Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, May 19, 2016
The image of a mass army of principled constitutionalists agitating to carry out Paul Ryan’s domestic-policy vision, while irresistibly useful as conservative propaganda, was a fantasy all along. The backlash against Obamacare did not rest upon any abstract theory about the role of the state. It drew its power from the fear that subsidized (private) insurance would come at the expense of the (single-payer) health care that old people love. Activists flooding health-care town halls in 2009, the core of the right-wing populist revolt, denounced mythical “death panels,” and Republican messaging focused on the (actual) Medicare cuts to finance a program that’s “not for you.”
Researchers Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin closely studied the tea party and found its members driven by something very different than a passion for small government. “Opposition is concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government ‘handouts’ to ‘undeserving’ groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes,” they wrote in 2011. “More broadly, Tea Party concerns exist within the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in American society.” They also found that, contrary to the myth that deficits obsessed tea-party activists, “In interviews, Tea Partiers who talk about immigration control regularly mention the security of the US border with Mexico, suggesting that their primary concern is with Latino immigration.” A 2013 close study of Republican voters by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner reached similar conclusions: “the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.”
The white racial identity, the fear of social change–all of these things perfectly predicted Trump’s rise. But conservatives ignored these findings because they implied that the tea party was not a movement of amateur enthusiasts for the Lochner Constitution, and that the fierce conservative antipathy toward Obama did not arise out of Obamacare’s particular design features or the legislative tactics by which it passed. The tea party was an ethno-nationalist revolt against Obama rooted in fear of social change. Conservative leaders pretended this revolt was a demand for their agenda, but the dissatisfaction of the base implies that the conservative agenda was never the thing that motivated it. Trump hasn’t hijacked the tea party. He’s un-hijacked it.