Conservative House lawmakers who came to power during the tea party’s rise acknowledge the makings of an emerging liberal protest movement in the age of Donald Trump, but reject comparisons to it.
“Maybe some of the actions they take are similar, but this is a very different operation than one that came out of somebody’s living room by people who found somebody with a like cause and said, ‘Government is headed in the wrong direction,’” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., of the House Freedom Caucus, in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “This is something wholly different. I understand they are using some of the same methodology. But it’s not the same thing.”
For the last three weeks, Democratic protesters have packed town halls hosted by Republican lawmakers in deep-red districts, railing against the GOP’s plans to repeal Obamacare, and more generally, opposing Trump and his populist brand of politics.
In addition to the recent town halls, liberal activism has also emerged in other forms since Trump’s election. Millions of people across the U.S. took to the streets during women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration—spurred on through social media.
The U.S. Capitol Police reported 55 arrests last month as protesters fought confirmation for members of Trump’s Cabinet. Demonstrators packed airports to agitate against Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration and refugees.
The protesters, some organized by liberal outside groups, have not been shy about equating their rise—and potential impact—to the tea party.
While conservative House members say they welcome activism in any form—and vow to respectfully communicate with demonstrators at future town halls—they reject the comparison to the tea party movement they came to embody.
“The reality is that there are some similarities between these groups and the tea party, but there are some pretty significant differences as well,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a House Freedom Caucus leader who took office at the height of the tea party electoral wave in 2011.
“The biggest difference is you had a large group of people that organically got together eight years ago and they were complaining not just about the Obama administration,” Labrador continued. “Their biggest rags were about their own party. The tea party was upset with the Republicans as much, if not more than, with the Democrats. This was people who were upset with [Republican] members of Congress because they voted for things that they thought had gone against the principles they espoused in their campaigns.”
The tea party movement first rose in reaction to the 2008 Wall Street bailout, signed into law by President George W. Bush. The movement grew as the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress pushed through the Affordable Care Act.
Tea party activists began shifting their focus to electoral politics, specifically on Republican primary contests, in response to what they saw as the failure of the GOP to resist the Democratic agenda.
This activism crescendoed in October 2015, when pressure from the conservative Freedom Caucus, many of whose members align with the tea party, forced Republican House Speaker John Boehner to resign.
Labrador argues the tea party’s rise was less organized than this early iteration of the progressive movement.
Two progressive groups, Organizing for Action and Indivisible Guide, have organized demonstrations across the country.
Indivisible Guide is a made up of former House Democratic staff members who have drafted a manual to combat the Trump administration’s agenda.
Labrador says the tea party movement started organically, before wealthy Washington, D.C.-based groups such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity helped to see the vision through.
“This [the liberal protest movement] is organized by larger groups,” Labrador said. “The tea party was not organized. Washington, D.C., tried to co-opt the tea party. You had large groups here all of a sudden who saw this movement, they supported [it], and tried to call themselves tea party this, tea party that. But it was at local level that this happened.”
It remains to be seen if the emerging liberal movement will embrace electoral politics, and whether it will push the Democrat Party to reshape its agenda to win back voters it lost to Trump.
“You are seeing people complaining because they are sad they lost the election,” Labrador said. “Get over it, grow up, and start making sure your party becomes more representative, which is what we all did. We wanted our party to be more representative to the people that elected us. Maybe they should do the same thing.”
With Congress scheduled for a weeklong recess and a run of additional town halls starting Feb. 18, conservative lawmakers say they’re ready to listen to—and debate—demonstrators who oppose their policies.
.@justinamash on townhall protests: "Their concerns are reasonable…I think it’s important to learn from people who come to your townhalls"
— Cristina Marcos (@cimarcos) February 14, 2017
“The people coming to the town halls are concerned,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who faced protesters during a town hall he hosted in his home district last week. “Their concerns are reasonable. We might not always agree on how to resolve some of these issues. I hope more of my colleagues will go back home and talk to people, and not hide from their own positions. Express your positions and try to have a conversation with people about how to achieve the outcomes we all want.”
Conservative groups, meanwhile, are planning a more aggressive campaign to fight back.
According to The Hill newspaper, FreedomWorks, the tea party-aligned outside group, will be organizing rallies and urging its nearly 6 million activists to appear at town hall events and voice support for Obamacare’s repeal beginning next month.