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Conservatives and Anger

Bryan T Gervais and Irwin L. Morris

American colonists were angry in December 1773 when they boarded a British commercial vessel and dumped tons of tea into Boston harbor. Similarly, 21st- century Americans were angry when they railed against the federal response to the Great Recession in advance of the 2008 election and—even more vociferously— following the election of America’s first African-American President Barack Obama. Closing in on two years since the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016, Obama offered his first public direct critiques of the man who once promoted conspiracy theories about his place of birth. In a speech to a group of college students in early September 2018, Obama reflected on the current polarized, divisive state of American politics:

It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not a cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years—a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past, but also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.

Taylor, 2018

This anger that fueled the mass Tea Party after 2008 was ostensibly incited by economic conditions and the country’s ballooning debt. But a growing body of research on the attitudes and opinions of the rank-in-file adherents of the Tea Party movement paints a more complex picture of the locus of pent-up anger and resentment. Whether economic anxieties catalyzed this angry resentment, cultural, racial, and ethnic resentment drove Tea Party identifiers among the mass public (Cramer, 2016; Hochschild, 2016; Parker & Barreto, 2014; Skocpol & Williamson, 2012).

In our book on the Tea Party movement—specifically the Tea Party movement as it manifest in the House of Representatives during the 112th and 113th Congresses—we find that legislators who consistently and aggressively cultivated an attachment to the Tea Party fomented these latent resentments via uncivil and affective rhetoric in social media postings (Gervais & Morris, 2018). Strong thematic similarities exist between the doom-and-gloom (or “sad”) and uncivil tweets of Tea Party members and that of the then President Donald Trump. We argue that these legislators fanned the flames of resentment in the years prior to Trumps rise, as alluded to in the aforementioned Obama quote.

Yet, Tea Party members were not alone in fanning the flames. Indeed, no explanation of Trump’s ascension or the Tea Party movement can be complete without a discussion of the conservative media establishment. The Tea Party movement in the mass public was inspired and sustained by a segment of the conservative media establishment known as the “outrage industry” that includes the Fox News Channel, conservative talk radio, and digital content (Berry & Sobieraj, 2013; Skocpol & Williamson, 2012). “Outrage” rhetoric, per Berry and Sobieraj’s (2013) definition, is a rhetoric that is purposefiilly used to provoke emotion and often features malfeasant inaccuracy to diminish targets (pp. 6-7). The stoking of anger by these outlets, the authors would later write, helps explain a context in which Donald Trump secures electoral victory (Berry & Sobieraj, 2016). Before creating conditions for Trump’s rise, the outrage industry helped to create conditions for the Tea Party As Berry and Sobieraj (2013) argue, the mass Tea Party movement and the outrage industry enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The outrage industry validated and promoted Tea Party activists while also fomenting feelings of resentment. “Outrage” outlets, in turn, were rewarded with great material; mobilized, fixated niche audiences; and validation for the ominous warnings of many “outrage” personalities about the threat the Obama administration posed (pp. 181-182).

While much is understood about the relationship between the Tea Party in the public and outrage industry, less is understood about the link between outrage media and the Tea Party in Congress. In this chapter, we expand our examination of the affective component of House Tea Party messaging in the 113th Congress, focusing specifically on the extent to which anger was a constitutive part of House Tea Party communications and how the communication of anger by certain groups of Tea Party House members parallels rhetoric found in segments of the outrage industry (Berry & Sobieraj, 2013).

In the next section, we provide some basic background on the Tea Party movement, and we describe the manifestation of the movement in the Republican Caucus of the House in the 112th and 113th Congresses. We explain how there were different types of Tea Party legislators, and we describe the differences (and, in one important case, the similarity) between them. In discussing these differences, we focus on two key dimensions: support received by legislators from Tea Party organizations and legislators’ own efforts to attach themselves to the movement. We discuss how support and attachment were related to constituency characteristics and to legislators’ policy-making behavior. As we elaborate on a particular dimension of the emotional messaging of Tea Party members’ social media communications—anger in Twitter feeds—we explain how the angry rhetoric of members attached to the Tea Party is akin to outrage industry messaging during the Obama presidency. We conclude by discussing the potential social and political implications of the anger messaging of legislators who attached themselves to the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party in the House: Black Tea, Green Tea,

