August 13, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

From ‘We’re Broke’ to ‘Build the Wall’

In retrospect, the Tea Party was a nascent fascist movement.

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It wasn’t long ago that John Boehner, who was then the Speaker of the House, said that Barack Obama would not get another nickel out of the US Congress until federal spending was under control. He agreed with the president about the need for fiscal stimulus to juice up a national economy still reeling from the 2007-2008 panic.

But we can’t do it, he said in 2011.

We’re broke.”

Bloomberg reported Monday that the current deficit is growing faster than predicted. Sarah McGregor wrote that it “grew to $866.8 billion in the first 10 months of the fiscal year, up 27 percent from the same period a year earlier … That’s wider than last fiscal year’s shortfall of $779 billion—which was the largest federal deficit since 2012.” 

Editor’s note

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The Congressional Budget Office, which does all the number crunching, predicts that the budget deficit will be over $1 trillion by 2022. Remember: “budget deficits” are different from the “national debt.” Deficits are parts. Debts are wholes. So the $1 trillion in “budget deficits” is on top of a “national debt,” which is about $22 trillion. 

When the budget deficit was less, the Republicans said we’re broke. When it was more, the Republicans said nothing. Let’s put this another way: When a black Democratic president wanted more money from the Congress, when the country needed it, the GOP said no. When a white Republican president wanted more money, when the country didn’t need it, the Republicans said by all means yes! Why the change?

The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump changed the GOP, especially its Tea Party faction, so that it doesn’t care anymore about deficits and debt. Trump’s “economic nationalism” uprooted the old conservative orthodoxy that held that Washington governs best when it governs least. Post-Trump, there’s room for state intervention into the economy (think: tariffs) and the lives of Americans. Trump’s impact has been so great that so-called “movement conservatives” have tailored their ways of thinking to his, dubbing their new approach “national conservatism.”

But the conventional wisdom is based on a lie.

There would not be a President Trump without first a Tea Party. 

We remember the Tea Party as principled rogues committed to the rule of law, rugged individualism, limited government and fiscal responsibility. But we remember these characteristics because that’s what Tea Party apologists said when they rationalized its goals to the Washington press corps and the public. Its real agenda was abundantly clear to anyone who was not white and to social scientists who took the trouble to understand properly what it wanted to achieve. Rule of law, rugged individualism, limited government and fiscal responsibility—these were means to an end, but those who characterized them as ends unto themselves were delusional, lying or both.

We once saw the Tea Party as a legitimate political force in the constitutional order.

The Tea Party really was an ideological revolution inside the Republican Party, according to social scientists Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. In the past, the problem for movement conservatives was the very existence of federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The old guard, as you might call them, was bent on unraveling the expansion of the US government that took place in the 1930s (New Deal) and 1960s (Great Society). But the vanguard was different.

For them, the problem wasn’t entitlements.

For them, the problem was who was getting what.

This was always historically true, but after the election of America’s first black president, the who in that question was of utmost importance. Opposition to Obamacare was not opposition to “government-run health care.” It was opposition to “‘handouts’ to ‘undeserving’ groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes,” Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin said in 2011

Tea Party concerns exist within the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in American society. Previous scholars, including Martin Gilens, have noted connections between racial stereotyping and opposition to parts of US social provision, particularly “welfare” for poor mothers. … We explain how Tea Party reactions and attitudes fit into this picture (the italics are mine).

Tea Party Republicans did not want a black president to act in the interest of all Americans, because not all Americans were “deserving” in their view. Indeed, the more a black president insisted on serving all Americans—whether through reforms to health care, immigration, climate change, criminal justice, the economy or whatever—the more Tea Party Republicans perceived him as giving away free stuff to black and brown people who were not, by dint of being black and brown, “real Americans.” 

It takes just one step more to get to where we are now, as the administration slaps punitive new conditions of legal immigrants, as border agents shoot rubber bullets across the Rio Grande at picnicking families, as states demand work for food stamps, as children are confiscated from mothers, as fathers are disappeared, and as a Trump official says the Statue of Liberty should read: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”

In other words, there is an unbroken ideological chain connecting “we’re broke” to “build the wall.” The difference is how we’re seeing it. Back then, we saw the Tea Party as a legitimate political force in the constitutional order. Sure, adherents were extremist, but as Goldwater once said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Now, however, it should be clear the Tea Party was a nascent fascist movement that exploited the tools, rights, norms and privileges of an open liberal democracy to take over a Republican Party collapsed on itself in the wake of war and recession, and that paved the way for a fascist American president. It should be clear by now, if we take this to its final conclusion, that the GOP has become a party of illegitimate politics.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 7:52 am

    I agree with your assessment of the Tea Party, but the roots of this “revolt” turn go back much farther. It has *always* rankled Republicans that Democrats since FDR have tried to expand the welfare state to cover everyone. Racial resentment curbed the scope of the New Deal. One way to view the odd, inefficient decision to federalize Medicare but make Medicaid a state-federal partnership is that the GOP and soon-to-be GOP (southern Democrats) wanted their states to have the authority to discriminate against “undeserving” (non-white) poor people. Even a 1974 expansion of who got protections under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act excluded “domestic workers,” who were primarily people of color.

    It’s racial resentment all the way down.

    Some scholars of democratic decline have found themselves sideswiped by the realization that the GOP has become an anti-system party, hostile to the architecture of the system they inhabit. But in reality, they’ve been an anti-system party for a very long time. It was just pretty to think otherwise.

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