So, is Donald Trump the Tea Party candidate? That is just another way of asking, is the Tea Party a libertarian movement or a right-wing populist movement. My answer has to be quite simply that I don't know. The Tea Party, like so many American political movements, is highly diffuse. Anyone who wants can start claim to be the Tea Party and act in its name. (Its far-right reputation limits who will want). Thus it is entirely possible for Tea Party donor, think tank and media elites to be libertarians while rank-and-file activists are populists. Certainly outsiders are not well qualified to tell.
When the Tea Party was founded, I said* that it looked like something new -- an attempt to build a populist movement entirely on economic conservatism, and that time would tell if such a thing was possible. It seems fair to say that the answer proved to be no. Republican candidates may be formally pledged to phase out Medicaid, turn Medicare into a voucher system, cut Social Security, and make major tax cuts in the top rates. But they dare not say so too openly because to do so is wildly unpopular, including with most of the Tea Party. Meanwhile, people who studied the Tea Party rank-and-file* found that they were not quite so libertarian as the leadership would like. Granted, their top issue was the deficit and cutting government spending. But as is so often the case, they had a rather specialized definition of "spending." Spending meant spending on the unworthy. They did not want to cut spending for worthy recipients, such as veterans, or seniors who had paid into the system. Thus they favored spending cuts on unemployment insurance, food stamps, housing subsidies and the like, but not on Social Security, Medicare or veteran's benefits. And they were not so absolutely averse to a tax increase at the Republican leadership -- so long as they weren't paying it to a Democratic administration. The other issue they felt very strongly about was illegal immigration. And certainly hardcore anti-immigration types are not shy about abandoning small government principles when he comes to immigrants. In short, the Tea Party looked like a sort of microcosm of the Republican Party -- a libertarian leadership and right populist rank and file.
And therein lies the problem, both for the libertarian Republican leadership and the populist rank-and-file. Or rather, two problems. One is political What is a party to do when the visions of its leadership and the vision of its followers are so strongly at odds? This difference was papered over during the Cold War because both factions were strongly hawkish. Maybe they can manage the same feat now in the War on Terror. But overall the rank-and-file have been expected to mobilize their passions on behalf of causes most did not share. Now they are threatening to take their revenge by choosing a leader diametrically opposed to what the party elite favors. "Trump poses a dire threat to the party: If elected, he could not be trusted to work for the Republican agenda. The party elite will oppose Trump with everything it has."
The other problem is practical. Just because a program is popular does not necessarily make it workable. Sometimes the elite takes its positions for a good reason. For instance, one of the reasons there is so much focus on cutting Social Security and Medicare is that as our population ages, those programs will take up a greater and greater share of the budget. Certainly, they will take up more of the budget than is spent on immigrants, so expelling immigrants (besides being expensive) will not make up for the costs of an aging population.
And then there is the political and practical matter of actually being elected. As Jonathan Chait puts it, "You can get rich being loved by a quarter of the country and hated by the rest, but you can’t get elected president that way. " And many of Trump's other traits -- his obnoxiousness, his bombast, his obvious lack of qualification to be President, his utter impracticality -- have presumably alienated some would-be supporters who might have voted for a more reasonable candidate with the same views. (Admittedly, they may also attract some who mistake obnoxiousness with principle and bombast with speaking truth to power).
In short, I still think that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President and is a panderer without principles. But this time around he has actually seized on a real issue that really matters.
*Was not able to hunt down link.