As a powerful grassroots movement emerges, some want to use it for their own gain. The history of the Tea Party has important lessons on how to avoid that
Thursday 9 March 2017
The fury currently welling up against our demagogue president is a gorgeous thing. The Women’s March on Washington bowled me over by its sheer numbers. The town hall meetings calling Republican representatives to account are delicious payback for decades of phony populism. The combination of the two is one of the healthiest political developments I have seen in many years.
But opportunism never sleeps, and with the rage and the resistance of recent weeks some far less noble characters have seen a chance to develop a new con. They’re up on the resistance bandwagon right now, rending their garments, shaking their fists and praying that no one holds them responsible for the dead end into which they’ve steered us over the years. Inveighing loudly against Trump has become, for the people I am describing, a means of rescuing an ideology that has proven a disaster.
Comparing this moment with the Tea Party tells us a lot about this misdirection. In its 2009 heyday, the Tea Party represented a kind of superficial secession from the Republican party, which had discredited itself with the series of disasters we call the George W Bush presidency. Throw the old leaders out, the Tea Party seemed to demand, and start fresh.
But that’s not really what happened then, and it’s probably not going to happen with the hack politicians, million-dollar consultants and smug journalists who led Democrats to utter powerlessness this time around.
Yes, the Tea Party brought down many Republicans, but in truth it was a way of rebranding the same old Republican party without the stink of George W Bush attached. Conservative activists back then looked out over an economic disaster brought on by libertarian idealism – by a generation that worshiped bank deregulation – and insisted that what we needed was more deregulation, that we needed to go full-on free market. That’s the achievement of the Tea Party.
There is a possibility that the resistance to Trump will turn out the same way – that it will become a vehicle for our Enron Democrats to avoid accountability. “I don’t think people want a new direction,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in December. Now is not the moment for infighting, others have insisted, but for unity and togetherness. Unity behind the existing leadership, that is. Changing the personnel in the C-Suites will only weaken us, they will say; hell, we can’t even afford to see our leaders criticized.
And so the thinkers of the “center left” proceed to hold their failed leaders above scrutiny and to redouble their commitment to the shabby ideology that allowed Trump to win. Former prime minister Tony Blair, the British face of Clintonism and one of the principal forces behind the Iraq war has been doing just this. Writing the other day in the New York Times, Blair used his audience’s horror at the Trump phenomenon as an excuse to urge them into battle against, yes, the left.