So was that what the Tea Party, and "constitutional conservatism," was all about then? Throwing support behind a Constitution-bending, big-government populist who on April 15, 2009—the day that Tea Parties were being held all around the country in protest of the Obama administration's government-aggrandizing agenda—was saying stuff like "I don't march with the tea party," and "[Obama] really has made a great impact on people….I think he's doing a really good job"?
The expected though-unconfirmed and now confirmed news today that 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate turned Tea Party-supporting culture warrior Sarah Palin will be throwing her endorsement behind Trump has driven some conservatives to conclude that, in the pre-emptive words of Townhall.com's Guy Benson, "emotionalist nationalistic populism will have officially—perhaps temporarily—supplanted principled, policy-driven, limited-government conservatism as the dominant strain within the American right-wing."
It's worth noting that Sarah Palin, while popular at Tea Party rallies, is not an elected official and not synonymous with Tea Party sentiment, particularly when it comes to specific policy recommendations (recall that she was pro-bailout, for instance). And certainly, the Trump-hijacked-the-Tea-Party line of argument predates today's announcement. But there is a broader question that's been gnawing at the side of many libertarians and constitutional conservatives in this never-ending Summer of Trump, and that is: What the hell happened? Was the adherence to principled limited-government values just a passing fancy until the right person pushed the right emotional buttons, philosophy be damned?
Over the past 10 days I've been putting versions of that question to people with strong limited-government bona fides, including Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and former FreedomWorks head-turned pro-Rand Paul superPAC'er Matt Kibbe. The following is a selection from their reflections on the Tea Party and political libertarianism in the age of Donald Trump:
Rep. Thomas Massie: Well, you know, everybody starts trying to write the obituary for the Tea Party, and I can tell you I've got sort of a skewed view of this, because I'm from Kentucky, represent Kentucky, and the Tea Party just won the governor's race. I mean we have not only a Tea Party governor, but a Tea Party lieutenant governor. Our lieutenant governor is a black female who was the Tea Party president in Bowling Green, Kentucky, now she's the lieutenant governor….
So the interesting thing is in Kentucky the Tea Party's still alive. You've got Rand Paul, our senator, you've got me, a U.S. representative, you've got a governor and a lieutenant governor, and we're getting offices below that in Kentucky. So it's looking good there.
But on the national stage, you know, I think it's like Charlie Brown and Lucy. The voting population is so tired of…trying to kick the football, and it gets pulled away from them at the last second. And they have sent some people here to Congress who said all the right things, they ran as Tea Party candidates, then they got up here and they voted for the omnibus bill, or voting for Speaker Boehner on their first day after pledging they wouldn't vote for him. And so what they're looking for is somebody's that's not going to be controlled when they get here.
You know, I'm not voting for Donald Trump—I'm supporting Rand Paul—but I understand the frustration that leads people to support him. I understand it, and Congress is fueling it.
Rep. Justin Amash: Donald Trump is the byproduct of a political establishment that has completely ignored Americans. I don't think he's ever talked about the Constitution, but he doesn't have to. He just has to be against Washington and people at home say to themselves, "Well, Washington's not standing up for us and this guy will"….
I think he could be very dangerous as a president, but Americans at home want someone who's going to stick it to Washington, D.C., and he'll certainly do that. And he'll create a lot of havoc in the process and probably violate a lot of rights in the process based on what I've heard from him, but unfortunately the political establishment here hasn't been paying attention to people at home, and conservatives haven't been able to knock the establishment off their pedestal, whereas Donald Trump has been able to.
Matt Kibbe: I still talk to Tea Partiers every day, and I find some of the strongest supporters of Donald Trump among the Tea Party, but I also find the strongest opposition from the Tea Party. And I think there's two things going on.
One is sort of more broadly, there's a real paradigm shift going on in politics; it's shifting power away from party bosses, and this democratization, this disintermediation, I think, is a very good thing. And you're seeing it on both the left and the right. You're seeing it with the rise of Ron Paul, he was sort of one of the precursors to this; the Tea Party was part of that.
But it's such disgust with the D.C. establishment that I think some Tea Partiers have just given up, and they view Donald Trump as a bull in a china shop—they love the fact that he's creating such fits with the GOP establishment. And they're not really worried about what he stands for, and I think that's a very dangerous thing.
I'm not one of those guys that thinks that Donald Trump would make a bad president because he's not a conservative; I'm one of those guys that thinks that Donald Trump is dangerous because he has such an authoritarian instinct that we don't know what he would do as president. But he would not follow the rules, he would not respect the differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. And that's what the Tea Party was supposedly all about. We didn't like executive power. […]
And I hate to use the F-word, but let's go ahead and use it: The technical definition of fascism, and the history of fascism in the world, really wasn't tethered to some sort of ideology the way socialism is. The goals were more random and scattered, but it creates a lot of chaos and it requires a lot of power. And I think we as Tea Partiers, as libertarians, as constitutional conservatives, we should judge a candidate based on whether or not they've actually read and respect the restraints placed on government power by the Constitution….
And by the way we should point out that there's a mythology that all of Trump's support is coming from the Tea Party. The data suggests something quite different–there's a lot of independents, there's a lot of registered Democrats, there's a lot of people that haven't participated in the process before.
So would Amash and Massie vote for Donald Trump if he wins the GOP nomination?
Amash: I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton….
So, I have a lot of concerns about Donald Trump. I do not want Hillary Clinton to win. I think she would be the worst president of my lifetime. I think she's much worse than Barack Obama—much, much worse—and President Obama has been a pretty awful president in many ways. I was hopeful that he would actually take steps with respect to civil liberties and wars that would actually reflect what he said were his views. He presented himself as a guy who was going to stop some of the things that were happening under the Bush administration, and he hasn't really taken the steps necessary….
Clinton would be much worse than Obama, and I will do what it takes to make sure that Clinton is not our next president. But yeah, I'm not going to say who I would vote for on Election Day if Trump were the Republican nominee. I've always been a proud Republican and have voted for Republican nominees I didn't always agree with on a whole bunch of issues, but I think we can do better.
Massie: Well, if it's between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I will most certainly vote for Donald Trump, I can tell you that. Or Bernie Sanders, or literally anybody on the Democrat side. So there you have it.
Finally, can libertarians do business with Ted Cruz, and/or have anything to feel good about during this presidential season?
Kibbe: I know him a little bit, and I know his dad even a little bit more. And if you look at Ted Cruz's upbringing, his training, he was immersed in classical liberalism—I think when he was two, he was quoting verbatim Human Action. So he's a fairly unique politician in that sense.
I think we are sometimes too critical of ourselves. You know, we're so frustrated with politics, and what we didn't accomplish over the last five years, it's important to recognize that what I call the Liberty Caucus in the Senate—and I would include Ted Cruz in there, and I would include other senators as well—that, historically is unprecedented. There were no Justin Amashes, there were no Thomas Massies, there were no Raul Labradors. And all of these guys grew up reading Reason magazine. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm sure Ted Cruz was reading Reason as well. And that's different.
And so let's not give up on politics all the time, but let's be picky about our guys. So you know, if I were to choose a second candidate, it probably would be Ted Cruz, but luckily I don't have to do that, because Rand Paul is going to win.
* Headline and text updated with confirmation.