White Tea, and Coffee

As we note in Reactionary Republicanism (2018), determining which members of Congress are members of the Tea Party and which are not has proven to be surprisingly difficult. Some scholars use organizational endorsements from Tea Party organizations (Karpowitz, Monson, Patterson, & Pope, 2011; Bullock & Hood, 2012). Other scholars rely on members’ self-identification—i.e., membership in the House Tea Party' Caucus (and, in some cases membership in the Freedom Caucus and/or the Liberty Caucus)—to determine association with the Tea Party movement (e.g., Ragusa & Gaspar, 2016; Gervais & Morris, 2012). Another measurement strategy is to use an authoritative source for identifying Tea Party members. Carson and Pettigrew (2013) use the New York Times coding of Tea Party legislators for their analysis. Unfortunately, these various methods produce substantially different lists of Tea Party' members.

Many House members with ties to the Tea Party—including some who received campaign contributions from Tea Party' organizations and/or endorsements from these same organizations—never joined the Tea Party Caucus. Just as the Tea Party movement never had an umbrella organization that clearly subsumed the great number of Americans who attended Tea Party' events, contributed to one of many Tea Party' groups, and/or thought of themselves as associated with the movement, membership in the Tea Party' Caucus failed to capture the full scope of the movement in the House.

Existing measurement strategies have proven to be problematic because House Republicans had a rather more complex relationship with the Tea Party' movement than previously realized. Specifically, the association between the movement and House Republicans was a two-way street, and traffic did not always go both ways. In some cases, Tea Party organizations made efforts to support certain House Republicans. In some cases. House Republicans actively cultivated identification with the Tea Party movement. In other cases, both occurred. In a final set of cases—or for a final group of members—neither occurred.

We conceptualize the bidirectionality' of Tea Party association by distinguishing between organizational support and member attachment. House Republicans who made the most concerted efforts to attach themselves to the TP movement were different from those Republicans who did not—whether they received support from organizations in the movement. The distinctiveness of these attachment-oriented Republicans—members who we refer to as “Black Tea” or “Green Tea” depending on whether they received significant support from TP organizations—had several important facets, but the one that is of most significance for our purposes here is the high level of anger communicated through their social media activity, specifically, their Twitter feeds. Because of this extensive communication of anger, we see these legislators as playing an important role in the “outrage industry.” We elaborate on this later.

Our theory of Tea Party association highlights the two key problems with existing coding schemes. First, all fail to capture the dramatic variation in organizational support and the considerable variation in members’ efforts to align themselves with the movement. Second, none of existing measures capture the underlying dimensionality of the relationship between member and movement. Existing measures focus on organizational support or member efforts to attach to the movement. Strategic considerations drive both Tea Party' support and Tea Party' attachment, but the loci of the strategic decisions differ. Tea Party organizations make the decision to align with a legislator. Members of Congress make the decision to align with the Tea Party movement. As the decision-makers vary, so do the strategic considerations that drive the decision.

Tea Party organizations have policy goals. Tea Party organizations may focus their energies on helping candidates and current members with compatible policy objectives win in particularly competitive electoral environments or they may focus their resources on “true believers,” the set of members whose policy preferences are the most closely aligned with the Tea Party' organizations. Legislators also make strategic decisions when determining the extent to which they will align with the Tea Party movement. Joining the Tea Party' Caucus (or the Liberty Caucus or later the Freedom Caucus) communicates a member’s attachment to the movement, but legislators can signal attachment through other means as well. Striving to identify with the Tea Party likely reflects some appreciation for and fidelity to the movement.

In some cases, the association between a legislator and the Tea Party' movement is bidirectional. Some legislators attach to the movement, and organizations associated with the movement support the legislator. Conversely, some legislators who never received support from Tea Party organizations repudiate the movement themselves. But there may also be situations in which the association between a legislator and the Tea Party movement is a one-way street; for example, a legislator’s efforts to attach to the movement may not be reciprocated with support, or a legislator may ignore the electoral support of Tea Party organizations. We reason that there are two largely distinct dimensions of Tea Party' association: Tea Party' Support and Tea Party' Attachment.

