That was when spontaneous, grassroots protests against overweening government sprang up and were widely derided in the media as dangerous and wrongheaded.
Protesters then were inveighing against Obamacare; protesters now are striking out against the coronavirus lockdowns.
The anti-lockdown agitation shows that, despite the revolution in Republican politics wrought by Donald Trump, opposition to government impositions is deeply embedded in the DNA of the right and likely will re-emerge even more starkly if Joe Biden is elected president.
The tea party that was so powerful in the Obama years, roiling Republican Party politics and making stars out of the likes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, sputtered out and was subsumed by the Trump movement in 2016.
The emphasis on constitutionalism, opposition to deficit spending, and American exceptionalism gave way to an emphasis on American strength, opposition to immigration and nationalism.
The differences shouldn’t be exaggerated — the tea party was opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and Trump has faithfully nominated constitutionalist judges. The tea party, like Trump, hated the mainstream media with a passion. But the shift from an overwhelming focus on fiscal issues to Trumpian cultural politics was very real.
The change was exemplified by the House Freedom Caucus, founded in 2015 and defined by its hard line on government spending, reliably lining up behind Trump, who has pursued a notably expansionary fiscal policy — with huge budget deficits — even before the coronavirus crisis.
The intellectual fashion among populists and religious traditionalists has been to attempt to forge a post-liberty or “post-liberal” agenda to forge a deeper foundation for the new Republican Party. Instead of obsessing over freedom and rights, conservatives would look to government to protect the common good.
This project, though, has been rocked by its first real-life encounter with governments acting to protect, as they see it, the common good.
One of its architects, the editor of the religious journal First Things, R.R. Reno, has sounded during the crisis like one of the libertarians he so scorns. First, he complained that he might get shamed if he were to host a dinner party during the height of the pandemic, although delaying a party would seem a small price to pay for someone so intensely committed to the common good.
More recently, he went on a tirade against wearing masks. Reno is apparently fine with a much stronger government, as long as it never issues public-health guidance not to his liking.
Reno has published vituperative attacks on the conservative writer (and my friend and former colleague) David French, supposedly for having a blinkered commitment to classical liberalism. But it is the hated French who has actually tried to thoughtfully balance liberty and the common good during the crisis, favoring the lockdowns at first and favoring re-opening now that the lockdowns’ goals have been achieved.
What’s happened during the lockdowns is that the natural distrust that populists have of experts has expressed itself in opposition to government rules. Being told what to do by epidemiologists and government officials wielding all-caps SCIENCE as their authority has been enough to bring tea party-era liberty back in vogue.
We’ve also seen a return of the glue that has held moral traditionalists and libertarians together in the conservative coalition for so long — the belief that big government is a threat to traditional institutions. Hence, the focus on resuming church services.
In retrospect, the tea party wasn’t as much a pure liberty movement as it seemed at the time. A populist anti-elitism was an enormously important factor, which is why it faded into the Trump movement so seamlessly. On the other hand, Trumpian populism has a big streak of liberty to it.
All it has taken to bring it to the fore is extraordinary government intrusion into our lives. If Biden is elected president, there’s more where that came from.