Long ago and far away there once was a political movement called “The Tea Party.” Modeling themselves on the American revolutionaries who protested the tax on tea by the English king, millions of Americans came together to protest what they saw as an assault on the United States Constitution: the election of Barack Obama. By tax day in 2009, just three months after Obama’s inauguration, the Wall Street Journal reported:
The protests began with bloggers in Seattle, Wash., who organized a demonstration on Feb. 16. As word of this spread, rallies in Denver and Mesa, Ariz., were quickly organized for the next day. Then came CNBC talker Rick Santelli’s Feb. 19 “rant heard round the world” in which he called for a “Chicago tea party” on July Fourth. The tea-party moniker stuck, but angry taxpayers weren’t willing to wait until July. Soon, tea-party protests were appearing in one city after another, drawing at first hundreds, and then thousands, to marches in cities from Orlando to Kansas City to Cincinnati.
The “rant heard round the world” was an angry commentary over an announced homeowner relief program in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Santelli railed on TV that “bailing out” homeowners defrauded by banks would promote “bad behavior” — by the “loser” homeowners, not the banks. From there the Tea Party became a full-fledged movement that organized itself around low taxes, opposition to health care reform and (supposedly) protection of the Constitution.
They wore Revolutionary War costumes with white wigs and tricorner hats to their rallies. They waved both the American flag and the Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) and carried pocket Constitutions as if it was the Bible. NPR attended a Tea Party meeting in Virginia in 2010 and spoke to some of the activists:
Karen Cole says she carries a copy in her purse. “The Democrats are eviscerating our Constitution,” she says. Her friend Betty Anne Olsen agrees. “This current administration is trashing our Constitution; they couldn’t care less about the values. They’re breaking the laws.” And how does she know that? “I do not study the Constitution, no, but I’m well aware of my history,” Olsen says. “I’m well aware of how this country was founded, and I’m well aware of what has happened to it in current years.”
This was only 10 years ago, but it seems like a lifetime. A lot has happened since then and we are in a different political world. But for a time the Tea Party was the most active mass movement in American politics and its influence on the Republican Party cannot be overstated. In 2010 they threw the Democrats out of power in Congress in a massive midterm wave election, sending a group of hardcore right-wingers to Washington. They even took out a few Republican moderates just to show they could and basically held the threat of primaries over anyone in the GOP who didn’t toe the line.
In the House these Tea Party politicians formed themselves into the Freedom Caucus, presenting themselves as purists who were deeply committed to a strict adherence to small government principles and the Constitution. Some of the founding members are still in the House, such as Mark Meadows of North Carolina (leader of the Freedom Caucus) and Jim Jordan of Ohio (ranking member of the Oversight Committee). Others have moved up, like Ron DeSantis, who was elected governor of Florida last year, and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who now serves as White House chief of staff.
And there is Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, one of the Freedom Caucus founders most ecstatically endorsed year after year by Tea Party groups:
Tea Party Express is endorsing Rep. Justin Amash for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives. Justin Amash is an active leader in Congress working to create real solutions. But most of all he strives to protect our foundation in freedom and his work is not finished. “I follow a set of principles, I follow the Constitution,” Amash once explained to the NY Times. “And that’s what I base my votes on.”
As it turns out, Amash is literally the only member of the Freedom Caucus who took any of that stuff seriously. The rest have become the most sycophantic of Donald Trump’s toadies, acting as his most loyal henchmen. Their dedication to the Constitution and fiscal rectitude seems to have evaporated on the day Barack Obama left office. The Tea Party itself has morphed into the Donald Trump base, gleefully abandoning all the principles it claimed to hold dear and instead cheering on Trump’s endless betrayal of constitutional principles.
Amash, on the other hand, seems to have believed what he said. He took to Twitter over the weekend, becoming the first major elected Republican to have the guts to state the obvious. He had read the Mueller report and recognized that President Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Anyone who has read it and acting in good faith would say the same thing but so far Amash stands alone among Republican members of Congress.
His fellow Republicans are not happy about it. Trump called Amash a “loser” and a “lightweight.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “I don’t think anybody is going to follow his lead.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared that Amash was “just looking for attention” and is “out of step with America.” Amash’s longtime buddies in the Freedom Caucus formally condemned him on Monday night.
I don’t agree with most of Amash’s libertarian philosophy. But he is a champion of civil liberties and a harsh critic of government surveillance overreach. I’ve often admired his willingness to stand up to his party on those issues in the past, and it’s telling that he never signed onto their “deep state” conspiracy theory to protect Donald Trump. Given Amash’s record, if there was the slightest granule of plausibility to those theories, he’d be on board. Now he’s gone further and called for the president’s impeachment, based on the fact that Trump committed crimes while in office, a genuine affront to the constitutional order.
In each of these cases, Amash is acting on principle and his critics in his own party are rank hypocrites, particularly the ones who came into office riding that Tea Party wave a decade ago. I wish I agreed with some observers that this is a break in the GOP logjam and more Republicans will be joining him. But that’s not likely. The Tea Party unseated most of the sensible people in the Republican Party and replaced them with the exactly the kind of authoritarian followers the authors of the Constitution were trying to prevent from wielding power. It appears that Amash is the only one of them who’s ever read it.