"If we don't win this election," Donald Trump told a crowd on Wednesday, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know." He may well have been speaking for his supporters as well, and now that Trump's defeat is looking more likely by the day, the question presents itself: What are they going to do? Or to put it another way: What kind of Tea Party is President Hillary Clinton going to have to contend with?
To put this in context, in our recent history nearly every Democratic presidency has given rise to a radical right-wing anti-government movement of some sort. Barack Obama's election spurred the creation of the Tea Party; Bill Clinton's election brought about the militia movement with their fear of black helicopters; and going back farther, the Kennedy and Johnson years saw the increasing prominence of the John Birch Society and other radical anti-communists. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, there will be some kind of grassroots uprising against her; the question is what it will look like and how effective it will be.
What distinguished the Tea Party from its forebears is that it was quickly incorporated within the GOP, as even establishment Republicans proclaimed themselves Tea Party sympathizers and began parading around in tricorner hats, either literally or figuratively. Founding Father fetishism became the order of the day, with every Republican waxing poetic about the need to reject this usurper Obama and restore the ideals of 1776.
The power of the Tea Party — or more properly, establishment Republicans' fear of the Tea Party — became one of the central organizing forces of the Obama era. Even more than they had before, Republicans were required to make a public display of their contempt for Washington, for government, and for Obama, even if it meant shutting down the government or threatening to default on America's debt. At every critical moment, even backroom backslappers like John Boehner had their options and choices shaped by the unruly mob waving "Don't Tread On Me" flags.
So imagine it's the spring of 2017, and President Clinton begins trying to follow through on her campaign promises. She's already seen her Supreme Court nominee confirmed, providing the first liberal majority on the Court in decades. Now she puts forward legislation to increase the minimum wage, mandate paid family leave, raise taxes on the wealthy, create comprehensive immigration reform, institute universal background checks for gun purchases, and a whole bunch of other things conservatives won't be too happy about.
What will the reaction be? Keep in mind that the man she just defeated spent the last month of his campaign talking about how the election would be "rigged" against him. If you were one of those ardent Trump supporters, you'll surely think Clinton was unfairly elected, even if you've put away your "Trump That Bitch" T-shirt. Will you be willing to join a new grassroots movement to fight her — and to destroy any Republican who doesn't want to do the same?
You might, even if you're dispirited from the results of the election. The same things that were getting you mad before — immigrants, Muslims, women thinking they can run things, a world that doesn't seem as simple and orderly as it did when you were a kid — will still be there, mocking your impotence against the tide of history.
There will be one big difference between 2017 and 2009, though: Barack Obama took office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, while if current trends hold, Clinton will enjoy a good (though less than great) economy. Her agenda is also less sweeping than his was, at least insofar as it's unlikely to contain the kind of large, ambitious items Congress will fight over for months, like the stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act, which can become a rallying cry to organize opposition.
We also don't yet know exactly how Clinton will deal with Republicans in Congress, nor do we know how they'll deal with her. Much depends on who's in charge; at the moment Democrats have a solid chance to take back the Senate and an outside chance to take back the House. The latter would require an absolute implosion from Donald Trump that will keep Republicans home; at the moment that doesn't seem like an unlikely scenario. If Democrats can take back both houses, they'll know they have only two years to pass every piece of legislation they can before the nearly inevitable midterm loss in 2018. That could create an atmosphere very similar to 2009 and 2010, when Democrats briefly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and passed a large number of progressive bills, to the horror of the right.
But if Republicans hold the House, Speaker Paul Ryan could say to his caucus, "What we did during the Obama years didn't work. We have to find another way besides total and absolute opposition to everything this president does. And that might mean making some compromises." Or he might decide that things actually worked out pretty darn well for Republicans during the Obama years — they did, after all, take back both houses, even if they couldn't defeat Obama or Clinton at the polls.
Ryan will be getting pressure from conservative members to fight everything Clinton does, and that pressure could be magnified from the outside. Conservative media will be given new life by a Clinton presidency — talk radio and Fox News run on outrage and fear, and nothing makes them happier than having an enemy in the White House to rail at. If a grassroots movement does begin to spring up, those media outlets will help channel and promote it as they did with the Tea Party. And Republicans with 2020 on their minds, like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, will be going around the country telling people that Hillary Clinton is destroying America as the final stage of her lifelong plan to create some kind of lesbian socialist dystopia.
Put all that together, and the most likely scenario could be that Clinton and Republicans in Congress will face a right-wing movement that looks almost exactly like the Tea Party: same people, same anger, same goals, same methods, and maybe the same outcome, which is to say they'll make a lot of noise, keep Republicans afraid of primary challenges, and turn out in big numbers in the off-year elections.
On the other hand, maybe they'll realize that just as Barack Obama didn't turn America into a shattered ruin, Clinton won't either, and things are not so desperate as they believe. But probably not.