In 2003, President George W. Bush and Republicans passed H.R. 1 (Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act). This legislation secured Florida for the President and ensured a second term. However, the cost of the program infuriated fiscal conservatives on the right and planted the seeds of the TEA Party revolution.
At the same time, under the direction of Karl Rove, Republicans began courting a strategy of identity politics aimed at taking on the rhetoric that had proved so successful for President Clinton for so many years. The strategy was termed “Compassionate Conservatism” and it embraced big government and big spending as a strategy for electoral success. This, surprisingly enough, united both fiscal conservatives and social conservatives in their consternation.
The TEA Party was born as the Republican Base no longer felt as though the Republican Party establishment was committed to lower taxes, lower spending, fewer regulations, small business, and social-conservative values.
I was a registered Libertarian at the time in North Carolina. I was astonished that so many Republicans seemed so interested in liberty, in Constitution, in fiscal responsibility, and in opposing federal overreach. Heck, even Ron Paul was now a Republican after all, so something magical must be taking place within the GOP.
And I wanted in.
However, when fiscal conservatives and limited-government advocates launched their movement, they attracted people from every faction frustrated with the political establishment at the time. Populists, nationalists, anti-globalists, anti-interventionists, and many other factions that couldn’t have been further ideologically from the freedom movements principles co-opted the movement, took it over, redefined it, and ultimately murdered it.
I didn’t see it. I used to bump heads with Bearing Drift’s Shaun Kenney and Brian Shoeneman, who were constantly attacking some perceived rise in nativism and populism they saw as an existential threat to the Republican Party. I thought they were attacking the liberty movement. I thought they were attacking the fiscal conservatives (and in some cases they were). But it was I who was blind to the people to the right and left of me. It was I who wasn’t paying attention to who stood next to me at rallies and campaign events.
I was so focused on trying to bring pressure to bear on Republicans who were spending our nation into unimaginable debt and expanding executive power that I simply accepted that everyone who was with me shared my principles and motivations. They did not. They used a lot of my rhetoric. They talked about hating taxes and loving liberty, but the second that Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, they embraced a very different sort of rhetoric. They embraced a rhetoric much more closely aligned with their own worldview.
I was completely confused by what I was witnessing. I started writing on my own website in order to support who I thought were more loyal TEA Party politicians like Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. I wrote for websites that seemed committed to these candidates and their principles and I again felt as though those around me shared my principles.
Strangely, after Donald Trump won the nomination and after he won the keys to the Oval Office, many of these same people simply fell in line. Even after the nastiest campaign I’ve ever seen, after months of Trump obliterating Senator Cruz with smears and lies and the most horrible innuendo imaginable, Senator Cruz fell in line. Senator Rand Paul became one of Trumps’ closest allies in the U.S. Senate.
I guess that was all the permission conservatives needed to fall in line too.
So once again, I was left trying to find folks who shared my principles.
Now I find myself sharing space with the very people I once argued with so vociferously, because they are the only ones who didn’t fall into line. And while I’m certain that they still do not share my paranoia regarding the federal debt, executive power, and extra-Constitutional actions by the Court, Congress, and the White House, they are the only ones fighting Trump’s massive tax increases imposed on the American People through the Presidents’ tariffs.
No one in tremendous debt is really free and Americans are in tremendous debt. President Trump is about to enjoy another year of trillion dollar deficits; and where are all those fiscal conservatives demanding an end to big debt and deficits?
I’m pleased Trump and Speaker Ryan lowered many taxes and slashed many regulations. I’m pleased that the United States is involved in fewer violent conflicts around the world. I’m glad that issues like the Drug War and Criminal Justice Reform are being taken more seriously by Republicans and Democrats. But none of that will do us much good if our economy and country are crushed in a debt crisis. None of that will matter if someone even more authoritarian than Presidents Obama and Trump get a hold of the enormous powers now granted to the Executive Branch of the US government because Congress abdicated their own Constitutional authorities.
We are not a freer nation today because of President Trump. We are not a freer nation today because of the TEA Party. We are not a freer nation today because the Liberty Movement died and it died because we gave it away to people that didn’t share our principles. We got so wrapped up in our anti-establishmentarianism that we just welcomed anyone with a furrowed brow, a Gadsden flag, and a picket sign.
We did this to ourselves. Our leaders failed us too. They all fell into line with President Trump. Our activists failed us too. They all fell into line with President Trump.
The only people that appear to have retained the full balance of their principles are the neo-conservatives and the libertarians, and even some of them have gotten weak around the knees. What’s funny is that the neoconservatives and libertarians share so very little in common, but it’s the Justin Amashs and Bill Kristols that stood firm. Pretty much the rest of the party has embraced big government under the justification that at least it’s us who are running it.
Well, that’s a damn shame and I’m ashamed of the part I played in all of it.
Cover photo by Lynn R. Mitchell, 2009