Our measure of Tea Party Attachment is based on (1) whether the legislator was a member of the Tea Party Caucus or the Liberty Caucus, (2) Tea Party self-identification via social media (Twitter), and (3) a measure of media salience of the legislator’s connection to the Tea Party. Our measure of Tea Party Support: (1) endorsements by Tea Party organizations, (2) campaign contributions from and independent expenditures by Tea Party-related PACS, (3) and a measure of Tea Party activist support (see Gervais & Morris, 2018, chapter 3). Given these dimensions—Tea Party Support and Tea Party Attachment—we create a typology of Republican House members’ association with the Tea Party movement. The particular types are as follows:

  • 1. Black Tea: Members who receive significant support from Tea Party organizations and make significant efforts to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement (e.g., Justin Amash (MI-3), Michele Bachmann (MN-6), Jason Chaffetz (UT-3), Steve King (IA-4), Raul Labrador (ID-1), and Allen West (FL-22)).
  • 2. Green Tea: Members who receive little or no support from Tea Party organizations but make significant efforts to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement (e.g., Todd Akin (MO-2), Randy Neugebauer (TX-19), Jeff Duncan (SC-3), Louie Gohmert (TX-1), and Tom Price (GA-6)).
  • 3. White Tea: Members who receive significant support from Tea Party organizations but make little or no effort to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement (e.g., Renee Ellmers (NC-2), Michael Grimm (NY-11), Reid Ribble (WI-8), and Daniel Webster (FL-11)).
  • 4. Coffee: Members who make little or no effort to attach themselves with the Tea Party movement and who receive little or no support from Tea Party organizations (e.g., Spencer Bachus (AL-6), Shelley Moore Capito (WV-2), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), John Shimkus (IL-15), and Mac Thornberry (TX-13)).

These different types of Tea Party legislators varied in other ways as well. First, they served distinctive congressional districts. Some of the most interesting disparities between the constituents of the various types of Tea Party legislators involve the singular distinctiveness of the Green Tea constituencies. While districts served by Green Tea legislators were not economically unusual in either the 112th or 113th Congress—with unemployment rates greater than Black Tea districts, less than White Tea districts, and relatively comparable to Coffee districts—they were distinctive in their racial profile and in their support (or opposition) to President Obama. House districts served by Green Tea Republicans had a higher percentage of African Americans than the districts served by Black Tea, White Tea, or Coffee Republicans. Green Tea districts also had the lowest levels of support for (or highest levels of opposition to) Obama. Given the large African-American populations in these Green Tea districts, this implies a singularly high level of opposition to Obama among the white population.

Second, they took different positions on key types of public policy issues. Based on our comparison of DW-Nominate scores—a widely used measure of voting-based measures of legislator ideology—Black Tea and Green Tea House members were significantly more conservative than White Tea and Coffee House members. In the 113th Congress—the focal time period of our analysis here— Green Tea Republicans were the most conservative group of Republicans in the House. Coffee representatives—those who made little or no effort to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement and who received little or no support from Tea Party organizations—were the least conservative Republicans in the House in both the 112th and 113th Congresses. The particular character of conservatism is also of interest. In the 113th Congress, Tea Party Attachment was associated with more conservative voting patterns on issues of social policy and civil rights policy—policy that has significant implications for minority communities. House Republicans who made the most concerted and extensive efforts to attach themselves to the Tea Party movement built the most socially and racially conservative voting records.

One interesting way in which the various Tea Party types were similar—or at least not demonstrably distinct—was in their legislative activity and productivity. Conventional wisdom regarding the Tea Party in Congress was that the members most closely aligned with the Tea Party tended to be “back benchers” or legislators focused on advertising to the detriment of actual legislating (or policymaking). We simply find no evidence of this. While Coffee Republicans tend to be slightly more senior than the various Tea Party Republicans, the Black, Green, and White Tea Republicans are no less institutionally active or legislatively productive than their Coffee colleagues.

There was a final way in which Black and Green Teas were distinct from other Republican House members: When it came to their digital rhetoric (i.e., tweets issued by their official Twitter accounts), they were more likely to be uncivil. In this regard, they have much in common with a subset of personalities and programs within the conservative media—the so-called outrage industry. We suspect this is not the sole similarity between the rhetoric of Tea Party members. Rather, we expect that an examination of the “angry” rhetoric offered by the Tea Party legislators will reveal a focus on themes and arguments also espoused by outrage hosts.

