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The Tea Party Didn’t Get What It Wanted, but It Did Unleash the Politics of Anger

In the late summer of 2009, as the recession-ravaged economy bled half a million jobs a month, the country seemed to lose its mind.

Lawmakers accustomed to scheduling town hall meetings where no one would show up suddenly faced shouting crowds of hundreds, some of whom brought a holstered pistol or a rifle slung over the shoulder. One demonstrator at a rally in Maryland hanged a member of Congress in effigy. A popular bumper sticker at the time captured the contempt for the federal bailout of certain homeowners. “Honk if I’m Paying Your Mortgage,” it said.

Organizers convened mass gatherings across the country called “tea parties,” and they had a specific set of demands: Stop President Barack Obama’s health care law; tame the national deficit; and don’t let the government decide which parts of the economy are worth rescuing.

Ten years since that summer of rage, the ideas that animated the Tea Party movement have been largely abandoned by Republicans under President Trump. Trillion-dollar deficits are back and on track to keep growing. The Affordable Care Act has never been repealed, and Republicans concede it may never be. When Congress approved $320 billion in new spending this month as part of its latest budget deal, most Republicans in the Senate voted yes, prompting a lament from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was first elected in 2010 as a slash-and-burn fiscal conservative.

“The Tea Party is no more,” he said.

But Mr. Paul and others who have signed the Tea Party’s death certificate overlook one way it continues to define the country today. It ignited a revival of the politics of outrage and mistrust in government, breathing new life into the populist passions that continue to threaten the stability of both political parties. Even if the Tea Party’s ideas are dead, its attitude lives on.

“The energy that was with the Tea Party then was not even so much about fiscal discipline, but about holding Washington accountable for the promises it makes,” said Rory Cooper, a former aide to the Republican House leadership. As voters watched one promise after another go unfulfilled, he said, the anger eventually erupted in 2016 with Mr. Trump’s election. Voters said, in essence, “‘We don’t trust any of you, but we will trust this guy who makes every promise under the sun,’” Mr. Cooper said.

“Then what happened,” he added, “was they stopped caring about the promises.”

In interviews with two dozen politicians, activists and Republican strategists who were on the front lines of the Tea Party’s rise, many described a movement stunted by its own success. Bringing Republicans to power in Washington actually undercut their cause, they said, because after winning the White House in 2016, Republicans did what politicians have always done when they have the unlimited checkbook of the United States government. They spend, and voters are largely fine with it.

ImageCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

“Unfortunately I could probably name you every senator and congressman who are alarmed by this — there are probably eight of them,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a group that pushes for balanced budgets, lower spending and tax cuts and has backed Tea Party-inspired candidates like Mr. Paul.

But the bare-knuckle, brawling style that the Tea Party brought to American politics, Mr. Brandon added, is still very much intact. And in Mr. Trump, the movement has found a champion who is temperamentally suited to its way of practicing politics — even if he cares little for its founding ideas.

One significant limitation to the Tea Party is the contradiction in its DNA: It was a mass uprising based on notions of small-government libertarianism that are popular with think tanks but not so popular with most Americans. And as Mr. Obama’s allies saw the movement, its outrage over the debt and deficit had another purpose: giving cover and a voice to those who wanted to attack the first black president — people who in some cases showed up at rallies waving signs with racist caricatures and references.

“If the worry about the debt was so all-encompassing, so crucial, we would have had President Mitt Romney,” said Rebecca Mansour, a former adviser and speechwriter for Sarah Palin, whose rallying cries like “Don’t retreat, reload!” offered catharsis to tea party-goers in the movement’s early days.

A decade ago, people were concerned with government debt and spending and what it came to symbolize: politicians who were unresponsive to their concerns and an economy that wasn’t benefiting most Americans. Those concerns are very much still present. “The big problems, what Elizabeth Warren would say are structural problems, were never addressed,” Ms. Mansour said.

