The Tea Party is over. In the way of parties that end, there are still people around. Those who remain search for a return of the old energy and make unconvincing demonstrations of people having a good time. But the central focus, the excitement, the purpose of the thing is dissipating. That is because the bad stuff that its members and boosters put out — lies, slanders, paranoia, ignorance — is losing what grip it had over the minds of people with minds. What’s left, though, is something else, which will not go away: the identification of moral choices blurred and contemporary indifferences ignored.
The core membership of the Tea Party is composed of people of the Christian faith, many of whom are devout Bible readers. The political scientists Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, who have researched the attitudes of Tea Party members, found that party members were more concerned with putting God into government than with trying to pull government out of people’s lives. They will thus know well the Sermon on the Mount, which is spread across Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, and which contains the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”
It also contains a verse (Matthew 7:15), which runs: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Tea Party has been rich in false prophets, but it is presently getting something of a comeuppance, in part because of its ravening.
The heat of the Republican primaries, in which the Tea Party’s themes have been well rehearsed, have, paradoxically, tended to melt rather than fire up the group’s stars. First, Rush Limbaugh, whose talk show is aired daily to millions of listeners, insulted a student, Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He did so because she had argued, at a Democratic committee hearing, for health coverage for contraceptives. Limbaugh’s comments went out first on Feb. 29. He repeated the slur in different forms in two more broadcasts — and then made a stilted apology, as advertisers pulled ads from his show. Behind the support for him voiced by his network you could sense the unspoken question: Where is Rush’s tipping point? When does he become more loss than profit?
Glenn Beck, once the major draw on Fox News, found his tipping point last year and left the network in June. Roger Ailes, head of the company, said Beck had been insufficiently focused on his show, since he did so much else — tours, rallies, radio shows, and books — to capitalize on his fame and notoriety (and the advertisers were deserting him after he called President Obama a racist).