Think of it as the dog that didn’t bark.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden laid out his plans for spending another $1.8 trillion to strengthen the nation’s safety net. That comes on top of his $2 trillion Covi-19 relief package and his proposed $2.1 trillion infrastructure package — bringing his total proposals for new spending to nearly $6 trillion. And that comes on top of the trillions of stimulus dollars spent just last year.
All of this is stunning in its expansion of the size of government; Biden’s plan will touch nearly every aspect of the economy.
All of this is stunning in its expansion of the size of government; Biden’s plan will touch nearly every aspect of the economy, from health care and education to child care and climate change. It is more Franklin D. Roosevelt than Barack Obama. He is proposing paying for some of this with big tax hikes on corporations and the rich, but it will inevitably add even more to the national debt, which is already north of $28 trillion.
But notice what is not happening.
While Republicans predictably denounce the spending and toss out vague references to “socialism,” there is no grassroots push back. No rallies. No demonstrations. No passionate denunciations of Big Government from flag-waving crowds in tri-cornered hats. There are no signs declaring that “Grandma is Not Shovel-Ready.”
This time around, there is no Tea Party resistance.
Instead, conservative media has been focused “cancel culture,” transgender athletes, and bogus stories about burger bans and the equally fake story that a book by Kamala Harris was being handed out to immigrants at the border. There are passionate protests against mask mandates and attempts to continue re-litigate the 2020 election. But these days the grassroots right has virtually nothing to say about health care. Its concerns about the national debt seem muted at best.
The contrast with 2009 could hardly be more stark.
Back then, the Tea Party exploded on the scene with its indignant objections to the President Barack Obama’s stimulus and health care proposals, quickly becoming the face of the conservative movement and firing up a base that had been defeated and demoralized in 2006 and in 2008.
The rallies were colorful and diverse. John Avlon described the range of attendees at a typical Tea Party event: “libertarians, traditionalists, free-marketers, middle class tax protesters, the more patriotic than thou crowd, conservative shock jocks, frat boys, suit and tie Buckley-ites, and more than a couple of requisite residents of Crazytown.”
But from the start, it was often hard to determine who and what was meant by the “Tea Party.” Was it a genuine grassroots movement? A fringe movement increasingly composed of wing nuts? Or was it a series of scam PACs set up by an emerging class of ideologically driven political grafters? Over time it was all of those things.
In my book, “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” I described it as “a chimerical construct that changed its focus and agenda depending on its leadership and location.” But it also had a darker side. At Glenn Beck’s 2010 on Washington, some of the signs read:
“Obama Lied, Granny Died”
“Don’t Make the U.S. a Third World Country — Go Back to Kenya”
“Mugabe-Pelosi in ’12”
“Barack Obama Supports Abortion, Sodomy, Socialism, and the New World Order!”
“If you are a liberal or Progressive Democrat or Republican you are a Communist!”
That sort of rhetoric was often echoed by conservative media celebrities. In August of 2010, Ted Nugent called Obama’s agenda “Islamic, Muslim, Marxist, communist and socialist” and said the president was a secret Muslim pretending to be a Christian “so he can continue his jihad of America-destroying policies.”
But at least on the surface, the Tea Party claimed to care deeply about government spending, deficits, and debt. “Democrats: Don’t Make ME Pay For Your Wasteful Spending,” read another sign.
Over the next few years, the conservative Republicans who insisted they were concerned about government spending would actually shut down the government, and no GOP event was complete without charts warning about the exploding debt.
And then they stopped caring.
There are still groups out there that claim to be part of the Tea Party. But, for the most part, they have been co-opted by Trumpism.
As Biden pushes ahead with his transformative progressive agenda, it’s worth asking: What happened to the Tea Party?
One obvious answer is that the fiscal conservatism was never real; Republicans only pretended to care about it when Democrats were in office. And the Tea Party was less about “freedom” and spending than it was about denouncing the nation’s first Black president.
But the more immediate answer is simpler: Donald Trump killed it.
There are still groups out there that claim to be part of the Tea Party. But, for the most part, they have been co-opted by Trumpism — more invested in a cult of personality and culture wars than anything resembling fiscal conservatism.
Although the GOP continues to hail him as a champion of the right, Trump is and has always been a man of no fixed principles who succeeded in draining the GOP of much of its political policy priorities.
No one really ever knew where he would come down on any particular issue: Socialism for farmers? Check. Unilateral tax increases for consumer goods? Check. Massive increases in the deficit? No problem.
Trump presided over the ballooning of the national debt from $19.9 trillion to around $28 trillion — a staggering increase of over 35 percent.
In his final chaotic days in office, Trump wanted to push it even higher. Even as he was fighting to steal the presidential election, Trump demanded that Congress increase the second round of stimulus checks to $2,000 per person.
In a video posted to Twitter days before Christmas, Trump said “I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000, or $4,000 for a couple.”
His bid for fatter checks was overshadowed by the sedition that followed, but Trump’s demand helps explain why the GOP is having such a hard time getting its base fired up over Biden’s spending plans. After four years of Trump, the right’s credibility on spending and the debt has been shredded. So the focus has shift to other grievances.
If there are rallies later this year, they are far more likely to be MAGA or “Stop the Steal” events than protests over deficit spending, or even health care.
That also reflects the ways in which the center of political gravity has shifted.
Polls suggest that Biden’s spending plans are widely popular and the GOP’s flirtation with populism has blunted its opposition to raising taxes on corporations and the rich. The stock market continues to boom despite dire warnings of socialism.
So, perhaps it is not surprising that the GOP would rather wage culture war — and that the Tea Party is just a distant memory.