The West Front of the Capitol is seen as work continues on the stand for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. Trump will be sworn in at noon on Jan. 20, 2017 as America's 45th president. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Dear Friends, What Changed in Seven Years?

“Every great cause starts as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

Think back to 2010. An unprecedented wave of conservative anger and grassroots involvement led to the most historic election victories for conservatism in my grandfather’s lifetime. 

Then, despite the 2012 presidential loss, in almost every other column, conservatives gained nationwide. By 2014, it was clear we weren’t going anywhere, and real policy began to flow from our efforts. Especially here in Wisconsin, we saw legislative victories in everything from school choice, and ending forced unionization, to taxation and second amendment reforms. Neighbors like Michigan began to make changes no one thought possible. Everywhere you turned, we were seeing a conservative renaissance that might have caused Oklahomans to shrug, but struck fear in the hearts of Californians. “Could it happen here?” Liberal introspection must have been painful. 

This was maybe the height of our movement; perhaps it’s death knell. Because, as the Tea Party movement matured, it recruited better candidates, honed its message, and moved beyond it’s more radical elements, those people went away. 

After a few years, our image became corrupted by competing elbows, impatient voices, and charlatans looking to take advantage of good intentions. Slowly, the calls from highly funded “grassroots” orgs came less often. The undercover consultants faded. The monthly meetings became quarterly, then not at all.

But, our legislatures became full with conservatives because of our hard work. 

Recently, at a public listening session, I attempted to ask a state Senator a simple follow up question about a three-year-old promise. To my shock, I was insulted, mocked, cursed at and shouted over by the two state legislators hosting the event. I have the audio to prove it. But, beyond the ability to prove that I’m telling the truth, I take pause at the fact that I would even need to. What happened to our movement?

I once sat in the man’s home, and shared a table with his family, and others while plotting his political comeback. This, after having lost his seat in a narrow loss, because he did the right thing, taking a vote that cost him his political career. It’s the kind of thing we imagine, but I saw it happen. So, I walked dozens of streets for something/someone I believed in. I had a hundred conversations, and used my sales skills at doors for a person I saw take a shot in the back for doing the right thing and not backing down. 

Now, he was leaning toward me and throwing f-bombs, for what he eventually admitted was anger, not over my issue that night, but get this… the presidential election, and my vocal opposition to the Trump candidacy. He specified my Facebook posts last year. Yes, really. 

I realized no, those earlier people never went away, and neither did their spirit of anger. They just got quiet again, until someone came along and gave them a platform that couldn’t be denied. Someone who didn’t need to get rich off them. A fighter that would fight, just for the sake of it. The anger, the vitriol… the crass, sporadic, unfiltered venom of people never before involved in politics was now driving the narrative of a greater conservative movement I felt hostage to. Someone who would shoot you in the face. And some of our leaders followed their lead. But I never expected I would lose so many friends over it, or watch men and women I respected change. I am not speaking about those who were silently resigned to voting against Hillary, but those who became vocal, consistent apologists for the unapologetic. The worst of our human impulses became acceptable, and it was now even preferred to be, in the words of the NIV, a “donkey.”

[On a side note, I’ve been waiting to use that reference for months, since hearing my evangelical brethren constantly equate trump to God’s use of Balaam’s “donkey.” Thank you for indulging me.]

Plato once said, “Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools, because they have to say something.”

This was the reincarnation of the Tea Party I once knew. From passionate resistance to a drunken brawl… and at our greatest moment of political opportunity, at that. 

One of those who suffered most for standing up against the baffling mutation of our community was our own Erick Erickson. But, some have seen it to a lesser degree. Our friends, and even family morphed from kind, if persistent people into children who you’d swear just watched you maim their puppy. 

I have often tried to figure out why some of my best conversations happen with liberal friends. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations. I know where they stand, but I don’t doubt their intentions. We have nothing to hide, and it seems we can show our colors easier than to those with whom we usually agree. Why is that? This last week, I collected a donation of oak tree saplings for our parks system, and found myself commiserating how to plant them with members of the local Sierra Club and other progressive greenies. What strange bedfellows local government can make! What gives? 

Maybe all the unity we achieved in the Tea Party era was blind faith. Perhaps it was just tolerance of people we didn’t really like, for the sake of political expediency. But, it could also have been that we simply needed a simple, common message – even apolitical – to bring us together. Then, when the rubber hit the road, things changed. Yet, I’ll likely never figure out what changed those I knew for years. Why the hearts of friends and family, and the souls of spiritual leaders could be so easily led astray, kinship dismembered. 

For now, I’ve grown relatively quiet in my personal circle on political matters, but I’m still an elected official in my community. It’s impossible to avoid potential conflict (Forget D.C., have you seen the local drama at your village hall?). If any of you find a better explanation for what happened to our movement, or how we came to this lonely place in 2017, please let me know. 

Until I find a better reason, I’m going to keep planting trees in my local park with liberals. At least they don’t make promises they won’t keep, while reaching into my wallet when I’m not looking.  

About the author

Ed Willing

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