There would certainly be advantages in doing so. The conservative media establishment has worked to minimize cleavages in the Republican voting coalition and—particularly when Republicans do not control the White House— produce an engaged and outraged Republican electorate (Berry & Sobieraj, 2013; Jamieson & Cappella, 2008). This dynamic presents opportunity for Republican legislators—especially those who wished to channel the anger among the grassroots Tea Party, provoked and sustained by the outrage industry. We would expect angry rhetoric to serve as a tool for those who made effect to attach themselves to the movement (Black and Green Teas). That is, like the “outrage industry,” Tea Party members in the House were incentivized to foment resentment among the conservative base and demonstrate that they are making common cause with the Tea Party movement. These goals might be accomplished by expressing outrage and frustration with the targets of “outrage” commentary.

So who were these targets? We next provide an overview of some of the issues outrage hosts were focused on in the years following the inception of the Tea Party movement.

Themes in the Outage Industry

Berry and Sobieraj (2013) note that the outrage industry often covers the same stories being discussed in the mainstream media. The fundamental difference, however, is that those in the outrage industry “transform and intensify the conversation by drawing on a range of tools that dramatize the buffoonery, intrigue, and perilousness of the news at hand” (p. 46). Nonetheless, there are some general themes that emerge. One key theme of the outrage industry’s coverage was to portray the Obama administration as tyrannical, often by making analogies to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. When President Obama attributed the ballooning national debt to causes that predated his presidency, Glenn Beck compared this tactic to Hitlers criticism of the Weimar Republic (p. 48). On the issue of environmental protection, Beck compared A1 Gore’s environmental speeches to Nazi propaganda while conservative radio host Michael Savage compared Obama’s appointment of Van Jones as environmental czar to the Nazis, even accusing the Obama administration of seeking to create a personal army of “green shirts” (p. 49). Health-care reform was another salient issue, on which conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh compared the Affordable Care Act to the origins of National Socialism in Germany (p. 49). Similarly, on the issue of gun control, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly compared supporters of tighter gun control to fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini (p. 49).

A staple of the conservative media establishment has long been its disdain for the “ ‘cultural elite’—one that is godless, patronizing, and a threat to every value social conservatives cherish,” (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008, p. 64). Following the election of Obama, conditions were especially ripe for exploitation of anti-liberal elite sentiment among the Republican base. The organization of the mass Tea Party was in many ways an organization of this latent resentment. As Skocpol and Williamson (2012) argue:

Elites in the right-wing media and the netherworlds of ultra-conservative politics consciously play on whatever resentments or fears might be ought there to undercut the Democratic president of the day. . . . [Obama’s] academic achievements and social ties put him in league with the country’s intellectual elite, whose disdain feels very real to many Americans, and whose cosmopolitan leanings seem unpatriotic. . . . Tea Party activists are very concerned about liberal cultural elites, who they believe scorn most Americans.

(pp. 79-80)

Concern about liberal elites’ promotion of cosmopolitanism dovetails with two issues that were particularly salient among those in the outrage industry during the Obama presidency: race and immigration. As Berry and Sobieraj (2013, p. 52) highlight, “racism appears in outrage venues, which are overwhelmingly dominated by white male voices.” For some, such as Michael Savage, this has included pushing a narrative that immigration (both illegal and legal) and multi- culturalism is destroying American culture (p. 52). Indeed, Savage’s radio show. The Savage Nation, proudly emphasizes its commitment to “borders, language, and culture.” Many in the outrage industry have focused in particular on the threat of illegal immigration. According to Berry and Sobieraj (2013, p. 52), this often involves anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as accusing illegal immigrants of “draining welfare, spreading disease, stealing American jobs, and committing crimes.” President Obama, himself, has also been a focal point of racial discussions in the outrage industry. Some, such as the “birther” movement, have questioned President Obama’s birth certificate and citizenship status (p. 52), with the implication that he was born in Kenya (not Hawaii), and thus his presidency is illegitimate. Others, such as Glenn Beck, even accused Obama of being racist toward whites (p. 53).

Anger and Outrage in Legislator Rhetoric

Demonstrating thematic similarities between the digital communication styles of Tea Party House members and the outrage industry requires more than just identifying commonalities in issues covered. Rather, a signature component of outrage media is its negative emotionality. Thus, our analysis of Tea Party tweets involves two stages: (1) demonstrate that Tea Party members were more likely to incorporate negative affect in their tweets and (2) after determining which tweets posted by Tea Partiers contained negative affect, identifying common themes.

