Pundit Jonathan Chait: Conservatives Deluded Themselves That the Tea Party Movement Was Conservative

May 25th, 2016 10:55 AM

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has contempt for both Donald Trump (“his appeal operates…at a sub-intellectual level”) and those who’ve voted for him (“the Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots”). Still, suggested Chait in a Thursday post, Trump and his supporters have unwittingly clarified something important: the Tea Party movement is not and never was truly conservative.

Regarding Rich Lowry’s claim that Trump has “neutered” the Tea Party by “making its animating concerns of limited government and constitutionalism into after-thoughts,” Chait responded that “the image of a mass army of principled constitutionalists…was a fantasy all along.” As for the Tea Party’s first major cause, opposition to the Obama administration’s push for health-care reform, it was rooted not in “abstract theory” but in “the fear that subsidized (private) insurance would come at the expense of the (single-payer) health care that old people love.”

Chait indicated that since the Tea Party’s hostility toward public-sector spending focused on, as one pollster put it, “programs that mainly benefit minorities,” it wasn’t based on small-government conservative principles. Instead (bolding added):

The white racial identity, the fear of social change — all of these things perfectly predicted Trump’s rise. But conservatives ignored these findings because they implied that the tea party was not a movement of amateur enthusiasts for the Lochner Constitution…The tea party was an ethno-nationalist revolt against Obama…Conservative leaders pretended this revolt was a demand for their agenda, but the dissatisfaction of the base implies that the conservative agenda was never the thing that motivated it. Trump hasn’t hijacked the tea party. He’s un-hijacked it.

Piggybacking on Chait’s post, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones sniped, “Conservative devotion to…the Constitution is little more than a convenient, pseudo-intellectual justification for the stuff they really care about: cutting ‘big government’ programs that spend tax dollars on people they don't like…The only new thing Donald Trump has brought to this has been to shuck off the Constitution stuff and just appeal straight to the core of what actually animates the conservative base.”