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If the Tea Party Is Dying, Why Is Trump Winning?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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What happened to the Tea Party?

It is in serious decline, according to the 2015 American Values Survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute.  

The proportion of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement has declined by nearly half over the last five years, from 11 percent in 2010 to 6 percent today. Tea Party affiliation has also dropped among Republicans, from 22 percent in 2010 to 14 percent today.

The PRRI survey, which uses a large sample of 2,695 adults, is widely respected. And it has solid support on this finding: In a Bloomberg Politics poll out this week, only 10 percent of Republicans say they're best described by the Tea Party label.

If the Tea Party is collapsing, what's filling the void? Only 22 percent of Republicans in the Bloomberg poll described themselves as "mainstream." That may explain why the spectacularly unprepared Ben Carson and the flagrantly divisive Donald Trump are currently dominating the Republican presidential field. "Mainstream" has simply switched places with "fringe."  

The new mainstream is chock full of Tea Party personality. Just look at the title of the PRRI report: "Anxiety, Nostalgia and Mistrust." If Trump's campaign were a symphony, those would be its discordant movements.

To anyone who has watched what Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg calls the Republican "counterrevolution" of recent years, the music sounds familiar.

"Do not get hung up on labels. What used to be the Tea Party is now the GOP," said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and co-author of a book on the Tea Party.

"Even if they no longer identify with the Tea Party, those people are still out there," said University of Washington political science professor Christopher Parker, co-author of another book on the movement. "So, if you continue observing anti-establishment behavior from GOP representatives, it's a function of constituents who remain reactionary even as they may no longer identify with the Tea Party moniker."

The Tea Party might have played a useful role. Even with its decentralized flim-flam and egregious faults, it provided an umbrella with quasi-institutional benefits: It channeled and affirmed anger against the system and against Republican leaders, and it gave its adherents an alternative home -- one they found purer, nobler and less compromised than the many objects of their derision.

But in the end, the colonial garb and freedom rallies never amounted to more than a fashion show. They failed to produce the change that Tea Partyers desired above all: making time flow backward. In the PRRI poll, two-thirds of Republicans and almost three-fourths of Tea Party adherents say that American culture and way of life have gotten worse since the 1950s.

Old people naturally tend toward nostalgia. But the collection of groups and notions that banded together as the Tea Party defined itself as a political force, not an old folks' home. On a personal level, you can reminisce about the tender glories of the 1950s. As a political narrative, you can't embrace that era without annihilating the real-time aspirations of millions of your countrymen. In American politics, nostalgia is passive aggression.

It's hard to see a cure for this. The campaign to "take back America" went bust in 2012 when, to the Tea Partyers shock and dismay, America refused to go along. The incomprehensible president remained, incomprehensibly, in the White House. In Congress, the Tea Party agenda has taken the form of a long and tedious tantrum; it will have to peter out eventually. Despite broad and penetrating victories across the states, national Republicans are now the terrified captives of the reactionary pet they nurtured.  

Carson cannot grasp the most rudimentary elements of a candidacy: his own positions and message. Trump can't lead a movement devoted to any cause greater or lesser than Trump. The failure of the Tea Party to organize and coalesce around credible candidates and realistic policy has left the GOP's anti-establishment faction bankrupt and in decline at a youthful age.

That ought to be enough to safeguard the Republican establishment from a humiliating presidential year. The only question is whether there remains enough of an establishment to seize the opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net