Is the Tea Party Responsible for Donald Trump?

The Republican Party’s old divisions have been scrambled by its new presidential nominee.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

There was already a Republican civil war before Donald Trump came along. Remember the Tea Party? Remember the government shutdown? For years now, conservative insurgents have been battling a GOP establishment they saw as weak-willed and corporatist, while the establishment lamented the insurgents’ refusal to be realistic and compromise.

As Republicans take sides on Trump’s nomination, a new round of finger-pointing has begun, with each side of this old conflict seeking to blame the other for Trump.

To some, his rise is clearly the Tea Party’s fault. The right-wingers, this argument goes, weakened and divided the party, stoking people’s rage against Washington and government. With racial undertones, their rallying cries preyed on fear and hatred. Figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spent years telling the conservative base that Republican officeholders were selling them out at every turn, and that the only solution was to toss out anyone who’d been in office for more than five minutes—to elect new representatives whose answer to everything, even funding the normal operations of government, would be: “Hell, no.” They encouraged the base’s paranoia and conspiracy theories; its distrust of institutions, including political parties and the media; and its irrational hatred of anything associated with Barack Obama.

Was it any wonder, then, that a candidate came along whose anger was even more consuming and less constructive, whose disregard for political norms was even more flamboyant, whose appeals to racial resentment were even more overt, whose disregard for fact and fondness for conspiracy was even more pronounced? As the conservative writer Matt Lewis put it last week, “Ted Cruz helped create an environment where populist demagoguery would flourish on the right.” But Cruz was hoist by his own petard, Lewis wrote, when Tea Party figures like Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter found Trump’s brand of this tonic even more potent. Trump, in this view, was just Cruz on steroids.

But plenty of the Tea Partiers of yesteryear aren’t on board with Trump, including Beck; Erick Erickson, the former editor of, whom I once called “the most powerful conservative in America”; and the Iowa-based radio host Steve Deace. And look who’s coming out for Trump: a lot of establishment officeholders, lobbyists, and party loyalists. People like Jon Huntsman, Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor, Bob Dole, and John Boehner have all urged the party to get behind Trump. These are the sort of people who have spent years scolding the Tea Party for its extreme tactics and insisting that conservative principles must take a back seat to two more important goals: first, winning elections, and second, making the wheels of government turn. Doing the deal, whether that meant a big budget bargain with the president or raising the debt ceiling, was the most important thing, no matter what was in it, and messiness and conflict were to be avoided at all costs. Just be a team player, they said, even if you don’t totally agree with the result.

Trump has said he plans, if elected, to reach across the aisle and make deals with Democrats, to break the gridlock and make Washington work again. In this sense, he is not Cruz on steroids but the anti-Cruz. Cruz believed in the idea of destroying Obamacare so passionately he was willing to shut down the government for it, even if the fight was a political loser. It’s not clear whether Trump believes in a fixed set of ideas at all—he just wants to win.

Erickson has argued that it was the party establishment, not the conservative movement, that created Trump, by never delivering on its promises to voters. The fact that Trump’s platform departs completely from conservatives’ vision—the three-legged stool of muscular foreign policy, traditional family values, and free-market economics—suggests that maybe the promises themselves weren’t what Republican voters were looking for. And now the establishmentarians who oppose Trump—Mitt Romney, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham—find themselves making a Cruz-like argument: that some principles matter enough that they must never be compromised, even if that means losing a presidential election.

In Indiana last Tuesday, at the same time Trump was winning the presidential primary, a candidate named Todd Young won a race for the Republican Senate nomination. Young, a three-term congressman from Bloomington, was the establishment candidate, backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. His opponent, fellow Representative Marlin Stutzman, was an archetypal Tea Partier—a Freedom Caucus member who voted against Boehner for speaker. (During the shutdown, Stutzman memorably declared, “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” ) What did it mean that Trump and Young both won, and that other incumbent and establishment candidates have also won primaries this year? If Trump voters are mad as hell, why are they voting to preserve the Washington status quo?

Another group working to elect Young was the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of pragmatists that styles itself as the moderate counterweight to the Freedom Caucus. Its president, Sarah Chamberlain, was in Indiana working on Young’s behalf, and she told me it was not a coincidence that Trump and Young both prevailed. In the group’s polling, the two candidates rose and fell in tandem, she said. “If Trump came up, Todd Young came up with him,” she said. “When Cruz went down, Stutzman went down.” I asked why she thought that was. The voters, she said, saw both Young, a former Marine, and Trump as men of action who would get things done. “People like the idea that Trump can actually do something—get the wall built, get the trade deals redone—because they’re seeing not a lot get done by the current administration and D.C.,” she said.

For Republican leaders like Boehner and McConnell, who have been accused of having little agenda beyond obstructing Obama, it will have been a rich irony indeed if the rise of Trump actually represents an uprising of Republican pragmatism against the conservative wing of the party. At Trump rallies, I frequently meet voters who tell me they consider themselves moderates or independents. Indeed, Trump has long polled best with liberal and moderate Republicans, and on Sunday he told George Stephanopoulos, “This is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.”

At the same time, plenty of members of the Republican establishment are horrified by Trump, just as plenty of Tea Partiers are. (It’s possible, here, to get lost in Talmudic parsing of who and what constitutes “establishment”; There are ambiguities, but a good rule of thumb is that the Republican in question opposed the 2013 shutdown, or has the last name “Bush.”) That Trump has found allies and enemies in both wings illustrates the way his nomination constitutes a third way for the GOP. He redrew the old battle lines, combining the passionate anger of the grassroots and the win-at-all-costs pragmatism of the elites. And now he’s managed a feat of unity few thought possible, bringing such usual antagonists as Glenn Beck and Lindsey Graham together against him.

This combination of Tea Party and establishment sensibilities explains why his rivals couldn’t stop Trump. They were stuck in the old mindset. Jeb Bush planned to run against a Tea Party candidate—someone like Cruz. Cruz thought he’d be up against an establishment candidate—someone like Bush. The two sides couldn’t agree on why Trump was bad: Did he have to be stopped because unlike Cruz, he wasn’t a true conservative, or because he would set back Bush’s efforts to reform and broaden the party? Trump smashed the old categories and asked a new set of questions: Reaganism or nationalism? Ideas or attitudes? Philosophy first, or party loyalty?

With the rise of Trump, the old GOP civil war has ended. A whole new one has begun.

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