Postscript to Local Tea Party Groups and the Vibrancy of the Movement
By William H. Westermeyer
2020 marks the 11th anniversary of the emergence Tea Party movement, and a decade since I began my fieldwork with Tea Party activists in central North Carolina. In this postscript, I discuss the demise of the Tea Party in its previous form and how Tea Partyists have become strong supporters of Donald Trump. Without seeing a causal link between the rise of Trump support and the demise of local Tea Party groups, I argue that there are similar factors in the Tea Party collective identity that made them predictable Trump supporters. I will also suggest that the current state of political media in America—both social media and broadcast—are implicated in this shift and in a wider troubling shift in American political culture.
In my original 2016 article, I made two broad points regarding the Tea Party movement. First, the Tea Party movement was a network of elite/corporate and grass-roots components connected through and augmented by popular and social media. Not being a single unified entity, the Tea Party Movement consisted of large, national-level conservative groups such as Tea Party Patriots and the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity; media personalities on Fox news and talk radio; and small, localized groups of “everyday activists” connected through a network of popular and social media. Secondly, I argued that the small, local Tea Party groups were crucial to the success of the movement. The network structure maintained a remarkable degree of ideological consistency regarding grievances, symbols, and discourses but the local groups were vibrant sites of cultural production where groups of Tea Partyists develop small, effective political organizations with local characteristics and innovations. Moreover, these local groups were “incubators” where people, new to political activism, developed the skills, dispositions, and identities of political activists.
The movement had its greatest impact between 2009 and 2011, also the time in which the local Tea Party groups were the most numerous and vibrant (Westermeyer 2019). By the end of my fieldwork in late 2011, the Tea Party was in the process of decline. The energy, excitement and victories of the 2010 “Tea Party wave” election could not be maintained and participation in the local groups waned. While a few of the original eight groups I studied still meet regularly today, the social movement I described in the article no longer exists. Many of the large national-level Tea Party groups such as FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, and Americans for Prosperity are still engaged in active issue advocacy, though without the Tea Party themes and imagery.
This, however, does not mean that the Tea Party style of right wing populism has disappeared. It has merely shifted. Many of my Tea Party consultants have, against my initial expectation, become strong Donald Trump supporters. My current work involves understanding this shift in my Tea Party consultants’ outlook for Trump and using that to understand the current condition of American political culture.
There are two outcomes of the relationship between Trump and Tea Party supporters that I didn’t anticipate. Shortly after Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016, I did not think a “Trumpist” social movement could form or endure without a more enduring and regular site of face-to-face organizing, like what I witnessed in the local Tea Party groups (Westermeyer 2017). Secondly, I didn’t think that Tea Partyists would fall in line so completely behind Trump, given the differences in political style, emotions, and themes between the two. Notwithstanding, Trump and the Tea Party do share a common and more foundational component of Right-Wing populism, opposition to an elite (and sometimes subordination of scapegoated groups). Both also contain powerful social and broadcast media resources to articulate and circulate themes, symbols and grievances. Let me expand upon these turns.
In my original article, I wrote of the importance of physical spaces like local Tea Party groups where movements and movement identities are forged. I stressed how groups interacting face-to-face provide important sites for the formation of political subjectivity (e.g. Fominaya 2010; Juris 2012). Trumpists have no such physical spaces. There are no Trump “chapter meetings” as far as I know. However, they do have media spaces—both internet social networks and popular conservative media like Fox News and talk radio. These spaces, though existing in the Tea Party Movement also, are the primary space of Trumpist identity formation. Our current state of political media makes this possible. The development of media “echo chambers” (Jamieson and Cappella 2008) has allowed conservatives to create “bubbles” where a person could essentially and easily receive all of their political formation from overlapping, consistent and coordinated sources.
However, a crucial point I make in the original article was that physical spaces are productive and dialogic communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) where people through interaction with others learn, through doing, how to be political activists. I stated that these communities of practice are crucial to the success and vibrancy of the Tea Party movement primarily because of the teaching and learning happening within the local Tea Party groups. I argue that this is less likely to happen in spaces created by media where interaction is less significant or absent entirely. Moreover, the local groups were also sites of cultural production, where new ideas, issues, tactics and discourses were continually developed at the grassroots and fed into the broader network. I believe this also is less likely to happen in these media spaces.
