Could a grown-up Tea Party save the GOP?

The Tea Party was crazy. The Tea Party was also right.

A Tea Party protester.
(Image credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

The trade wars continue to escalate, and there's no clear end in sight. China has added another $60 billion worth of U.S. goods to its list of imports it plans to tax. President Trump seems fully ready to respond in kind. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow has been left to shore up his boss' now-infamous claim that trade wars are "easy to win." Don't worry, America. China's going to back down any day now.

At moments like this, words may come unbidden to your mind that you never expected to say.

Where have you gone, Glenn Beck?

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I mean this figuratively, of course. Beck is still alive and thriving (financially at least). His signature causes have mostly gone by the wayside, though. That doesn't just apply to free trade. Nearly all of the Tea Party's top priorities have been sidelined in the age of Trump. ObamaCare is still with us, apparently indefinitely. Our entitlement programs are still unsustainable, and nobody even pretends there's a plan to address them anymore. The GOP itself worsened long-term debt projections through tax cuts. The most significant consequence of years' worth of fire-and-brimstone austerity rhetoric seems to have been an unapologetically protectionist Republican president.

If you're a devotee of either Trump or Paul Krugman, you may be fairly comfortable tossing the austerity agenda to the winds. The rest of us should reflect that the Tea Party, for all its warts, did bring to light certain points that belong under the spotlight and not under the rug. Considering the relative impotence of today's Falstaffian GOP, it's at least worth considering: Could we still pick up some of the pieces? The old tea set is definitely chipped, but is it entirely unsalvageable?

I myself was never a true warrior for limited government. I found the early Tea Party movement interesting, but by the late years I was thoroughly fed up with it; it seemed like the whole enterprise had gone off the rails and was headed, inevitably, towards a fiery crash. I did not at all anticipate that Donald Trump would be the primary agent of destruction, but it was grimly amusing to watch how rapidly the zealous and paranoid anti-leftism of the late Tea Party years could be siphoned into a totally antithetical agenda. Populist anger can be astoundingly malleable. Leftists should take note.

Looking back, however, it seems clearer than ever that the motivating ideas behind the Tea Party were genuinely important, and an appropriate agenda for the political right. If one party seems firmly convinced that state programs are the solution to all social ills, it's good to have another capable of explaining why they may not be. With the far left now ramping up its enthusiasm for $15 minimum wages, Medicare for all, free college, free daycare, and even guaranteed employment, you really have to wonder: Does the right still have a robust retort? Apart from the Koch brothers, how many friends does ordered liberty have left?

Of course, if we want to resurrect the Tea Party, we should start with a thorough autopsy. In many ways, it was a social and political movement that failed to grow up. Things started well enough, in justified public indignation over the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent bank bailouts of 2008. The 2009 stimulus bill added to public angst about our frighteningly opaque bureaucratic and financial institutions. To the attentive public, it became increasingly clear that these behemoths were a bit like the Titanic. They could weather minor ripples, but when the iceberg hit, they would go down hard and fast. Unlike on the Titanic though, it's usually rich and corrupt old men who get the seats in these lifeboats.

After the torpor and exhaustion of the late Bush years, conservatives were desperate to turn a page. They managed that by restoring the leg of Reaganite conservatism that George W. Bush had most neglected: limited government. For a brief moment, it felt like the demoralized right had been completely reborn.

What followed included some fairly silly things, involving colonial costumes and public recitations of the Constitution. But there were also serious things, like a rediscovery of Hayekian arguments for spontaneous order. Why, conservatives asked, do we need a small cadre of bureaucrats to shepherd and succor us at every turn? Bureaucrats are in general eminently corruptible, but even the honest ones can't be expected to order the activities of hundreds of millions of people in a dizzyingly complex world. Why is the Democratic Party writing our life stories, when we should be writing them ourselves?

For many Americans, those early Tea Party rallies were empowering, just as a financial-planning seminar might be empowering to an indebted person who feels crushed by banks and bills. People started asking: If we could wean ourselves from the archaic and decaying institutions that have infantilized us in recent years, might we rediscover that dynamic energy that once led Americans to build railroads and canals, settle a million square miles' worth of wilderness, and stand astride the world economy? Isn't the real strength of America in her people, not her government?

In many ways, it was a beautiful dream. Unfortunately, beautiful political dreams can be dangerous if they are not tempered by nuance, prudence, and appropriate restraint. The Tea Party had deficiencies in all three areas. After the early protests, we soon moved on to squabbling about Big Bird while Republicans staged pointless government shutdowns. Any conservative who dared to dabble in actual policy was liable to be tarred as a "RINO" and dismissed as a traitor. It turns out, it's hard to build a whole political party on the core premise that the government should stop doing things. After pumping limited-government enthusiasm to near-fanatical levels, the right was unable to integrate it into a broader and more balanced platform. Opportunistic politicians and pundits exploited the situation, building up their own personal brands by indicting (other) elected officials as noodle-spined do-nothings. The blood in the water spread, and then the shark came.

Serious discussion has admittedly become difficult on the right nowadays, since few Republicans have enough resonance to project over the din of their bloviating party leader. Imagine this, though. Instead of just sneering at the ignorance of Democratic Socialists, suppose the Republicans (who still control Congress, or so I've read) made a real effort to counter leftist ideas with realistic policy proposals that integrated limited-government principles into an updated conservative platform. Wouldn't that be more inspiring than a party that seems more dedicated to flattering dictators and tossing political favors to battleground states? Maybe some Americans would warm to a party that took freedom seriously, but followed through on those convictions in a reasonable way. Maybe even some young Americans would be impressed.

Nationalists keep assuring us that the right is in the midst of a wondrous rebirth. You have to squint pretty hard, though, to see a cohesive strategy emerging from the impulsive Trump administration. The White House serves up a lot of red meat nowadays, but the red-meat diet makes for a short life span. It's time to talk turkey (or maybe even spinach).

Tea Party activists made many mistakes, but that doesn't mean they were wrong about everything. Maybe it's time to pull the colonial costumes out of mothballs.

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