Ep. 31: A World-Wide Tea Party with Tea Party Co-Founder Michael Johns

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Episode Description

“I did state, and I wasn’t alone in this, that we would take the country back. By that I meant that we would have a political leadership position in the House, the Senate, and, ultimately, the White House. And check, check and check, we have accomplished all three of those.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael Johns is a co-founder of the Tea Party movement, a former presidential speechwriter to George H.W. Bush, and former policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In this first part of our interview, he gives us the story behind the Tea Party movement. It was, and is still, an inclusionary, grassroots movement based on three principles: adherence to the constituition, limited government, and low taxation. The decentralization inherent in the Tea Party and its broad founding principles made it easy to get involved in––and nearly impossible to oppose. However, it meant that leadership would often be blamed for events that were out of their hands.

Be sure to tune in to an objective, in-depth analysis of the Tea Party’s rise and culmination.

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Show Notes (abridged script)

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Early Career in Politics and Policy

Enthusiasm and an Open Mind

In 11th and 12th grade, Michael started to develop an interest in the public policy issues surrounding the Reagan Administration and in that general time period.

“I’d say my interest in politics, public policy and government predates the formation of any ideological positions on any of these issues. I distinctly remember getting very intrigued with it conceptually. Over time…I came to develop a fairly mainstream conservative position.” ~ Michael Johns

Rather than entering the political sphere with a certain ideological viewpoint, Michael realized how important engagement in government was. He gives the example of being simultaneously involved in both the Republican Party and an environmental awareness group. He says, “I was really wide-eyed at that time and didn’t really see the contradictions [between the two groups.”

The Power of an Open Mind

“I came into it completely open minded. My positions were thoughtfully developed by first hand experiences.” ~ Michael Johns

One example of these first hand experiences Michael gives was attending the University of Miami, where many of his best friends were Cuban-American refugees who had escaped the Communist Rule of Fidel Castro. Such stories helped him develop an appreciation for liberty and individual rights.

“I went out to the then-Nicaraguan Contras in the mid-1980s. I was one of the first Americans to get out to the base camps.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael was heavily involved with the College Republicans at the University of Miami. His involvement in the party helped open up opportunities to intern in Washington DC in the House of Representatives. He was also apart of the National Journalism Center, which was a program for conservatives interested in broadcast and journalism.

Later Career

 Heritage Foundation

“I was at the Heritage Foundation through the end of the Cold War through some really dynamic periods of time. From there everything kind of blossomed.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael was a foreign policy analyst who specialized in developing world issues. After working at the Heritage Foundation for five years, many opportunities to work in government opened up for him.

Post-Heritage Career

Michael worked with former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean on the 9/11 commission, then in the White House as a speechwriter for President George HW Bush, and then in the Senate with Olympia Snowe.

“I really felt in the ’90s and even after that, that there was good opportunity to form consensus on these issues…but we’ve now developed quite the divided country.” ~ Michael Johns

Co-Founder of the National Tea Party Movement

“I did state, and I wasn’t alone in this, that we would take the country back. By that I meant that we would have a political leadership position in the House, the Senate, and, ultimately, the White House. And check, check and check, we have accomplished all three of those.” ~ Michael Johns

The Synopsis

After the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, calls came for a National Tea Party to reject the president’s policies. Michael became heavily involved in giving strategic counsel for the national political and policy direction of the movement.

“It’s the largest grassroots political movement in American history.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael credits the Tea Party Movement for helping take back the House and Senate, and he believes, for laying the ground for the Trump Administration.

“It was hardly an example of exceptional strategic planning. A number of us had seen the Rick Santelli telegram on CNBC, and we were feeling the same way.” ~ Michael Johns

How the Tea Party Got Underway

There was an absolute demoralization of the Republican Party after the 2008 Election cycle. Conservatives lost control of government, academia, and the media. Michael describes that even the Washington, D.C. movement, if it even existed, was totally out of touch with the people.

