Will Donald Trump Crack-up the Republican/Tea Party Alliance?

In an interview some years ago, I described the conservative and libertarian movements as all chiefs and no Indians. By this I meant that these movements, as they existed historically, were mostly just a tiny group of intellectuals writing for small circulation magazines and journals, without much of a public following. To be sure, a plurality of Americans identified as conservative and supporters of free enterprise, but their political philosophy was passive, disorganized and unarticulated. Such people were epitomized as the “silent majority.”

At various times, those on the right have tried to create a mass movement by coopting groups aligned with them on certain issues that had a broader and more disciplined base of support. The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, for example, tried to bring the “new left” around to libertarianism on issues such as opposition to war and legalization of drugs. This effort failed and he turned his efforts toward coopting what are sometimes called “paleoconservatives.” These tend to be unreconstructed Southerners still angry at Abraham Lincoln for being the first “big government” president. But such people are too small-C conservative to be comfortable among libertarians that are seen by them as hippies and nonconformists.

The late journalist Jude Wanniski spent years cultivating the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, in hopes of converting him to supply-side economics. (I worked for and with Jude for many years.) I think Jude believed if Farrakhan would adopt supply-side economics as the official economics of the Nation of Islam, then all its members would automatically convert as well and Jude would finally have an army that would follow his lead. This effort never went anywhere and alienated many Jews who view Farrakhan as anti-Semitic.

In the 1980s, Charles and David Koch began to fund groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy, which later morphed into FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, explicitly established to be grassroots membership organizations that would pressure on Congress to enact free market policies. For many years, however, CSE and other such groups were more “astroturf” than real. I remember once talking to CSE’s membership director and I asked how it was that year in and out the group claimed exactly 250,000 members, no more no less. I asked how many of these people were actual members of CSE. She said that anyone who had ever given money to the group or attended one of its events was deemed to be a member.

The Koch-built infrastructure suddenly had a massive influx of genuine activists in 2009 when the Tea Party movement spontaneously emerged. Veterans of the Koch operations quickly swung into action and provided leadership, money and organization for the Tea Party. Without this, it is very likely that the Tea Party would have burned itself out, just as the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left did.

The Tea Party immediately turned its sights on taking over the Republican Party. It took advantage of the fact that no Republican can be elected without first securing the Republican nomination. Historically, this is a process controlled by regular party insiders who anoint those who have paid their dues to the party by working their way up through lower-level offices to the point where they are deemed worthy of more important positions such as congressman. Control was maintained by the fact that nominating conventions and primaries involve small numbers of people and it didn’t take very many of them to determine who got the party nomination, with electability usually being the primary qualification.

In the last 40 years, only 7 percent to 8 percent of eligible voters participated in GOP primaries. Before 2010, the percentage varied from a low of 7.3 percent in 1974 and 2006 to a high of 8.7 percent in 1994, according to an American University study. But in 2010, the first election year of the Tea Party era, Republican turnout jumped to 9.8 percent, suggesting that a fourth of all GOP primary voters were new to the process.

The result was the nomination of  Tea Party-endorsed candidates in many states, often with minuscule percentages of eligible voters, winning with just 2 percent to 6 percent of eligible voters. Several won the general election, but in some states winnable elections were simply thrown away when inexperienced Tea Party members such as Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada secured the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. This allowed Democrats to hold the U.S. Senate for another 2 years.

There is no evidence that the Tea Party had any regrets about its actions. Its members believe that standing for principle is the foremost requirement for holding office, that all compromise is evil and must be opposed no matter the consequences. Although the vast bulk of Republican officeholders believe such an attitude is nuts, that the very nature of politics demands compromise and negotiation, they dare not say so publicly lest they find themselves facing a well-financed Tea Party challenger in the next primary.

There is not a single Republican in Congress who feels safe from a Tea Party challenge. In 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in the primary despite massively outspending his novice opponent. It is apparent that Tea Party members would rather maintain their stranglehold on the GOP than advance their own agenda incrementally. For them, it is total victory or nothing.

