The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a protest against taxation without representation, which sparked the Revolutionary War and led to American independence. The seeds of the modern tea party movement were sown in January 2009. During his inaugural speech President Obama proposed offering aid to homeowners threatened with foreclosure. Ric Santelli, a hedge-fund manager turned financial news editor, didn’t like the thought of paying taxes to support ‘losers’ and called for a new tea party. The idea caught fire.
Americans had paid federal taxes before, and previous administrations had overseen the distribution of funds to fellow citizens in times of hardship or disaster, and there had always been wealthy individuals who objected to handing over their cash. What was so different this time? How come the belly-aching of one rich guy inspired such a groundswell of support?
Meanwhile in Congress, the Republicans were launching an unprecedented campaign of obstruction that would spawn a series of near shut-downs and debt defaults, dozens of unfilled vacancies, and a historically low record of legislation. The latest manifestation of this campaign was the announcement in February by the Majority Leader that, in direct defiance of the Constitution, the Senate would not cooperate during the remaining eleven months of Obama’s presidency in the appointment of a Supreme Court justice to replace Antonin Scalia.
This top to bottom rejection of Obama’s legitimacy by Republican legislators and a vocal minority of their supporters doesn’t make sense without reference to race. The party has conspired to treat Obama as an interloper.
It is in this climate that Donald Trump has found his political calling. In April 2011, with his eye on a possible presidential run, he began questioning the President’s citizenship and quickly made himself the noisiest exponent of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory. In May of that year, almost a quarter of responding, self-identified Republicans said that Obama was definitely or probably not a US citizen. In one survey after another, the proportions of Republicans who doubt Obama’s right to be President are alarmingly high.
It’s impossible to know whether all these people genuinely believe that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake. But I have to assume that, for most of them, saying yes to the implausible story of a hushed-up Kenyan birth or to the related rumour that Obama is secretly Muslim are just ways of signalling allegiance to a vaguer notion that an African American has no place in the White House except as a member of the household staff.
Since soon after Obama took office the tea party has been demanding to ‘take our country back’ and they don’t just mean back from the Democrats. Now Trump, whose presidential campaign has been explicitly racist from day one, is exposing the party’s worst impulses to the world and, more important from the party’s point of view, to decent, moderate Republicans and uncommitted voters. The establishment is reacting to the Trump explosion as though it’s an act of God, but it’s a disaster of their own making.