In Reactionary Republicanism (2018), we accomplished the first step by measuring the presence of negative affect, including anger, in the tweets issued by the official Twitter accounts of Republican House members during the 112th and 113th congresses. Spanning from January 2011 to January 2015, this dataset consisted of 423,000 tweets; while this is far too many to hand-code, automated text analysis methods make coding the tweets for affect a feasible task. We opted to utilize Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), a dictionary-approach text analysis program (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). LIWC identifies words and word stems affiliated with discrete emotions and calculates the percentage of words of in a text that fall into each category. To estimate the presence of anger in a text, LI WC searches for a set of 230 words or word stems.

As we report in our book, one way that Black and Green Teas attempted to tap into and foment grassroot resentment was through “sad” rhetoric: Members high in Tea Party Attachment in the 113th Congress were more likely than other House Republicans to describe an America in decline, one in which dejected Americans had experienced losses at the hands of a failing and even abusive federal government led by Obama, and one in which certain groups were cherished and the American way of life was under threat. For instance, on the issue of declining hope, Michele Bachmann (R-MN) tweeted in January 2014, “Far too many Americans have given up hope trying to find work. 347,000 people over the past month alone,” and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) tweeted, “#Obummer: Americans continue to view the country on the wrong track. 6 years of #hope has changed into despair.”

However, it was not just sad rhetoric that Tea Party members were employing: They were also invoking anger. Specifically, those who attempted to attach themselves to the Tea Party in the 113th Congress used a greater number of angry words. Table 8.1 includes a modified, condensed version of the model we present in our book. Controlling for legislators’ conservatism, gender, the year they took office, and how active they were in posting to Twitter, we find that Tea Party attachment has a positive significant effect on the percentage of words used that were categorized as angry. Receiving support from the broader Tea

TABLE 8.1 Anger in the Tweets of 113th House Republicans



Tea Party Support

  • 0.00
  • (0.01)

Tea Party Attachment

  • 0.04”
  • (0.02)


  • 0.01
  • (0.07)


  • 0.00
  • (0.04)

Year took office

  • -0.00*”
  • (0.00)

Total tweets

  • 0.00
  • (0.00)


  • 8.32*”
  • (2.78)





The coefficients are the results of OLS. Standard errors in parentheses. *** p < 0.01, ** p < 0.05

Party movement was not significant—but newer members had a slightly smaller percentage of angry words.

In this chapter, we extend our analysis of uncivil rhetoric among Tea Party legislators to the emotion of anger. We suspect that these “angry” tweets had thematic similarities to the issues being discussed in the conservative “outrage industry”: tyrannical abuse of executive power by Barack Obama, grave concern about the threat to liberty that environmental, gun control, and other “liberal” policy posed, and concern over immigration and multiculturalism. In the next section, we explore the themes of Tea Party rhetoric, focusing on the content of the tweets containing “anger” words posted by Black and Green Teas—many of whom ranked among the “angriest” Republicans in the 113th Congress.

Abusive Obama: Threats to Freedom, Liberty, and the Constitution

Similar to “outrage industry,” one theme that Black and Green Teas focused in their angry tweets was how Obama, his administration, and the federal government more generally were subverting freedom, liberty, the Constitution, and the rule of law. Some of the tweets were clarion calls to counteract an expanding federal government. For example, Paul Gosar (R-AZ) tweeted to his followers, “#Constitution is under assault by activist judiciary & executive branch overreach. Our rights are in jeopardy. Retweet if you agree.” Raul Labrador (R-ID) encouraged his Twitter followers to read his newsletters with titles like “Stop New Policy that Violates Our Freedom”and “Stop Government Abuse & Protect Free Speech.”

Akin to concern among conservative commentators about the threat to freedom posed by environmental regulation, Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) tweeted in September 2014 that efforts were underway to “halt the EPA aggressive overreach on regulating every drop of water in the US as if all are Waters of US.” Similarly, Gosar warned his fellow Arizonans that “The EPA s war on coal could destroy # Arizona s energy' future,” and Todd Rokita (R-ID) tweeted a press release announcing that “Hoosiers Plave Suffered Enough Abuse from Federal Government.”