One problem with this attitude is that the Tea Party seems to have forgotten how the American government works, mistaking it for a parliamentary system in which the legislature has total control. Lacking the votes to overcome a Barack Obama veto, Tea Party members apparently believe that futilely voting over and over again to repeal the Affordable Care Act accomplishes some purpose. Later this year they plan to shut down the federal government to protest funding for Planned Parenthood based on discredited, doctored videos from disreputable anti-abortion activists.

This simplistic attitude toward public policy issues also distorts the process for nominating a Republican presidential candidate. Extremism on all issues is rewarded, while moderation and carefully considered policy positions are an albatross. This was on full display in the Republican debate on August 6.

Going into the debate, Donald Trump appeared to have done the best job of mastering simplistic solutions to every major issues, well-articulated in practiced sound-bites. Clearly, he benefited from his years in “reality” television.

It appeared that Trump was the favored candidate of Fox News before the debate, which it sponsored and is far and away the most influential news source for virtually all Republicans. As I noted previously, Fox made Trump as a political figure by inviting him on repeatedly to discuss political issues despite his lack of political experience and paucity of policy knowledge. His stock-in-trade is and always has been bombast, which plays well as television entertainment, but not so much when the stakes are higher.

Trump was clearly shocked by the sharpness of the questions at the debate, especially from Fox anchor and former prosecutor Megyn Kelly. He subsequently attacked both Fox and Kelly personally in a variety of twitter posts and media interviews.

With Trump and Fox now on opposite sides and the Republican establishment eager to quash his threat to run next year as a third party candidate, which would virtually guarantee a Democratic victory, conservatives began to choose sides. Erick Erickson, a paid Fox contributor who runs the politically powerful RedState website, publicly disinvited Trump to an Atlanta gathering at which most other Republican candidates appeared.

Of particular interest, I think, is that two of talk radio’s most powerful voices, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, quickly came to Trump’s defense. I suspect this was as much a market-driven decision as an honest personal one – talk radio has long catered to the more downscale, less educated wing of conservatism, where most Trump supporters dwell. Whatever else one thinks of Limbaugh and Levin, they are enormously useful allies in the sort of fight Trump is waging.

It is too soon to know whether Trump is in this for the long haul, but I would not underestimate his ego or willingness to spend freely from his vast fortune to secure the Republican nomination. Early signs are that his support remains firm in post-debate polls and he is still leading the pack. If the Republican field stays divided, preventing consolidation around the strongest non-Trump candidate, one cannot dismiss his chances of success.

Of more importance to me is that if the forces for and against Trump play out as they have so far, with Fox and Tea Party leaders siding with the GOP establishment while talk radio and large numbers of the Tea Party grassroots are committed to Trump, we may see the crackup of the Republican coalition that controls Congress, many state legislatures and governorships. The Tea Party will go down in history as just another populist movement that lacked staying power and Donald Trump will be its William Jennings Bryan.

-Bruce Bartlett

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  1. VennData commented on Aug 10

    Yes. That is what he wants to do. Can you imagine the stuff he could sell to a list of twenty million angry white men?

    Poll: Donald Trump leads after debate

    Megyn Kelly is o’vah.


    All the media pundits said he was over. You idiots in the media have no idea what the GOP Media Machine has done to the minds and hearts of a huge segment of the white male population to insure they vote against their interests and support the Republicans.

    The political analysts who have this internal feel for balancing Democratic Science-based policy and GOP bullshit are uttely clueless.

  2. Futuredome commented on Aug 10

    Ah, the “paleoconservatives”. Probably the biggest “mythical” group there ever was. Between the Propertarian,Activist and Capitalist divisions among the bourgeois came a group that said they would not blink. Trying to reconstruct the south as a great thing for the white laborers is pure mythology. They ignore their “masters” unlike for the “United States” creation in the 18th century. They were Tories. They ignore their Rothchilds benefactors(the great abolitionists in public and in private, the facilitator of the slavetrade. Lets say we are seeing a general theme with global warming based technologies from the relatives). South’s traitorous Aaron Burr, British Symp VP/P Martin Van Buren. The South’s main international banker Augustus Belmont who laid the financial plans for the Civil War. The coming of Tsar Alexander II to Lincoln’s aid for this very reason. The foreign hope of Southern/Planter victory.

