Charles Homans at NYT Magazine:
The echoes from the earliest days of the Tea Party are instructive. The movement’s advent in early 2009 quickly piqued the interest of Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist who has studied grass-roots organizing for decades, and Vanessa Williamson, her graduate student. In its profusion of local groups, its library public-room conclaves, the Tea Party harked back to a kind of civic activism that had gone largely dormant in American politics. Skocpol and Williamson began attending Tea Party meetings in several states and interviewing dozens of participants.
The movement arrived at a moment of crisis for the Republican Party. Its elites, and many of their foreign and domestic policies, had been battered by the unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration; voters had broadly turned against the party at the national level, and even its own base seemed demoralized. The Tea Party, arising in the first days of Obama’s presidency, offered the promise of reinvigoration, and almost immediately an array of well-funded conservative and libertarian organizations — Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks — backed by major donors and staffed by Beltway Republican lifers jumped on its bandwagon. With their own priorities in mind, they tried to cast it as a people’s uprising on behalf of well-established conservative fiscal objectives: austerity in budgeting, the rollback of entitlement programs and the reduction of taxes.
But in their 2012 book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Skocpol and Williamson argued that most of these views were not what drove the grass-roots activists. These activists represented the Tea Party’s novel contribution to politics — what distinguished it from the professional, top-down organizing that had dominated liberal and conservative activism for half a century, and its real source of political strength. They were overwhelmingly white baby boomers and retirees who were relatively well educated, disproportionately evangelical and only occasionally direct casualties of the financial crisis that had, in the popular understanding of the Tea Party, prompted the movement. Though they made common cause with the political professionals’ tax-cutting agenda, their concerns were otherwise less economic than social and cultural.
“As a general rule, the participants in the Tea Party seemed like sweet grandmotherly and grandfatherly types who had watched an awful lot of Fox News,” Williamson, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. Their specific preoccupations varied, but they boiled down to a profound pessimism about the future of the country, a sense that it was imperiled by the left, the young and the nonwhite. Local organizers and activists were often quick to distance themselves from the most baldly racist derisions of Obama. Far more common, and openly sanctioned, were anti-immigrant sentiments and Islamophobia, which informed not only the conspiracy theories about Obama but also the panic about the supposed threat of Shariah law being imposed across the country and the plans to construct an Islamic cultural center near ground zero in Manhattan.
Two particular themes of the Tea Party’s politics struck Williamson at the time and loomed larger to her after the 2020 election. One was the conspiracism that characterized the views of many grass-roots Tea Partyers, despite the best efforts of the more mainstream-oriented leaders. It drew from a wide range of sources: vintage ones like the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign — alumni of both often turned up in Tea Party meetings — and newer strains like Alex Jones’s Infowars media empire and the wild-eyed quest for Obama’s “long-form” birth certificate. Where those sources met was in a narrative of dispossession in which true Americans were losing their country to actors from outside the proper bounds of public life. This was the other big theme: “the idea,” Williamson told me, “that a substantial part of the American public were not legitimate actors in American politics.”
This idea reached its purest expression in the conspiracy theories about Obama, whose presidency was so unsquarable with what the Tea Partyers believed to be the true nature of America that to some it seemed, ipso facto, to represent a crime. Even those who in interviews did not espouse conspiracy theories like the birth-certificate claim confided to Skocpol and Williamson an uneasiness about the new president that went beyond normal partisanship. “I think that he’s actually not what he seems to be,” one Virginia Tea Partyer told them. Several interviewees told them that Obama planned to give amnesty to illegal immigrants in order to secure 10 million extra votes for his re-election — enough to allow him to “continue to ignore the interests of real Americans,” Skocpol and Williamson wrote.