VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – From the Tea Party to the Trump Party and Beyond

In an article published earlier this year in The Atlantic, Molly Ball asks whether anti-Trump protesters could learn from the Tea Party, a conservative oppositional movement that emerged in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama to the White House in November 2008. For her, the parallels between the anti-Obama Tea Party and the emerging anti-Trump movement are striking: “a massive grassroots movement, many of its members new to activism, that feeds primarily off fear and reaction.” These remarks are perceptive but they are also ironic, as that Tea Party helped pave the way to the Trump phenomenon.

First, at a more superficial level, Trump became a key figure in the so-called “birther” thesis, which received much support among Tea Partiers, as most of them were unsure whether President Obama was born in the United States, or believed he was born in Kenya or in another country. In this context, during the Obama years, Trump became a Tea Party hero as he pressured the president to release his birth certificate and he continued to cast doubt upon the president’s place of birth long after the White House had released such a certificate. In fact, it was only in mid-September 2016, late in his presidential bid, that Trump finally stated unequivocally that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”

Second, populism emerged as a key ideological factor of both the Tea Party and the Trump phenomenon. Populism is a slippery and ill-defined term in public debate but, according to Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, it simply refers to an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist approach: “populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people.” The populism of the Tea Party is explicitly embedded in the official name of the movement: the “Tea Party Patriots” who, like their alleged predecessors of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, claim to speak on the behalf of the American people against a government seemingly alien to them. The popularity of the “birther” movement among Tea Partiers was directly connected to this form of white populism, as many of them depicted Obama as an anti-American leader who might not even hail from the United States. As for Trump, he spent his presidential campaign attacking the “Washington elite” while being hailed by his supporters as the only legitimate voice of “Real America,” an expression rich in racial and nationalistic undertones. More recently, from the White House, President Trump has stated on a number of occasions that some media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times were nothing more than “the enemy of the people,” a phrase meant to tap into both nationalistic and anti-elitist sentiments, as these “mainstream” media are widely seen by the president’s base as an anti-American instrument in the hands of liberal “coastal elites.”

Third, there is a clear demographic overlap between the Tea Party and the Trump phenomenon. For instance, in their study The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson showed that older white people, especially men, were overrepresented among core Tea Party supporters. Simultaneously, the victory of Trump last November was depicted as “The Revenge of the White Man,” a phrase that is reflected in polling data. As Jill Filipovic put it: “Across racial groups, there was a gender gap of close to 10 points in this election, with many more men than women voting for Trump. Fewer than a third of white men voted for Clinton, and fewer than half of white women.” Concerning the age factor, polling data shows that “Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%.” From this perspective, although not identical, the demographics of Tea Party supporters is similar to the one of Trump supporters.

The current anti-Trump movement is clearly grounded in a different demographic base than the Tea Party and the Trump phenomenon, as it is both younger and more socially diverse. From an ideological standpoint, the left-leaning anti-Trump movement is also at odds with the conservative Tea Party. Yet, if the anti-Trump movement can draw tactical lessons from the Tea Party about how to mobilize against a sitting president, for instance by protesting at town hall meetings held by elected officials who support him, it could help it impact U.S. politics in a meaningful way.

Daniel Béland is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Policy at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.


“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

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