“The Washington, D.C. based movement had become increasingly disengaged from citizens. It wasn’t interacting with them, communicating with them, soliciting their input or ideas.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael and his colleagues saw the opportunity to get this grassroots movement going and underway. It would be less structured than past organizations and movement, but also open to all Americans who agreed with the nation’s founding principles.

“The idea was not to be exclusionary but inclusionary…you don’t have to be a Republican to be in the Tea Party movement. We’ve had Democrats, Libertarians, members of the Constitutional Party.” ~ Michael Johns

Three Founding Principles

“I think there was almost a careless disregard for [the Constitution] among policymakers.” ~ Michael Johns

There were three, broad principles to guide the Tea Party movement. First, adherence to the Constitution. All around the country, Michael describes, not just in the Obama Administration, governments were not being guided by the Constitution.

“The powers afforded the Federal Government are clearly enumerated in the Constitution.” ~ Michael Johns

The second founding principle was limited government. Government needed to be limited by what was specifically described in the Constitution.

“In all ways the country was overtaxed…making us completely uncompetitive.” ~ Michael Johns

Third, the movement wanted to reform the tax code. Michael discusses how taxes in the US had been the highest in the developed world. They were penalizing the middle class and hurting the US on a global scale.

Gaining Momentum

“We initially went into it with an idea that we would have this great one day with national events all over the country…I don’t think any of us full appreciated that it would be a historical undertaking, or even would sustain itself beyond April 15.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael spoke at the Boston Commons before 14,000-15,000 people. Throughout the day there were many events organized by the Tea Party that, Michael estimates, attracted a small seven figure audience.

“The grassroots political movement is not really micromanaged.” ~ Michael Johns

The Tea Party wasn’t a movement with a central leader or even group. It was inclusive enough that people with dissenting opinions were able to participate. Michael describes having people even challenge his beliefs, as a leader in the movement. Yet, it was something he welcomed and that fostered the inclusivity the movement was about. It ended up being a way to get Americans involved in politics itself.

“We knew there were tens of millions of Americans out there who wanted to do something, whatever that vague phrase means, but didn’t know exactly what to do.” ~ Michael Johns

The Pros and Cons of a Grassroots Movement

Inclusion and Openness

“We weren’t going to be able to do that with fifty, a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand people. We knew it was going to take millions of people.” ~ Michael Johns 

The major strength, and what led the movement in the grassroots direction, was the belief that policy change in the country comes through the masses. Allowing the American people to have the voice in the movement really led the movement to success.

“The benefit was, and remains, that tens of millions of Americans–literally larger than the Civil Rights Movement and Anti-Vietnam War movement–were drawn into the Tea Party movement because there was no distinct barrier to entry.” ~ Michael Johns

The Indefensible Opposition

“We forced this elite that had been driving a lot of national sentiment to defend what became an indefensible position of governmental intrusion and expansion that the American people didn’t support.” ~ Michael Johns

The second benefit was that since there was a universal appeal, the movement was very difficult to oppose. Tea Party opposition needed to explain why they were against the tax cuts, why the supported larger government, and what was wrong with the country’s founding principles.

“If you’re not apart of this, what is your specific problem with the Constitution? Why do you believe in big government as opposed to limited governmnent? And why are you defending these high tax rates?” ~ Michael Johns

The Downsides

In having such an open, decentralized movement, criticism was acutely focused on the Tea Party’s Leadership for actions that did not involve them. As the movement moved beyond the US, it began to encompass a diverse set of ideas. Consequently, its founders were targeted as the cause of sometimes disagreeable events.

“The Tea Party movement has manifested in Europe, its manifested in Japan, its manifested in many countries. It’s inspired the world, not just this country.” ~ Michael Johns

Another downfall was in finding the middle ground between the feeling that you can change the world and the feeling that you can’t do anything. The council wanted to assure that people didn’t take on more than they could handle, but also that they would be confident enough to try to make change.

