Trump is the natural consequence of the Tea Party, an anti-establishment brand that now controls the media and political elite that first started it.
In an era defined by 24-hour media cycles, the Twitterverse, and a politics-heavy Instagram, it’s easy for Americans to get distracted. So distracted that, if you let anyone in the media tell it, the rise of someone like Trump seems to come at a surprise.
People are so seemingly shocked at the political success of business mogul and reality star Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary competition that headlines continue to ask: How is a Trump presidency even possible?
Conservatives have blamed President Obama, fascism, and even Al Franken. Truth is, the very same anti-establishment sentiment and media support that carried in the likes of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, is the reason we have a Trump candidacy today.
It was only seven years ago that the media was going wild over another brand new political brand pushing back at Republican leaders. In 2009, an infamous rant by a CNBC reporter launched a political label and a movement that would yield a Republican majority in both houses and assume the leadership of the Republican Party.
Take a look around you. Senator Rand Paul? Tea Partier. Sarah Palin, who gave Trump an early and longwinded endorsement, and used to hold rallies with fans that sounded eerily similar to Trump supporters? Tea Partier. Doesn’t anyone remember when Ted Cruz led a shutdown of the government in 2013? That’s because he’s a Tea Partier. Congressman Mike Lee, who is blocking federal aid to the lead-poisoned city of Flint? Tea Partier. At least two dozen sitting members of Congress are part of the Tea Party Caucus today. Only two years ago, rising Republican party heavyweight and former House Speaker Eric Cantor was unseated in a Tea Party blow no one predicted. And when John Boehner took on the position and then finally gave it up last year, nobody wanted it.
That’s what the Tea Party has done to the Republican Party.
What people also fail to remember is that the Tea Party was driven by the media from the start. Besides Rick Santelli’s anti-Obama rant live on air, the Tea Party enjoyed huge promotional support from Fox News and heavy coverage from every news outlet. Why? The Tea Party made for good ratings and the news business is indeed a business. Covering the Tea Party’s racist, xenophobic, gun-toting, anti-government rhetoric just made for good TV and print. Op-ed columnists defended the anger of the disaffected white men, reporters noted the Tea Party’s anti-immigrant sentiment, and pundits commiserated about the age of Reagan. It got to the point that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called for all his fellow journalists to quit reporting on Tea Party leader, Sarah Palin, who he called “a huge source of cheap Web clicks, television ratings, and media buzz.” But to no avail.
Only occasionally did journalists back then note that the anti-Obama rage about healthcare and taxes didn’t actually make much sense in terms of policy. Why was the Tea Party against Obama because of taxes when federal taxes actually weren’t being raised? But that’s the whole point of a political brand—it’s a label that makes major emotional connections to voters while glossing over important policies, ideas, and goals. A brand pulls you in so much you don’t remember to ask about the details. A few years ago, it was a brand that Republicans overwhelmingly supported as the new energetic force that would rejuvenate the Republican Party, a raw, anti-elite, angry populism that would help bolster conservative power.
And now, in 2016, in walks a long-winded, brash, and seemingly uncensored white male billionaire who holds no formal political office. Give out the personal cell phone number of a sitting U.S. Congressman? Check. Call Mexicans rapists? Check. Suggest we use the military to kill entire families? Check. Say just about anything you want about the Republican Party and its shining political stars? Check.
Here’s a candidate who’s made it overly clear that he’s not a part of the political establishment, loves big business, likes militarism, and (in a pinch) is a devoted Christian. He’s also rejected the Republican de facto political establishment that has been Fox News, the media group that invested heavily in organizing, promoting, and mobilizing the Tea Party. One political study noted that the Republican Party has been viewed by voters as the more masculine of the two dominating political parties (with the Democrats being considered more feminine). Trump traffics heavily in masculinity, which is almost always associated with violence and aggression (and penis jokes) in our culture. And he comes with his own shiny well-known Trump brand (which John Oliver recently laid out brilliantly on his show).
Some people are surprised that otherwise religious voters don’t care about Trump’s messy divorces and marriages. But Trump followers are the same people who love Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, an alleged wife abuser who lost custody of his kids and still criticizes black people for lack of family values. Trump supporters voted for John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate who once left his handicapped wife and mother of his children for a much younger woman. They celebrated Sarah Palin’s support for abstinence-only education even when her own daughter was unwed and pregnant. This is a political faction that takes on cognitive dissonance with ease.
More than that, the media’s obsession with Trump and the audiences he gathers for them has only amplified his reach. A few weeks ago, Trump told Chuck Todd straight to his face that he hadn’t had to spend much money on advertising “because people like you put me on all the time.” And it’s true—flip through channels on a Sunday morning to see which candidate the major political hosts use to kick off their shows every week. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves said with ease at a recent PR event that Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He went on: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”
That’s how we got Trump.
In the meantime, the constant disavowals from Republicans and Party leaders like Mitt Romney and Karl Rove will only bolster Trump’s image as an independent Republican leader who doesn’t fit in well with Washington politicians. Trump is the natural consequence of the Tea Party, an anti-establishment brand that now controls the media and political elite that first started it. He’s the product of a party that bet on racial resentment and kept on going. We might be surprised that Trump seems unstoppable now, but let’s not pretend we don’t know why he’s here and how he’s winning.
Khadijah White is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently writing a book on the rise of the Tea Party brand in news.