Pundits keep puzzling over what party President Donald Trump belongs to, since he emphatically is not an orthodox Republican, even though he sails under the GOP flag. But the answer is simple. He is the Tea Party president.
Just think back to 2009, when the Tea Party movement began with CNBC financial commentator Rick Santelli’s furious on-air rant against Barack Obama’s stimulus package. “How many of you people want to pay your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli asked the traders behind him on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. When they roared their disapproval, Santelli invoked the Founding Fathers and announced that he was thinking of staging a Tea Party in Chicago, fair warning that citizens were fed up with taxation without representation and a government that, like George III’s, had become swollen with “a multitude of New Offices,” as the Declaration of Independence had put it, and with “swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
Santelli was more prophetic than he knew, for the stimulus saved few Americans from foreclosure on their over-leveraged houses. Instead, it mainly kept state and local government workers employed, while the citizens whose taxes formerly paid their salaries were losing not just their houses but also their jobs. If Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could see what America had become and was becoming, Santelli spluttered, they’d “roll over in their graves.” It was certainly not the republic they created, and that Franklin had warned we’d need steadfast vigilance to keep.
But we failed to keep it; and it turned out that millions of Americans shared Santelli’s sense of that failure and his red-hot anger over it. Millions who signed up for local Tea Party chapters and rode buses to rallies from coast to coast recognized that somehow we had lost the Constitution that the Founders had given us, and that we now lived in a polity those great men wouldn’t recognize—and that was certainly not the one described in our history books, with its strictly limited powers and its exquisitely designed checks and balances. What exactly it was, and how it had slouched into being, the Tea Partiers didn’t really know, but they saw that it was closer to rule by a government without the consent of the people than to the self-government, liberty, and self-reliant and self-realizing pursuit of happiness that the Founders had envisioned.
Commentators are right that a big portion of Trump voters were working-class Americans displaced from their jobs by Obama’s war on fossil fuels, by globalization, automation, and the shifting balance in manufacturing from the importance of the raw materials that go into products to that of the engineering expertise that designs them. These are the people Trump referred to in his Inaugural Address as “the forgotten men and women of our country.”
But that’s only part of the new president’s coalition. As Amity Shlaes shows in her 2008 book The Forgotten Man, that term, which Franklin Roosevelt applied to the man on the breadline in the Great Depression, “the man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” more properly applies to those unhappy-if-silent taxpayers who funded the New Deal’s social-welfare schemes. And these are the forerunners of the Tea Partiers, another key class of Trump voter: the widow on a fixed income whose property-tax payment helps house a public-sector retiree comfortably but whose inexorable rise is making her own paid-off home unaffordable; the retiree whose IRA savings the Great Recession eroded or who can no longer get an adequate income from safe bond investments, thanks to the Federal Reserve’s policies; the small businessman or farmer ruined by undemocratic government regulation lacking even the pretense of due process; the ex-soldier abandoned by a dysfunctional Veterans Administration; the parent disgusted with public schools that impose ideologies she abhors on her children, while leaving them inadequately educated; and all those sincere believers in God or traditional values whom Obama dismissed as clinging desperately to outmoded pieties, as the arc of history, which the elite professor-president claimed to understand and direct according to his politically correct enlightenment, swirled them down the drain.
The Tea Partiers wanted a second American Revolution that would sweep away the Administrative State that the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the War on Poverty set loose to devour and fatten on the carcass of the Founders’ republic, replacing a government of limited and enumerated powers with an unlimited government that rules by administrative decree and redistributes wealth as if it belonged to the governors and not the governed. No wonder Obama’s Internal Revenue Service worked to squash that movement as tyrannically as George III’s tax collectors. Let’s see if the new revolutionaries picked a leader who knows what they want and how to get it.
Myron Magnet, City Journal’s editor-at-large and its editor from 1994 through 2006, is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. His latest book is The Founders at Home.