The second surprise turn was the level of support that was eventually given by Tea Party supporters to Donald Trump. In mid-2015, most of my informants strongly rejected his candidacy. Their opposition to Trump made sense when considered in the context of how Tea Partyists interpret people and events. However, by the summer of 2017, most of my informants’ outlooks for Trump had shifted from expressing indifference or opposition to showing strong support. I was initially puzzled by my Tea Party consultants’ support because it seemed that Trump and the Tea Party were articulating two visions of America. The Tea Party’s America is grounded in individualism, achievement, patriotism, and tradition, what were termed “founding principles” by my informants through their connection with the founding generation of the American Revolutionary era. This vision was characterized by a distinct and consistent cultural world characterized by political and cultural fundamentalism, the veneration of the Constitution and American history, distrust of political elites, and an emotional tenor of indignation and patriotism.
Trump rather, is a pragmatist, often capricious, and not a political fundamentalist. He does not base his policies on constitutional literalism and does not determine actions based upon what George Washington or Benjamin Franklin would have done. As Judith Butler wrote soon after the 2016 election, “no one is sure that he has read the Constitution or even cares about it” (Butler 2017).
From my experiences at Trump rallies and through social media and scholarly writing, I interpreted a different political style characteristic of Trump supporters. Butler’s next sentence reads, “the arrogant indifference is what attracts people to him.” Instead of emulating the Constitution and history in a distinct style of nationalism and patriotism, Trump supporters expressed a more explicit nationalism emphasizing nativism and xenophobia. Though they embrace a similar mistrust of political elites and fear of multiculturalism, there is no grounding in Tea Partyists’ foundational principles of cultural citizenship.
The motivating ideas and symbols differ between the Tea Party and Trump supporters. Tea Party and Trump supporters, do however, draw upon similar senses of dislocation and dispossession. Both groups are populist—appealing and venerating “the people” and opposing elites (Carnavon 1981). Yet unlike opposing the financial elite as populists of the 19th century did, today’s right-wing populists are engaged in cultural politics.
Instead of powerful people characterized by material wealth, both groups refer to a cultural and political elite. Tea Partyists often employed a Gramscian conception of hegemony, which identified a class of Americans apart from them, who although not necessarily wealthier, had seized through what Gramsci would term, “war of position,” key sites of American society and cultural reproduction such as government, education, and mainstream media. This class has dramatically changed the political and cultural understanding of what it means to be an American. The new common sense forsakes and demeans previous cultural standards characterized by Judeo-Christian values, love of country, individualism and strict social boundaries, replacing them with ideals valuing political correctness, shame for America, multiculturalism and more generally a liberal and fluid conception of American cultural identity. Moreover, and critically, the keepers of the forsaken values, the rural, patriotic, and conservative Americans, the unrefined and traditionalists, are marginalized and stigmatized.
Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz writes that to understand class in contemporary society, one must consider class as the control of both material and non-material production (Aronowitz 2003). In the case of my Tea Party consultants, the non-material production was politics and culture controlled by an elite with corrosive values and priorities. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of fields and cultural capital (Bourdieu and Johnson 2007) is a useful conceptual framework that decenters materialism from class to describe the sense of dislocation that connects the motivations of Tea Party supporters a decade ago with Trump supporters today. The connection relates to the subordinate position and the sense of dislocation these conservatives see themselves as occupying in American society. Bourdieu wrote that human culture constructs structures and categories that legitimize and naturalize unequal relations power. These power relations are negotiated and constructed in fields where different forms of capital are accumulated and valued. Cultural capital, the knowledge, tastes, symbols and prestige recognized in the field is the source of social power. I maintain that we can consider Trump supporters and Tea Party supporters, though different in demographics and certain outlooks, as sharing a recognition of a shift in the value of their cultural capital in relation to the newly hegemonic one.
Considering this form of capital, Donald Trump through a populist lens makes sense. He may operate effortlessly in the cultural field of billionaire real estate developers, yet he lacks and embellishes his lack of cultural capital recognized in the cultural-political field. Trump lacks measured language, speaks with little discipline, has never been a benefactor of the arts, is proud of his lack of political correctness, and makes no apologies for his aversion to healthy eating habits. He is the bourgeois, anti-cultural elite and he is seen by his supporters favorably because of this.