    Traitors come in many shapes and sizes. Just because they appear mostly “white”(and there are coloreds in there as well), doesn’t mean they are American. Paleocons are this subgroup. They want to be the planters. They think they were part of that group even though their ancestors were likely poor white laborers barely making it going “yesss sir”!!!!!! So the Propertarians like Rothbard find easy prey. A set of weak hands to ensure ideological survival when the foreignness of propertarianism becomes overbearing.

  3. VennData commented on Aug 10

    Tea Partiers,

    When Trump starts his own party he might win.

    if he doesn’t Hillary Clinton will give us four more years of Obama’s high tax, flag-burning, socialist bathhouse. When Iran trains their nukes on American cities the equivocating American middle will see the liberal lies and usher in a century of Tea Party rule.

    Support Trump!

  4. willid3 commented on Aug 10

    isnt the Donald just providing what conservatives wanted? after all, in 2012 when they lost it was because Romney wasnt conservative enough. and i guess if the Donald looses, then they will say it again, its not because the country has moved on.

    • VennData commented on Aug 10

      They will find someone to blame, The Chinese are blaming their market drop on foreign short sellers.

      Political entrepreneurs will hatch spin, like tabloid headline writers and keep trying them out until one sticks.

      Clinton caused the housing meltdown.
      Fannie Mae bankrupted the banking system.
      Obama caused ISIS.

      If you don’t know these memes. you are not turned into the GOP Media Machine.

    • VennData commented on Aug 10

      The GOP Media Machine had built in an excuse to defend this sort of analysis. It’s a lie because the liberal media are lairs. Define it as liberal media then demand followers don’t read it, ignore it.

      It’s self-censorship. Listen to Rush only.

  5. ComradeAnon commented on Aug 11

    Finally! Someone who fully understands the republican base. No more coded words. No more dancing around the issues. They’re all out to get us and Trump will stand up for us!

  6. RW commented on Aug 11

    IMHO what we are seeing is a growing percentage of the conservative base who cannot deal with the level of abstraction required to express racial/class prejudices. Donald Trump does deals in generalities but not abstractions.

    Lee Atwater, Republican party strategist and adviser to Ronald Reagan phrased it thus:

    You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

    Interview with Alexander P. Lamis (8 July 1981), as quoted in The Two-Party South (1984)? by Alexander P. Lamis; originally published as an interview with an anonymous insider, Atwater was not revealed to be the person interviewed until the 1990 edition.

    NB: IMO this also offers a explanation for why a growing percentage of conservatives are willing to argue that racial prejudices, or at least their associated forms of discrimination, are largely a thing of the past: the presence or absence of a particular rhetoric alters reality; e.g., John Roberts, current SCOTUS chief.

  7. constantnormal commented on Aug 11

    “Republican/Tea Party Alliance?’

    … no political party composed entirely of my-way-or-the-highway egotistical maniacs has much in the way of coherence … fragmentation and dissolution is the natural course of such things … unless you get a leader like Hitler, who eliminates all the non-believers … but at that point it is no longer a political process …

  8. DeDude commented on Aug 11

    Trumph was shocked at being asked an actual question, and you cannot blame him. Nobody from Fox ask any real questions to members of their own tribe on their newsy shows (where he is a regular guest).

    But did he not realize that this was a different game, not a “feed some red meat to the morons” interview, but a sorting ground for political candidates. Megan threw a minor league pitch at him as a favor (so he could prove himself a candidate for playing in the major league). He failed miserably because he was unprepared.

    Trumph either doesn’t have a professional political advice team, or he is too arrogant to understand that he needs to listen to them. Megan presumed he was a pro and therefore knew he had a problem with the perception of his attitudes towards women; and that he had already rehearsed a perfect rebuttal (- he just needed a friendly reporter to ask the question so he could present the rebuttal). She must have been chocked to find herself doing the guy a favor and then being treated to a classic Trumph, bully, intimidation, hissy fit. He was playing in the school yard, not the ball park. I would not be surprised if Megan is confused – and miffed.

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