically got together eight years ago,” because they were upset with the Republican establishment as well as with President Obama. As Jane Mayer made clear in her book "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right," there was nothing organic about it:

Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?", had stopped by to see an early Tea Party rally in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, in February 2009. "It was very much a put-up job," he concluded. "All the usual suspects were there, like Freedom Works, 'Joe the Plumber', and The American Spectator magazine. There were also some people who had Revolutionary War costumes and 'Don't Tread on Me' flags, actual activists, and a few ordinary people," he said. "But it was very well organized by the conservative groups. Back then, it was really obvious that it was put on, and they'd set it up. But then it caught on." Frank argues that "the Tea Party wasn't subverted," as some have suggested. "It was born subverted." Still, he said, "it's a major accomplishment for sponsors like the Kochs that they've turned corporate self-interest into a movement among people on the streets."

Make no mistake, it was a remarkable accomplishment, if one that also cost a lot of money. But it took the disastrous failures of the Bush administration, which destroyed the broader conservative brand, to provide an opening for the more radical Tea Party brand to catch on. The Democratic establishment has failed as well — though not as spectacularly, and not around a clearly articulated and agreed-upon ideological identity. But that failure reached a new crisis point with the election of Donald Trump, which in turn led to the anti-Trump movement. Here we can see one true point in common: Like the Tea Party, the anti-Trump resistance is a response to the failures of both parties.

Another symmetry is the influx of new activism and newly created organizations, alongside older, more established ones. Writing for the Hill recently, Heath Brown, author of a book about the Tea Party, argued that the Tea Party displayed “two important dimensions,” which he claimed the anti-Trump movement lacked: First, “bold imagery and clear symbolism,” and second, “the formation of a vast network of new organizations,” numbering around 1,000, citing the work of Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. Brown's first point is valid, though it actually illustrates my thesis about how deeply asymmetrical the two movements are. The Koch brothers' organizations have been fooling around with that imagery, symbolism and faux history since at least 2002, and even before that in embryonic form.

But the second point is simply false. First of all, by 2012, the number of Tea Party groups had declined to 600, Skocpol said, though she considered that “a very good survival rate." In contrast, today new anti-Trump groups are quickly growing. The Indivisible Guide website has a geographically organized directory of groups, that “are wholly independent; they are listed provided they agree to resist Trump's agenda, focus on local, defensive congressional advocacy, and embrace progressive values.” Within 50 miles of my home in Los Angeles, there are 238 groups listed, of which 66 begin with "Indivisible" in their names — the bare minimum of new organizations. But that’s just L.A., what do you expect? Well, there are at least eight identifiably new groups within 50 miles of Omaha, six in and around Boise, Idaho, and 19 within 50 miles of Paul Ryan’s home district in Janesville, Wisconsin. And that’s just groups affiliated under one umbrella. There is no doubt that the Trump resistance is forming new organizations at a high rate, just as the Tea Party did — only much faster.

But the similarities are not as important as the differences, which can only be fully appreciated in terms of the much broader, long-standing asymmetry of American politics, laid out in detail by Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins in their book "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (my Salon story here). In a nutshell, the Tea Party represented a re-visioning of conservative politics in the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency, in line with the traditional ideological nature of the GOP, with its historical emphasis on who is a “true conservative,” who is most pure, most “principled,” most extreme, etc. Given how thoroughly Bush’s conservative project had failed, a complete makeover was imperative.

In contrast, the anti-Trump protests reflect the diverse nature of groups particularly interested in specific sorts of policies, rather than the ideologies used to justify or explain them. That diversity plays a much more significant role in the Democratic Party, and the broader political culture around and beyond it. The fragmentary nature of the Democratic coalition — as well as inherent tensions with its affluent funders — has created a very different history of relations between the party establishment and its activist base and the larger populations they represent. At the same time, the core policies that these activists push for have much broader support than the policies that conservative activists push. It is only in the realm of broad ideology, and the rhetoric spread around it, that conservatives can hope to gain majority support.

For example, as I pointed out in July 2015, Bernie Sanders embraced a full-throated progressive agenda that had very high levels of popular support. The “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute generated a long list of policies supported by 70 percent of the public or more, all of which were generally in line with Sanders' agenda. They ranged from universal pre-K (77 percent) to an end to gerrymandering (73 percent), to debt-free college at public universities, a $400 billion annual infrastructure jobs program and Medicare buy-in for all (71 percent each).  

This magnitude of support for progressive policies is one side of the fundamental asymmetry of American politics, and a clear source of strength for progressives courageous enough to rally behind them. One root cause of this asymmetry was first uncovered by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their landmark 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion," which found that half the population qualified as ideological conservatives, based on questions about government interference and individual initiative, while two-thirds of the population were operationally liberal, supporting an activist federal government when asked about specific programs or responsibilities — stable or increased federal government spending on education, housing and urban renewal, adoption of Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare proposal, and the government's responsibility to fight poverty.

In the last section of their book, titled “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology,” Free and Cantril wrote:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

As I’ve noted before, that restatement was never mounted. If we’d had it, it would have sounded a lot like Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for the Poor People’s Campaign, or like Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Instead, almost the opposite happened: Conservative ideology gained ascendency within the political class, pushing the country’s politics to the right. Racist reaction against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement played a significant role as well. More broadly, we can point to the more complex historical processes — of which increased economic inequality is just one highly significant example — associated with the turn toward a disintegrative, conflictual trend in American society, as described in Peter Turchin’s "Ages of Discord," which I reviewed here last October. Those trends should peak sometime after 2020, providing an opening for more integrative, prosocial forces to gain traction — which is why there could still be a chance for that hoped-for restatement.

But as long as conservative ideology retains such a hold, there’s a strong tendency even for progressives to present their policies in a framework that reflects conservative assumptions, at least implicitly. Such an ideologically impaired presentation inevitably weakens progressive arguments, giving credence to all manner of false arguments. This is precisely the legacy of neoliberalism, as advanced by Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1980s and ’90s, which was challenged repeatedly among both parties during last year’s election campaign.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton evolved in a much more progressive direction over the course of the campaign, but the lasting impact of neoliberal ideology goes far beyond any one political figure. The struggle to overcome that lasting impact will be one of the most important determinants of whether the anti-Trump movement ultimately succeeds — not just in stopping Trump, but in solving the festering problems that gave rise to Trump in the first place. In the best-case scenario, it will finally succeed in crafting “a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve.” It seems like such a simple, straightforward and obvious thing to do.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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