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Where Did the Tea Party Go?

As anti-Trump activists target Republicans, some conservatives are trying to organize counter-protests against "Marxist street thugs."

For a picture of the category five hurricane swirling around Republican legislators this congressional recess, consider freshman House Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida. Last Thursday, he held his inaugural "Open Gaetz Day" at a bowling alley and restaurant in fire-engine-red Santa Rosa County, which Donald Trump won by more than 50 points.

But the event was more like "Open Season on Gaetz Day" from the moment the congressman entered the room to a storm of boos. When he opened up the floor for questions, most focused on his bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and Republican efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act. It wasn't just hostility from liberals either. A questioner who identified as Republican asked whether Gaetz would call on Trump to release his tax returns. "There are allegations that a hostile, foreign country is committing acts of undeclared war by infiltrating the highest levels of our government. That offends me. I don't know if it offends my party, but it offends me," she said.

For Republican lawmakers, these visits home have become a brutal trial by fire, as evidenced by the number who are skipping face-to-face town halls altogether to avoid being grilled about their party's most unpopular policies and relationship to Trump. It's in many ways a rerun of the 2009 August recess, when Democrats suffered similar treatment at the hands of the Tea Party.

None of that is lost on Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, the most active Tea Party organization. On February 23, she sent an urgent message to supporters: "We need to show up and tell our elected officials that the majority of their constituents do not agree with the left wing protesters who are trying to destroy President Trump. Now the tables have turned and progressives are the ones showing up at townhalls and at local district offices." Her people are listening—this weekend, Tea Party rallies are planned in at least ten towns and cities around the country.

That's not a bad turnout. But compare it to the smoldering right-wing populism of Obama's first term: From February to September in 2010, the Tea Party averaged more than a hundred events a month, and there were more than 600 rallies on Tax Day 2010, according to data gathered by sociologists Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas for their 2015 book, Party in the Street.

So as the anti-Trump bandwagon gathers speed, Tea Party counter-protesters are starting to come out. But the days of dozens or hundreds of Tea Partiers showing up to denounce Obamacare are long gone.

Last Thursday, about ten Tea Party protesters stood outside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's office in Binghamton, New York, with signs demanding that he not obstruct Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. When Florida House Republican Daniel Webster showed up for a ribbon cutting in the retirement community of the Villages last Friday, he was met by a group wearing MAGA hats and Trump-Pence T-shirts—but also by dozens of chanting and singing Trump opponents. And last Tuesday, House Republican Tom McClintock of California held a two-hour town hall that about 500 people attended. Unlike one he held two weeks earlier, this time there were numerous American flags, and he got some applause for answers defending Trump.

Of ten local Tea Party Patriots groups contacted for this story, only one responded. Frank Thiboutot, a member of a Fort Lauderdale group, said they've continued to meet every Saturday since launching in 2009 and will hold a rally this Saturday. "Most of us are older, some are retired but we will NOT be intimidated by these Marxist street thugs and paid butt boys for Soros," Thiboutot said by email.

"It seems to be the case in a lot of social movements that once they gain some kind of electoral advantage, well then you did your job, and it's hard to sustain the momentum," says Robert Horwitz, a professor of communication at the University of California-San Diego whose 2013 book looked at the rise of Tea Party–style conservatism. Indeed, Heaney and Rojas's data show that Tea Party mobilization dropped after Republicans took control of the House after the 2010 midterms.

Polls bear out the idea that the Tea Party's popularity has declined. In March 2010, 28 percent of those in a Gallup poll called themselves Tea Party supporters. The last Gallup poll, from October 2015, had it down to 17 percent. "A social movement is a reservoir of silent support and a surface level of active, vocal participation," says University of North Carolina sociologist Andrew Perrin, who's studied the political and cultural dimensions of Tea Party activism. That is, the less silent support there is, the fewer protesters at town halls.

And as Republicans have taken over Congress, conservative activists also may be splintering to focus on specific issues. Take 33-year-old Jason Vaughn of Denton, Texas, who started going to Tea Party rallies and meetings in mid 2010. "I am passionately small government," he told me. But he's since dropped out to focus on specific issues—pro-life lobbying and marijuana legalization.

The sometimes-contradictory mix of policy preferences inside the movement also may be exerting centrifugal force. Ronald Rapoport of the College of William and Mary specializes in third-party movements. He notes that small government was the Tea Party's key issue, one that Trump mostly ducked in the campaign. In polls of Tea Party supporters by Rapoport and colleagues in January 2016 during GOP primary season, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and even Ben Carson polled ahead of Trump. Lawrence Rosenthal, who runs UC-Berkeley's Center for Right-Wing Studies, said that when he was monitoring Tea Party forums during the Republican primaries last year there were "ferocious fights" between pro-Trump populists and pro-Cruz conservatives. It's possible there are Cruz supporters who voted for Trump in the general election but don't feel passionately enough about him to defend the president at town halls.

One thing is certain—the current ground war matters. A spokesman for FreedomWorks, which helped launch the Tea Party movement in 2009, didn't make anyone available to respond to specific questions. But he pointed to an op-ed in the Washington Examiner by FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon. "While [liberal activists] are wrong in thinking that Americans share their progressive politics, they are right in thinking that victory can only be won at the grassroots level," wrote Brandon. "The next six months are critical."

What will matter even more are the 2018 midterms. McClintock alluded to that in response to one of his questioners. "I think you will find votes I have cast have the support of the vast majority of people in this district," he said. "The moment they don't, there'll be somebody else standing here." That got both sides cheering.

Steven Yoder writes about criminal justice and domestic policy issues. His work has appeared in Salon, Al Jazeera America, the American Prospect, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter.