Trump, nativism and the Tea Party legacy


FILE – In this May 21, 2013, file photo, tea party activists demonstrate on Fountain Square before marching to the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati to protest the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. On Wednesday, April 4, 2018, a federal judge gave preliminary approval to a $3.5 million settlement of a lawsuit against the IRS over alleged targeting of tea party and other groups. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

The Tea Party burst onto the national scene in 2009, wearing silly hats, waving American flags and presenting themselves as small government revolutionaries. In reality, their movement hinged on convincing white Americans that their way of life was being threatened by immigrants, multiculturalism and a black President.

This anti-Obama sentiment led to the first Tea Party protests, and it showed; thinly veiled racism was their bread and butter. Birtherism and voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise minorities were rallying points within the movement. Nativism was equally essential; many white Americans flocked to the idea that Mexicans and Muslims were ruining the country.

In order to accomplish this agenda, the Tea Party weaponized lies: they lied about Obama’s birth certificate, about Hispanics supporting the unconstitutional SB 1070 bill, about the “creeping presence” of Sharia law. Ultimately, they lied in order to induce paranoia in their base and strengthen support for their nativist goals.

It is disingenuous to claim that the Tea Party represented small government or middle-class America. Their cries of American exceptionalism and their overzealous defense of the constitution were smokescreens, only present to hide the birtherism, xenophobia, racism and islamophobia bubbling beneath the surface. This cocktail of chauvinism and prejudice goes by another name—white nationalism.

In 2016, Donald Trump stole their recipe. Trump commanded populist momentum with the same brand of bigotry and misinformation that propelled the Tea Party. His anti-Obama streak has always aligned with the movement; he is one of the most prominent birthers. On his campaign, he frequently promised to erase all of Obama’s work from the Affordable Care Act to the Iran nuclear deal.

The same scare tactics which characterized the Tea Party’s ascendancy are used by Trump to equal if not greater effect. False claims of Muslims cheering after 9/11, voter fraud in California and record crime levels (among countless others) invigorate his base and cater to their fears.

Trump has taken the seeds of white nationalism planted by the Tea Party and nurtured them to adulthood; he legitimizes the alt-right by appointing prominent members, such as Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller and Julia Hahn, to positions in the White House. Last summer, he openly defended neo-Nazis and white nationalists, equating them to peaceful counterprotestors. Trump has also made appearances on alt-right radio shows and websites such as InfoWars and Breitbart.

Most of all, Trump appeals to the same nativist groundswell which fueled the Tea Party. This was the crown jewel of Trump’s campaign; the wall, the deportations and the islamophobia all appealed to Americans who felt their country was being stolen from under their nose. The (false) idea that immigrants steal jobs and opportunities from “real Americans” was foundational to Trump’s (and the Tea Party’s) success. When black Americans peacefully protested police brutality during the national anthem (of a country which stands on the backs of their ancestors), Trump disparaged them and was lauded by his base. He erected a black monolith, using racially coded language and dog whistles: “tough on crime,” “welfare queens” and “law and order.” Both attacked Muslims—Trump with a ban and the Tea Party with doomsday prophecies of Sharia law in America.

Trump also benefited directly from the Tea Party voting bloc. This group of voters was relatively dormant in 2012, when the moderate Mitt Romney ran against Obama. The left interpreted this hibernation as a sign of a broken coalition. In reality, they were waiting for a figurehead worthy of harnessing their power.

To much of the country, multiculturalism is seen as a threat to their way of life and to white hegemony over the political, social and economic domains of society. The Tea Party movement embraced this section of the population and Trump built on their success, utilizing their strategies and voting bloc to win the presidency. In retrospect, it was symbolic that Trump defeated former Tea Party darlings (Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Carson) during his run to the Republican nomination. He beat them at their own game, supercharging their nativism and white nationalism to create a true political behemoth. Trump may not look it on the surface, but he is representative of late-stage Tea Party-ism.

Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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