Nearly eight years before Donald Trump’s inauguration, five years before David Brat unseated Eric Cantor, and six years before the Freedom Caucus forced John Boehner’s resignation, a group of highly conservative individuals mobilized to protest Barack Obama’s “socialism.” They were not simply an anti-Obama protest movement. They were also frustrated with their own party and its tepid responses to progressive policies.
Behind the scenes of these high-profile national events, Tea Party activists across the country organized in local chapters. They mobilized in elections. They ran candidates for county and state offices. They contacted their representatives. They challenged establishment candidates in the Republicans primaries. And they used blogs and social media sites to disseminate information to their followers. Sometimes they posted about upcoming events, but just as frequently they posted about policy. From these communications, the contours of a different rhetoric of conservatism emerged, emphasizing threats to America’s greatness, security, and Constitution.
The Tea Party’s use of the internet as its primary communication medium made it possible to collect and analyze their rhetoric. Following an earlier effort by the Washington Post, I curated a list of Tea Party websites that remained active through the end of 2015 and contained, at minimum, a mission statement officially affiliating them with the Tea Party movement. Of these 1,051 groups, a little over 200 also maintained blogs where leaders and other members discussed key ideas and shared content. These blogs, representing Tea Party groups from across the nation, produced a total of 48,000 posts between 2009 and the end of 2015 (when data collection stopped).
Using automated content analysis techniques, I asked a computer algorithm to search for the 100 most frequently occurring groups of words. We could think of these groups of words as themes or topics. It was entirely possible that given how geographically diffuse the Tea Party groups were, this algorithm would return nonsense instead of coherent topics. Instead, it produced some surprisingly cohesive themes. A little over half of Tea Party communications were about activism: challenging Republicans in primaries, contacting their representatives, attending meetings, sharing information, and so forth. Although this focus holds some insights about the Tea Party, the more relevant issue here is the way they discussed policy.
In their policy-related blog posts, Tea Partiers tackled core topics such as taxes, government spending, and the Affordable Care Act in relatively standard conservative terms. In addition to calls to activism and economic policy discussions, a few distinct themes emerged. These are highlighted in the chart below. Each column shows the general topic area, followed by the key words Tea Partiers used when discussing that topic. The three primary themes — the media, American greatness, and threats — bear striking resemblance to statements later made by Trump.
President Trump is not the first conservative to cast aspersions on the media as liberal. He is, however, the first president to blatantly refuse to interact with media that disagree with him, or to paint such media as liberal or fake. His approach may be at odds with that of past presidents, but it is certainly not at odds with the Tea Party’s narrative of the media as being on the liberal side and having a progressive agenda.
The next distinctive bit of rhetoric comes from the Tea Party’s discussion of American greatness. Before the phrase “make America great again” entered common parlance, Tea Partiers devoted a distinct portion of their communications to discussions of American exceptionalism, and efforts to destroy it.
Last, Tea Partiers broadly emphasized threats. They feared threats to the Constitution — calling for efforts to protect it from violations. Prescient of Trump’s “law and order” discussions, they were highly concerned with enforcing the law against criminals. Their discussion of foreign powers carried on this language of threat, emphasizing words like security, threat, and war. Most strikingly, the rhetoric they used to discuss immigration could have been lifted out of Trump’s discussions of his proposed border wall or his executive order banning travel from several Muslim countries. Tea Partiers were concerned with enforcing the rule of law against illegal immigrants, and stopping the flow of millions who might threaten American security.
Parallels are apparent between these themes and anti-media, make-America-great-again, threat-centric rhetoric of Trump, during and after his presidential campaign. This is not to say that Trump consciously borrows from the rhetoric of the Tea Party, but his rhetoric did not originate in a vacuum. Trump draws heavily from the advice of former Breitbart chair Steve Bannon, whose blog was the ninth-most-cited source by Tea Party websites between 2009 and 2015 (right after major Tea Party groups, the Constitution, and Glenn Beck himself), as can be seen in the figure below.
One of the most important implications of these findings is a reminder that rhetoric vilifying the media, preserving American exceptionalism, and insisting on hyperawareness of threats did not originate with Donald Trump. Much of it has been in the water of the conservative fringe for some time, and was consistently utilized by the Tea Party. While the Tea Party may not have singlehandedly created the candidacy of Donald Trump, they had long been discussing policy in similar terms to those favored by the 45th president.
Rachel Blum is an assistant professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. She is working on Inside Job: The Tea Party Takeover of the Republican Party, a book about the Tea Party insurgence and strategy.