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10 Years Of The Tea Party

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It was a decade ago. The recession had crippled the economy. Conservative activists railed against the Affordable Care Act. They wanted to cut government spending, cut taxes and rein in the debt. It was the birth of the Tea Party, a movement that took root in American politics and transformed the Republican Party. So how is the party now? According to Sarah Jones, the Tea Party is alive and well. That's the headline of her piece in New York Magazine, and she joins us now. Welcome.

SARAH JONES: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So Tea Party lore points to this moment as seminal in the birth of the movement. It's CNBC's editor Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK SANTELLI: This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills? Raise their hand.

(BOOING)

SANTELLI: President Obama, are you listening?

FADEL: So that was February 2009. There were demonstrations the next month on tax day, then marches and gatherings all summer. What have you learned about the roots of the Tea Party movement?

JONES: You know, looking back at it from the advantage of 10 years, I think it's pretty clear that there were a combination of factors, right? You mentioned the recession. So people were afraid and they felt threatened for legitimate reasons. The economy was just sort of collapsing around people. But I think, too, you have to take into consideration the election of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president. So when you have Rick Santelli on CNBC with this rant, he's not just talking about government spending. He's talking about government spending on people who don't deserve it. And I think you can really see the synthesis of a racialized backlash to the election of Obama and to the recession.

FADEL: You know, you call racism the animating force of the Tea Party.

JONES: Yes, that's right. And I think that was actually fairly clear at the time. You know, I remember attending some of these rallies not as a supporter but to observe back in the day. And it was - people were railing about immigrants. They were railing about people who were on welfare and who they felt did not deserve to be on welfare and were taking money away from people who did deserve it. It was highly racialized. And in that sense, they were drawing on really decades of stereotypes about poor and working-class people in this country that were themselves heavily racialized.

FADEL: And you also say it wasn't fully an organic movement as it's been described.

JONES: It was organic in the sense that these are really things that people believed, and it was an Astroturf campaign as well. And, you know, we know that thanks to the reporting of journalists like Jane Mayer there were libertarian interests like the Koch brothers who were able to sort of capitalize on it and amplify the things that people believed and the things that people were saying. So it's actually a, you know, a fairly complex movement and not truly a grassroots movement I'd argue.

FADEL: So when you're weighing the motivations of the Tea Party and, as you say, you see racial animus there, what about people like Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who ran for Congress as a Tea Partier who's walked away from the Republican Party, has stayed really true to his core sort of fiscal principles? Is he an outlier?

JONES: I do think that he's an outlier. When we're thinking about the sort of people who were elected because of the Tea Party who really capitalized on that sentiment in order to win office, you know, we should think about the character of Paul Ryan, who was seen as a vital ally to the Tea Party movement. And while he was very critical of Trump while Trump was still a candidate, once Trump was in power, Ryan really largely went along with the president's agenda and wasn't a source of dissent in a meaningful sense. And I would say that that's perhaps more characteristic of where the Tea Party is at.

FADEL: It's 10 years later. The government is set to hit a $1 trillion deficit. Did the party ultimately fail in its policy goals?

JONES: It failed in one sense, which is that, yes, we still have this deficit. It's still there. But in other senses, I would argue that it's actually been very successful. Again, going back to the example of Santelli, he was specifically angry that Obama was bailing out homeowners who were in trouble. You know, the Tea Party was never just about the deficit. And while they did support cuts to defense spending, they were angry about welfare. They wanted to cut welfare spending as well. They wanted restrictions on immigration. And they're getting that from the Trump administration.

FADEL: That's Sarah Jones of New York Magazine. Thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.