Viral Contagion

How the Tea Party Got Hijacked by Trump’s Troll Party

As the candidates gather at the Reagan Library for the second 2016 presidential debate, a longtime conservative consultant says the Tea Party has morphed into the Troll Party—and it’s a fight for the soul of the GOP.

09.16.15 5:15 AM ET

All my life, the Republican Party has been my political home. Helping it succeed has been my work for decades. It was never perfect, but families never are.

Flawed, and given to wrong turns from time to time, we had good years and terrible years. We elected presidents, took back Congress after decades, lost it, and took it back again. Our leaders ranged from bad to extraordinary. But through it all, the GOP was the one party even vaguely amenable to limited-government conservatism, to at least some adherence to the Constitution over the social preferences of the moment, and to the constraints on government power that our Founding Fathers so cherished. It was nice while it lasted.

Today the Republican Party has two choices before it: It can either reform itself, or fracture and surrender to the Troll Party.

Let me explain what I mean. The Troll Party’s central characteristic is an ever tightening spiral of self-reinforcing and self-referential purity tests that makes communicating with anyone beyond the febrile and furious a nearly impossible task. The people pushing for this transformation aren’t a majority yet, but when a virus infects the body politic, its minuscule size belies its massive impact.

That’s what is happening inside the GOP, and why the disease vector, in the form of Donald Trump, puts the entire conservative movement at risk of being hijacked and destroyed by a bellowing billionaire with poor impulse control and a profoundly superficial understanding of the world. The Troll Party puts nationalist, anti-establishment bluster before the tenets of our constitutional republic.

So who comprises the Troll Party? Some of them are a distaff faction of the Tea Party, angry that the leadership in Washington doesn’t pursue their agenda with the bloody-mindedness and tempo they demand. Many are angry that the GOP lost to Barack Obama twice and, in their minds, allowed through action or inaction a set of economic, social, and cultural changes that make them feel powerless. For them, supporting Trump feels like rebellion. They crave a sense of agency in the face of a political culture in D.C. that they believe loathes and disregards them.

Others are reality television viewers who don’t get the artifice and irony, even after almost two decades of the form. Some are walking, talking comments sections of the fever swamp sites. Some are your aunt or mom, sending the long, rambling chain emails about Obama’s birth certificate with multiple forwards, fonts, colors, and glittery eagle gifs. Some pose as strict Constitutionalists, loyal unto death to the founders, except when Trump is talking.

Some of the dregs of the creepier neighborhoods of Reddit, Voat, and 4chan have joined for the lulz. The Troll Party looks at the kooks, the overt white supremacists (oh, pardon me, “race realists”), neo-Nazis, flaming anti-Semites, birthers, truthers, Jade Helmers, chemtrailers, and assorted other conspiracy whackjobs in their midst and shrugs it off with a grin.

The same people who viewed Obama’s long associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers or the endorsement of his candidacy by assorted Panthers, commies, cranks, and graying 1960s revolutionaries as disqualifiers for holding the presidency are now largely silent as David Duke and company board the Trump Train.

The contagion hasn’t infected the entire GOP, not by a long shot. But it’s spreading. The traditional elements of limited-government fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and defense hawks are still there. But the Troll Party screams louder, and its members have reached a point where they are more than content to watch the world burn around them if they don’t get their way, right this minute.

Trump activated them. He found a ready audience for his magical cocktail of celebrity, wealth, television skills, press whoring, verbal incontinence, bully-boy affect, and xenophobia, all eager to embrace his vision of... something. They don’t really know or care what he stands for, only that he’s an extended middle finger at the hated political class and the national GOP. He FIGHTS!

Whatever the Troll Party is, it’s no longer conservative. Trump has been unforgivably wrong on every single issue in the conservative portfolio, and his current road-to-Damascus conversions on abortion, guns, taxes, religion, and immigration all have the air of the man up for parole promising that he’s changed his ways. But his supporters simply don’t care. His appeal to them isn’t so much ideological as it is nihilistic.

For all their professed adoration of the Constitution, the mutant Tea Party element now supporting Trump seems entirely willing to toss it aside. When Trump jokes about “having immediate elections... let’s just vote today like they do in other countries,” the same people cheering themselves hoarse would be in a rabid frenzy if Obama or Hillary Clinton said it, joking or not. Troll Partiers love all the parts of the Constitution, except the ones noted legal scholar Donald Trump decides can be cast aside.

They love Trump’s insult-comic shtick, his lack of political correctness, and his total disregard for the rules. They’re tickled by his Kardashian self-absorption, his Miley Cyrus rudeness, his Paris Hilton super sweet 16 excess. Like the people who believe the fights and romance of reality television are real, they buy his act without question.

It’s pointless to try to explain to Troll Party members that they’re blind to the tensions and realities of how the world, humanity, and Washington actually function. It’s impossible to explain to them that politics is transactional. That’s not a defense of Washington as it is but a description of its dysfunction. They ascribe Washington’s nature not to their own contradictory desires (“Keep the Government’s Hands Off My Medicare!”) but to conspiracy and contempt.

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Their articles of faith include statements like “If ONLY we’d all followed Ted Cruz and shut down the government!”—ignoring the fact that Harry Reid always held a gun to the head of the GOP in the process. With Republicans controlling only 54 seats in the upper chamber, to a large degree he still does. Were not even close to the numbers to reliably override an Obama veto, but why not engage in a pointless, doomed battle?

