Can Trump Be Tea Party Savior as Support for Tea Party Reaches New Low?

Trump speaks to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Nashville, Aug 29, 2015
Trump speaks to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Nashville, Aug 29, 2015

How the might have fallen! Gallup is reporting that “Support for the Tea Party has dropped to a new low of 17%, two points less than the previous low recorded last November.” Ouch. Lower even than last year.

Lower than ever:

Americans’ support for the Tea Party has dropped to its lowest level since the movement emerged on the national political scene prior to the 2010 midterm elections. Seventeen percent of Americans now consider themselves Tea Party supporters, and a record 54% say they are neither supporters nor opponents.

So much for a resurgence under Donald Trump. The Donald has been courting the Tea Party, or at least the same demographic from which the movement sprang. Outside looking in, liberal darling Paul Krugman has said (back on August 11) that Trump’s supporters are basically just Tea Partiers.

According to Trump, Krugman is right.

Back in March, Emily Miller of the Washington Times asked Trump “straight out if he considers himself a member of the Tea Party”:

“I certainly seem to be in a sense. They like me, and I like them. And we have very much the same principles,” Mr. Trump answered. “When I speak to the Tea Party, they have the biggest crowd of anybody.”

He added, “I seem to get along very well with the Tea Party. Part of it is a mutual respect. I have a great respect for the Tea Party.”

Yet Trump is leading in the Republican polls and nobody much likes the movement to which he says he belongs. What gives? It isn’t as if anything changed since the spring. In August, we saw Trump back at it in Nashville, telling tea partiers,

“You have not been treated fairly. You know, people talk about the tea party, and you talk about marginalized? At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t. The tea party people are incredible people. These are people who work hard and love the country and they get beat up all the time by the media.”

Remember, this is at the exact same time Krugman was calling his supporters Tea Partiers. We are seeing this identification not only from the outside looking in, but from the center of the maelstrom itself, Donald Trump.

Conservative consultant Rick Wilson wrote at The Daily Beast on September 16, just a pair of short weeks later, that the Tea Party had been hijacked by Trump’s “Troll Party,” which “puts nationalist, anti-establishment bluster before the tenets of our constitutional republic.”

I don’t know. That sounds like the Tea Party to me. Yet Wilson argues that “Whatever the Troll Party is, it’s no longer conservative,” and that Trump’s “appeal to them isn’t so much ideological as it is nihilistic.” Interestingly, this nihilism has been also associated with the Tea Party, and not only by me.

Philip Bump, writing at The Washington Post even as Trump was heading to Nashville, saw things a bit differently, writing that not only has Trump not revived the Tea Party, but that “Trump’s supporters are more moderate than Tea Partiers were.”

Again, I don’t see a huge difference, though Bump tells us that “Trump supporters are more likely to call themselves Republican than Tea Partiers were.”

Gallup, however, shows that the Tea Party was always heavily supported by Republicans, 52 percent at the height of the movement in 2010 (63 percent of conservative Republicans), however the Tea Partiers themselves may have self-identified.

Gallup reveals that support today stands at 38 percent among Republicans and 42 percent among conservative Republicans, and only 17 percent (down from 32 percent in 2010) among “moderate/liberal” Republicans.

Bump also claims that Trump’s fans are younger, that “Trump fans are slightly more likely to be 18 to 39 than non-Trump fans,” while “Tea Partiers were way less likely to be under 40 than non-Tea Partiers.” This age differential, at least, seems to be true, though we may want to put the emphasis on “slightly.”

Bump concludes of these differences that “what this suggests is that Trump’s appeal extends beyond the appeal that the Tea Party held. It’s a rebellion, yes, but of a slightly different flavor than 2010.”

Pundits tend to pronounce, but the rest of us have been trying to figure out the Trump/Tea Party connection and there is no clear answer. Michael Lind surmised at Politico on September 3 that,

“The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism.”

However we may define Trump and the Tea Party in academic terms, perception speaks louder than reality where all things Republican are considered. If most Republicans supported the Tea Party at its height while Tea Partiers were less likely to see themselves as Republicans, we have a disconnect. And I would argue that disconnect still exists.

There is no denying Trump’s current level of popularity. He surged in June and he hasn’t flagged since, outside of Iowa, where the former stabber Ben Carson has become the Republican darling. Yet Gallup is telling us that the Tea Party’s popularity is at a new low. Which implies people like Trump but not the Tea Party even while Trump is identifying himself with the Tea Party.

Of course, Gallup points out that most of the missing Tea Party supporters in 2015 are not now opponents, but are found among those who neither support nor oppose, and there is room (and time) for people to pick sides as we approach Election Day 2016.

The fact remains that the Tea Party is less popular now than ever, and that Donald Trump is singing the Tea Party mantra louder than most, which could mean Trump has taken the wrong road leading into 2016, and that could spell disaster for Trump as he continues down that road when people begin to put their opinions into action.

Photo: CNN screen capture

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