Considered more broadly, a common populist theme based in cultural politics is visible in both groups. An example is the theme of a “political class” or “ruling class” that my Tea Party consultants often referenced. Tea Party activism was partially triggered by resentment toward a class of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, which were not only unresponsive but unfaithful to the Constitution and the Constitution’s founding principles. A similar perspective is apparent in the “drain the swamp” frame used by Trump in which the true enemy is the political class, its “deep state” operatives and their allied mainstream news media. To Tea Partyists, the ruling class is taxing, spending and forsaking founding principles. To Trumpists, the ruling class is “never Trumpers” responsible for outsourcing, “open borders,” and their silencing through the imposition of political correctness. Both groups see the denigration of their conservative often rural, social traditionalism.
Bourdieu wrote that one’s recognition of their lack of symbolic capital, the markers of cultural capital, would result in self-censoring what he termed “symbolic violence.” This was apparent in the sense of stigma regarding Tea Partyists’ view of the proper practices of American cultural identity. I would often hear my Tea Party supporters lament that their vision of American “founding principles,” such as meritocracy, individualism, and patriotism were seen by wider society as racist (Westermeyer 2018). Others felt stigma for expressing patriotism. They felt that displays of patriotism had no place in a multicultural America and were offensive to many. The free expression of patriotism was one indication of a return to the idealized American culture. During the years of my research, due to symbolic violence, Tea Partyists expressed these values in the “submerged spaces” (Melucci 1989) of small, local, regularly held meetings of Tea Party groups. Here, meetings always began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Christian prayer and people freely discussed the Constitution and American history and performed patriotism and conservative social values.
Trump supporters demonstrate a different reaction to a lack of symbolic capital that, as far as I know, Bourdieu never pursued. Many Trump supporters do not self-censor, but rather embrace their lack of cultural capital. The best example is a 2016 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton in which she declared that half of Trump supporters are in a “basket of deplorables.” Her label did not reinforce symbolic violence but just the opposite. The label was embraced and provided a cultural resource used in the forging of a Trumpist collective identity. Soon there were T-shirts proclaiming one to be a “PROUD MEMBER OF THE BASKET OF DEPLORABLES” or Facebook group titled UNITED DEPLORABLE’S FOR TRUMP with over a quarter of a million likes.
This, I believe is the key to understanding the shift of Tea Party support to Donald Trump. How do people respond to their sense of lack of cultural capital? In many cases, social movement participation shifts collective and intimate political identities and their attendant emotions, in this case from stigma to indignation and efficacy. Donald Trump has changed the political culture in many profound ways, most significantly changing the rules of discourse in America, simply, what is sayable and thinkable (Hochschild 2017). Rarely a day passes without the president transgressing some norm of political or social discourse. Embracing transgression, Trump supporters, including former Tea Party supporters, are both confronting class power by embracing, displaying and performing the symbols of their subordinate class position.
To conclude we are seeing the latest product of our highly polarized political culture and the political media that dominates it. The field in which these ideas of cultural capital and stigma operate is structured by the political environment that has been shaped over the last 25 years—a political environment in which media echo chambers and demonization of opposition are established norms. Political scientists have begun publishing on a concept called “negative partisanship,” the development in American politics of voters aligning against one party instead of affiliating with the other (Abramowitz and Webster 2018; Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018). Though this process has been going on for two decades, it has intensified since 2010. Broadcast media and internet social media enforce and reproduce this condition because of the ratings to be made from outrage in the case of the former (Berry and Sobieraj 2014), and the epistemic closure of social media algorithms in the case of the latter.
Social media platforms like Twitter are able to bypass the traditional “gatekeepers” of party and mainstream media and speak directly to voters. Trump’s Twitter feed, talk radio, and partisan cable channels consistently show opponents as un-American or possessing mental, developmental or moral pathologies. Moreover, these media seem often to be coordinating messages and grievances. In other words, the insular yet comprehensive and all-encompassing nature of today’s political broadcast and social media seems to function as a cultural world within which movements and identities are fashioned. We are witnessing some of the consequences. When information, discussion, analysis and civil discourse are de-emphasized as they are in our political culture, not only do differences based on resentment and emotion take precedence, but the foundation of a pluralistic polity is threatened.
William Westermeyer is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. He is author of Back to America: Identity, Political Culture and the Tea Party Movement (University of Nebraska Press).
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