Jenny Beth Martin, who helped found one of the largest national Tea Party groups, Tea Party Patriots, recalled an encounter with a Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee and his staff during the budget negotiations when Mr. Obama was still in office. That committee member told her, in effect: “Everyone else who comes into this office asks us for something to spend money on. And you guys come in here and you are the only ones to ask us to not spend money. And we don’t know how to handle that.”

“That was such an important moment,” Ms. Martin added, “because I realized we were asking for something they don’t know how to give.” At the height of its influence in 2011 and 2012, Tea Party Patriots was bringing in $20 million a year in contributions and employed 30 people, its tax records show. In 2017 it collected $4.8 million and had a staff of 15.

While the group opposed the spending deal that Mr. Trump signed, most of its solicitations for donations these days are either about Mr. Trump or issues that are broadly popular with conservatives. Recent subjects of its fund-raising emails have included condemnations of Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, gun control laws, Big Tech, liberal judges. For $24.99 the group sells a T-shirt with a quotation from the president, “America will never be a socialist country.”

The fact that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were committed conservative Republicans meant little when it came to balancing the budget. Deficits soared during each administration.

Mr. Trump promised during his first campaign to eliminate the national debt “over a period of eight years,” but huge debt does not seem to matter much to him now. In his State of the Union address this year, he did not utter the words “debt” or “budget deficit” once.

His biggest legislative success, for instance, was a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts for individuals and corporations that has pushed the national debt higher than nonpartisan forecasters projected.

“This is Keynesian on crack,” said Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, referring to the theory — to which he is sympathetic — that the government can stimulate the economy through aggressive steps like cutting taxes and increasing spending. “We have the largest tax cut ever,” Mr. Bannon added, “and $4 trillion in government spending.”

Some conservatives see an irony in the fact that the Tea Party had more success — and political leverage — when it could extract concessions from a Democratic president and Senate, as it did in forcing Mr. Obama to agree to strict spending caps in exchange for raising the nation’s debt limit in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Those caps will be eliminated entirely after 2021 in the budget Mr. Trump signed into law this month.

Few Republicans in Congress identify as Tea Party today. The House Tea Party Caucus, which had 60 members in 2011, went inactive after the 2012 election.

Many elected in the midterm elections in 2010, like Bobby Schilling, were eventually voted out of office.

Mr. Schilling is running again for a House seat this year and acknowledges the landscape has changed. He hears less about fiscal discipline and more about topics like immigration or the Trump administration’s tariffs, which are affecting the district he is seeking to represent in Iowa.

And he hears a lot about Mr. Trump. At a county fair last month where he was campaigning, Mr. Schilling said, the biggest draw at the local Republican Party’s booth was a life-size poster of the president. “You would not believe people from all walks of life coming up getting their photos taken with this thing,” he said.

Of the 87 new Republicans elected to the House in 2010 — the most sweeping repudiation of a president and his political party in generations — one who has risen higher than most is Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.

ImageCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

In early September 2009, Mr. Mulvaney, then a state senator and part-owner of a chain of Mexican restaurants, sat in the back of a town hall in Rock Hill, S.C., a gathering that was typical for that summer. Seven hundred people filled the hall while another 200 listened on portable speakers outside. Constituents grilled the House Budget Committee chairman, John Spratt, a Democrat, and complained about how much the Obama health care plan would add to the nation’s trillion-dollar-plus deficit.

At one point, a man erupted over another false rumor making the rounds about coverage for undocumented immigrants. “Do not tell me that illegal alien invaders do not get health care free in America,” he said. “I see it every day.”

Mr. Mulvaney decided to challenge Mr. Spratt, and on the day he announced his campaign, in November 2009, he accused his opponent of selling out. “People can say a lot about me,” Mr. Mulvaney said at the time. “One thing they can never say is that I’ve sold out my principles.”

Since then, Mr. Mulvaney has risen to become the director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting chief of staff to President Trump. In the three years that Mr. Trump has been in office, the nation’s deficit has increased each year. Last week the Congressional Budget Office said it would rise again every year for the next four. By 2029, the national debt is set to reach its highest level as a share of the economy since after World War II.


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