Kessel: Liberty in the Age of Corona


Zach Kessel, Columnist

On April 15, protesters in Michigan railed against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive order. Spurred by right-wing media goliaths like Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh, demonstrators took to the streets of Lansing, holding signs and waving flags. Some of the signs compared Gov. Whitmer to Adolf Hitler. Some protesters waved Confederate flags. Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted that “Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is turning Michigan into a police state.”

Sound familiar?

The Tea Party burst onto the national scene in February 2009 after the Obama administration announced the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, which refinanced mortgages while the country was in the throes of the Great Recession. The first national Tea Party protest was on Feb. 27, 2009, but the seeds of the movement were sown before that day.

Modern right-wing populism was born in a time similar to this one, during a recession with a big-government response. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed what would become the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 on September 20 of that year, and while the bailouts were necessary to save the global economy, they were unpopular. Grassroots organizations on both the left and right mobilized against the Act’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. Protesters on the left argued against what they perceived to be a policy package that would only help Wall Street, not ordinary Americans, in step with the left’s positions on Wall Street for decades. Opposition to TARP on the right came from a new movement.

When the Bush administration unveiled its bailout plan, fiscal libertarians who would become the Tea Party felt that TARP was the government picking winners and losers in the economy. Staunch advocates against federal intervention, they immediately opposed the plan, despite evidence that without it, Americans would soon be unable to get money from ATMs.

Libertarian conservatives were not unreasonable in their growing discontent with President George W. Bush. The “compassionate conservatism” he campaigned on manifested in big-government policy. It makes sense that some Republicans felt like their leader had abandoned them with Medicare Part D. Civil libertarians in the party weren’t happy with the Patriot Act either, as they felt it represented big government violating citizens’ privacy. The Bush administration also found resistance to its stance on immigration; a nascent paleoconservative wing of the party defeated Bush’s immigration reform plan because of the path to citizenship it sought to provide to illegal immigrants.

Conservatives weren’t stupid to think the Tea Party was going to right the ship. Tea Party candidates won handily in the 2010 midterms, but their time in Washington was indicative of a greater issue in the movement.

Tea Party protesters held signs and waved flags. A lot of the signs compared Obama to Hitler. Occasionally, protestors had Confederate flags. Tea Party Republicans complained that Obama was turning this country into a police state, taking their guns and taxing the bejesus out of them.

Conservative intelligentsia largely saw the Tea Party as a vehicle for a return to Reagan-era conservatism. Tea Party candidates evoked the Gipper’s memory in their speeches and policies. In fact, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010, was hailed as “the next Reagan” before his 2016 presidential campaign.

But it was all a lie.

If Tea Party voters actually cared about limited government and the separation of powers, they couldn’t possibly be Trump supporters.

The thing is, it was never about principles.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a libertarian hardliner, said to the Washington Examiner of his voters:

“All this time, I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a b—- in the race.”

Massie is spot-on here. The vast majority of Tea Party voters and politicians still in office have pledged fealty to Donald “Total Authority” Trump, certainly not deigning to investigate his flagrant corruption, their one-time raison d’être. The anti-Whitmer protest, and similar demonstrations across the country, are nothing more than a redux of the Tea Party’s beginnings — this time without any pretense of support for the free market and limited government.

Let’s not get caught up in the same narrative. It was all about tearing down the establishment. Real Americans versus the latte-sipping elites. That’s what it is now, too. Trump, in his unwillingness to listen to medical and epidemiological experts, is a man of the people. He’s draining the swamp when he reassigns career public servants Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother from the National Security Council to lower posts after Vindman testifies against him in his impeachment hearings.

Bulwark founder and editor-at-large, Charlie Sykes, wrote Thursday that on the populist right, “there is no tension between outrage over the Nanny State and slavish devotion to the Orange God King. Although as a matter of political philosophy or logic you would think those two things would be incompatible, as a matter of psychology they’re not.”

He’s absolutely right on that point. It’s a psychology of war, one that the Tea Party instilled in the party’s identity, and that persists today. John McCain was a squishy RINO in 2008 to the conservative wing of the party, so he picked Sarah Palin, who ended up being maybe the highest-profile Tea Party leader. Mitt Romney wasn’t conservative enough, and he picked Paul Ryan, who, while as conservative as Tea Party politicians, was seen as too much of a Washington policy wonk.

The right wing of the Republican Party wanted someone to take up the cause. Not of conservatism, but of populism. Donald Trump is the strongman who can give power back to the people — the president who will tweet all-caps calls to “LIBERATE” three states, which might have been incitement.

It’s not as if there aren’t valid reasons for all kinds of Americans to be distrustful of government and our country’s institutions. If the 21st century can be described in one word, that word would be “disillusionment.” But Trump’s goal, and greatest strength, is self-preservation. He’ll do whatever he and his team think necessary for him to stay in power.

What happens next?

Trump will likely exploit growing populist indignation, pitting Americans against one another even more than he did in 2016. He’ll double down on immigration, citing the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to tighten border security. He’ll claim countless powers he doesn’t have, all while calling Biden a big-government socialist. His supporters won’t call him out on his hypocrisy, because to them, the president isn’t the government. He’s a fighter, and the government is the deep state that he has to beat.

My hope is that real conservatives don’t fall prey to this faux-libertarian movement the way the right did a decade ago. Considering the responses to Trump’s claim that “when somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total” and Trump’s history of not typically following through on his loudest pronouncements, I doubt anything shockingly more apocalyptic than what we’re currently experiencing comes to pass. I’m sure there will be protests, more hand-wringing from elected Republicans when Trump says something particularly egregious about liberating states and Democrats taking guns, but not much more.

Polling data overwhelmingly shows that Americans support social isolation measures and stay-at-home orders. The divide between those who do and don’t is almost entirely partisan. Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with the federal response to the pandemic, and they’re not the ones out in the streets protesting. The new silent majority is the moderate suburban voter, and their vote is right there for Joe Biden to pick up.

If he does, and is elected president of the United States, this new Tea Party won’t pick up much political momentum, but it’ll exist as long as we as a country feel the effects of coronavirus. And there’s no telling how long the GOP’s populist turn will last, but it’s clear that it’s never been about conservative principles.

Zach Kessel is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.