Probe them, and they honestly believe that every action of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell is driven either by contempt for the base or cowardice in the face of the left. Their rage is usually in inverse proportion to their knowledge of politics and history, but why let ignorance get in the way of a good screech on Twitter or a talk radio sermon that leaves the listeners frothing?

Ask them, and they honestly believe in a quadrennial consultant Dolchstoßlegende, where somehow, someway, the Evil Establishment forced John McCain and Mitt Romney on them. Externalities never enter their minds; mention that Obama outraised and outspent McCain and Romney dramatically, and their eyes glaze over. It must have been the RINO class who secretly conspired with the Democrats to lose the election.

It’s not a defense of a broken, crony-inflected, gridlocked, venal, hidebound D.C. power culture to note that the alternative to its dysfunction ought to be disruption, not the wholesale destruction of the only party where limited-government conservatism has a foothold. It doesn’t excuse the real incidences of weakness by the Republican leadership (and there’s a massive, sad catalog, to be sure) to note that many of the complaints from the Troll Party ignore little details like the certainty of presidential vetoes, the presence of the filibuster, the cloture rules, and the fact that the GOP isn’t a single homogenous ideological body.

They look at expertise, experience, judgment, and foresight among consultants as some kind of dark necromancy, there only to serve our secret liberal agenda. The Troll Party substitutes rage on social media for the fundamentals. They believe likes, shares, and retweets substitute entirely for organizing, door-knocking, calling, quality candidates, and the real work of campaigns. They attack with volleys of hashtags like #cuckservative (seriously, don’t ask), #GOPe, and #GOPSmartset, and pro-Trump memes. Their digital torches and pitchforks have turned conservative Twitter into a daily Two Minutes Hate for their targets of the moment.

The Troll Party, following the great traditions of actual and wannabe revolutionaries, shifted its focus from the external to the internal enemy. As with most “liberation” movements, the constant search for traitors in their own ranks is usually a sign they’re entering a phase Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Miscavige would recognize. The witch hunt for apostates takes precedence over accomplishing their stated political goals.

In this case, the impure are any elected Republicans not named Trump or Cruz, and of course the hated “consultant class.” Their Jacobin desire for revenge, not just against most elected officials and candidates but against the people who possess the technical and rhetorical skills to win elections, would do les Enragés proud. They don’t want simply to burn down the Establishment. They want to burn down its infrastructure, and salt the earth around it.

The shift is evident online and on conservative radio. Hosts increasingly aren’t drawing an ideological contrast with the Democrats or liberals, even though they’re in the most target-rich environment of the last decade. They’ve taken to whipping the Troll Party into a daily frenzy, driving home the message over and over that somewhere there is an establishment of people in their own ideological and political movement or party who hate them and seek to destroy them. I recently became the target of an endless series of Breitbart attack pieces for daring to (accurately) call Trump fans “low-information voters.”

The house organs of the Troll Party aren’t just driven by ideology. Inter-party paranoia and division is a profit center, with an array of media firms who have monetized political paranoia and rage. They feed an online ecosystem of email fundraising, driving millions of dollars into shady super PACs that collect $9 out of $10 donated for “overhead expenses” and “consulting” and “fundraising management,” and rarely spend a dime trying to elect the conservatives they claim to represent.

It’s a perfect storm of venality and credulity, where the Patriotic Patriots for Patriotic Patriotism Liberty Eagle Tea Party Action Fund bombard their lists with ever more lurid emails describing ever darker conspiracies from the hated Establishment. They’re increasingly likely to focus their fundraising ire on McConnell or Boehner rather than against Clinton. They say we’re the ones preventing President Trump (or President Palin or President West) from finally turning this country around, and they’re getting rich in the process. Until I sinned against Trump, I’d never been the topic of a Richard Viguerie fundraising email. Now I have.

Every day, their enemies list grows longer: George Will, Megyn Kelly, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, Roger Ailes. All are marked and targeted by the Troll Party. I feel like I’m in good company, and frankly I’m proud to be included on their hit list.

Nothing is more important to them than Trump as an avatar for their rage. They’ve become a fun house mirror version of everything we once mocked Obama supporters for being: cultish, immune to facts, swift to attack apostates, glassy-eyed and swaying as if the Great Man was going to lead them to the Kool-Aid troughs in the hot Guyana sun. They’ve become like Scientologists, only more fanatical, more vengeful, more sealed in a hermetic political domain where nothing matters but fury, acting out, and punishing the unbelievers.

American populism is no stranger to our political life. From the earliest anti-Federalists to William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and George Wallace, and many in between, we’ve sampled the populist temptation, often in times of national distress and dislocation. Suddenly, greased by television celebrity, voters’ anger, and social media, we’re transfixed by the charisma of an American strongman. It’s comforting to be able to believe in the One Leader who knows how you’ve been oppressed by sinister outside forces. It’s comforting to believe that one man, uncorrupted and incorruptible, can will away the malaise and sickness. Almost every culture has a cognitive bias for the tough guy, the alpha, the winner.

I’ve loved and served my Republican Party—the Party of Lincoln, Coolidge, Ike, Reagan, and Bush, for over half my life. I’ve helped elect conservative, moderate, and liberal Republicans not because of my personal preferences but because that was what could be accomplished in the places and times they were running.

That’s not good enough for the Troll Party. Its members demand obedience to their factional fury. They’re not a solution to Washington’s dysfunction, and they don’t want to be. They demand the Republican Party be broken and recast as Trump’s Party. As a lifelong Republican and conservative, I see the Troll Party as nothing but a small, grim, deeply negative vision of a republic whose best traditions they’re willing to abandon to appease their boundless anger.