There’s no telling, in these early days, where the anti-Trump resistance will lead. But looking back at the Tea Party may hold a clue to what lies ahead, for both the president and his opponents. It burned hot and, in a few years, burned out, without leaving much in the way of lasting institutions—but not before it had reordered Washington and changed the DNA of the political party in its sights.
“One of the things the activists were upset at my father about was that he was very visible, and looked very happy, during the inauguration,” Bennett’s son Jim, who worked on his last campaign, told me this week. There was an innocent explanation for this: As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, it was Bennett’s job to swear in the vice president. He had endorsed and campaigned for Obama’s opponent, John McCain. But “my father looked at the peaceful transfer of power as something that transcended party,” his son recalled.
“The activists said, ‘Why is Senator Bennett up there with Obama looking so happy?’” Jim Bennett added. “He was seen as being complicit.”
Obama and the Democrats had won the 2008 election so convincingly that many were convinced the Republican Party was pretty much over. But then something started happening. Scattered local protests sprung up in January 2009, just days after Obama was inaugurated. Then, in February, the CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s call for a “Tea Party” gave the movement a viral moment—and a name.
The new administration had announced an executive action that wouldn’t end up affecting very many people, but its critics were convinced it was tantamount to the worst acts of history’s repressive regimes.
That is, Santelli believed the Obama administration’s new housing policy was going to put America on the inevitable road to collectivism. “You know, Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy,” he warned.
Eight days later, coordinated protests unfolded in 40 cities. Many participants told reporters they’d never been politically active before, but they were alarmed by what was happening in Washington and felt they had to speak out. Fox News covered the protests to a degree that sometimes seemed like cheerleading—one of its hosts, Glenn Beck, was particularly enthusiastic. The administration, in response, singled out the network and accused it of abandoning journalistic values.
Longtime conservative players such as the brothers Charles and David Koch sought to lend support to the new grassroots energy, which they believed could advance their pet causes. Many liberals believed the protests were “Astroturf”: a ginned-up creation of Fox and the Kochs that didn’t reflect real grassroots passion. Critics pointed to racist sentiments expressed by some participants as proof the whole movement was extreme. The Tea Party’s self-appointed leaders insisted they were just regular people who’d been galvanized, and that their chief concern was conservative positions on issues. In particular, like the original Boston Tea Partiers, they were against higher taxes. A backronym, “TEA Party,” was said to stand for “Taxed Enough Already.”