“If I had anything I could change in this movement right now with the snap of a finger, it would be to get everyone to realize that we need to work together. That the communal nature of this is the whole foundation of its success.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael would go to different areas of the country and find multiple different Tea Party organizations in the same place. Just because they’d disagreed on a few policies, they had splintered their force by breaking into several different groups.

Tea Party Policy

The Tea Party took a national stance against some of the Obama Administration’s policies that they felt violated the three founding principles. Michael brings up the example of ObamaCare, which was proposed very early on in the Obama Presidency. The Tea Party opposed it not only because it was bad healthcare policy, in Michael’s words, but because it was a violation of the Constitution.

“It was inherently unconstitutional on a whole bunch of levels. To start with, the ObamaCare statute penalized Americans who chose not to participate in it.” ~ Michael Johns

Michael agreed with President Obama that forty million uninsured Americans was a tremendous problem for the United States; however, he felt that ObamaCare was a policy meant to fill a special-interests vacuum. Ultimately, Michael says it was unsuccessful. Polls after its passage said that if there were not the individual mandate, many of the insured Americans would drop out of the exchanges.

“There’s no more issue, I believe, in this country that will get people more riled up quickly than something that is perceived to be threatening to their access to healthcare.” ~ Michael Johns 

The Fight Against Universal Healthcare

“I believe every significant national political development and accomplishment that we’ve had since 2009 has stemmed out of the grassroots of American engagement through the Tea Party movement.” ~ Michael Johns 

Michael tells of how the Tea Party’s forces really helped them, not only fight the Democrats, but also get Tea Party representatives into government. McCain and Romney, Michael says, lost in 2008 and 2012, respectively, because they did not get involved in the Tea Party in a significant manner.

“We instead threw out all of this…that we would repeal ObamaCare, while knowing factually and instinctually that we weren’t going to be able to repeal it with him in the White House.” ~ Michael Johns 

Michael discusses a few of the other options Republicans mulled over during this period. But he also tells of the failures of ObamaCare to actually help people; the evidence comes from the Left’s failure to promote the “saved.”

“The American Left in this country is very symbol oriented. They are incredibly politically astute–they do a much better job than we do, almost all the time on these things. Had there been individuals out there whose lives had been saved by ObamaCare you and I would both know their names right now.” ~ Michael Johns 

He says that while the law sounded like good policy, once you drill down to its core, there is really nothing substantial in it. In our interview he gives a few specific examples.

The Emergence of Trump at the Tea Party

The Tea Party also championed foreign policy, energy policy, and national security, for example. Its passion regarding these policies were what created such an intense momentum leading to Donald Trump’s election.

“Donald Trump in 2011 spoke at his first Tea Party event in Palm Beach, Florida. He got in his limo after that and said, “Wow.” He was impressed with the magnitude of attendance, political engagement, and support for his message.” ~ Michael Johns 

Part of that message involved Trump’s stance on trade, which deviated from conventional conservative thought. Michael says helped him endorse Trump on the first day of his campaign in 2015. He believed that Trump would not be tied down by the special interest groups that typical Republican presidents are.

The Fall of Cruz, Rubio, and Rand Paul Among Tea Party Voters

“These are three guys we got elected. These are three guys who ran talking about almost nothing but the Tea Party movement…but if you look at the polling of self-identified Tea Party voters, Donald Trump led from the day of his announcement in 2015. That support only galvanized and grew in the year and half of his candidacy.” ~ Michael Johns 

However, Trump was not the candidate that came to people’s minds when they thought of the Tea Party. In fact, Michael discusses how three other candidates in 2016–Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul–were much better situated to gain the Tea Party’s support.

“Donald Trump was a Tea Party candidate, and I believe he’s a Tea Party President.” ~ Michael Johns

Bills with Luke Scorziell does not provide investment, tax, or legal advice or recommendations. This material is solely intended for educational purposes based on publicly available information and may change at any time. Additionally, this article’s content is a summary of the Interviewee’s comments and, while rephrased by the Author, are not from the Author himself.

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