The idea that the federal government was not just a threat to liberty but actively “punishing” Americans was a theme that Tea Party members like Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) frequently espoused. For instance, Bridenstine tweeted in August 2014, “The Federal Government is now punishing Oklahoma for not conforming to federal control of education. #tcot.” In other tweets, he claimed that “the federal takeover of healthcare” was “punishing” the city of Tulsa, and that keeping Oba- macare alive was akin to punishing “millions of Americans.”

While the federal government in general was a focus of many tweets, most of the “angry” rhetoric was focused on abuse by Obama specifically. Rokita tweeted out a link to a podcast discussing “Obamas [sic] War on Liberty,” and Labrador warned that 2014 would see Obama deliver “more hostility toward Congress, and more threats to violate Constitutional duties.” Joe Wilson (R-SC), infamous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during an address session of Congress, tweeted in January 2014 his support for legislation sponsored by fellow Green Tea South Carolinian Tom Rice: “Proud to support @RepTomRice’s #STOPres which calls for action against President for abuse of executive power.”

Gosar echoed similar sentiments, tweeting that “Obama and Reid used extreme measures to force a bloated government full of waste, fraud and abuse to continue with business as usual,” and, in a reply to a follower’s query, proclaimed, “Rest assured, I’m doing everything I can to stop the abuse of power by Pres Obama & his Administration.” In other tweets, he specified specific targets of Obama’s abuse; he announced in one post, “House passed my amendment to ‘Stop Obama’s Assault on the Suburbs’. Feds have no business in local zoning decisions,” and in another, “Another day, another attack on the Second Amendment by the #Obama administration.” Bridenstine, too, referenced Obama’s “attack on the Second Amendment.” In a September 2013 tweet, he warned “POTUS is fundamentally antagonistic toward both the 2nd Amendment and U.S. independence from international law,” and in a July 2014 tweet, he recounted that Obama was “threatening to impose gun control by Executive Order in order to bypass Congress.”

Often, Black and Green Teas asserted that conservatives and Obama critics were the victims of the Obama administration’s aggression. Many of these tweets were focused on the IRS and former IRS head Lois Lerner, who were accused in 2013 of targeting Tea Party and conservative groups. Bachmann issued a number of tweets about this story, with the ostensible purpose of ginning up outrage. For example, she tweeted in May 2013, “Outrageous that the IRS is intimating Americans due to their political beliefs. This is a breach of power and we need answers.” In another, she posted, “Target tea party groups. . . get a bonus. Outrageous.” Huelskamp echoed this sentiment in his own tweet: “Target and harass conservatives in the Obama Administration get a BONUS! #outrageous.”

Tom Price (R-GA), too, issued a number of tweets about IRS abuse, stating that the “IRS targeted & harassed Americans.” Trent Franks (R-AZ) tied the IRS scandal to other civil rights abuses by the Obama administration, tweeting, “Obama Admin wiretaps press AND tries to intimidate opponents with audits. Hard to believe I’m looking at an AMERICAN paper.” The idea that Obama was an un-American would-be dictator had its proponents among Black and Green Teas. Ahead of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, Randy Weber (R-TX) (perhaps channeling conservative commentator Glenn Beck) tweeted, “On floor of house waitin [sic) on ‘Kommandant-In-Chef’ . . . the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it ‘А-Lying?’” In an equally hyperbolic November 2013 tweet, Bridenstine made the stakes abundantly clear: “President Obamas [s/c] attempt to rule by decree shows his contempt for, or ignorance of, the Constitution. Either way, its [s/c] dangerous. #tcot.”

148 Bryan T. Gervais and Irwin L. Morris

Fomenting Cultural and Elite Resentment

As we noted previously, scorn for the liberal cultural elite is another common theme among “outrage industry” commentators during the Tea Party era. However, “outrage” personalities were not alone among conservative elites trying to foment cultural resentment. In her extensive qualitative study of rural Wisconsin, Cramer (2016) describes rural consciousness and resentment, which she defines as an identification with rural people/places and a multifaceted resentment against urbanites, liberal public employees, and liberal elites. She asserts that Republicans like the Tea Party-aligned Wisconsin governor Scott Walker attempted to take advantage of these latent feelings of resentment. We find evidence that Black and Green Teas also attempted to tap into and foment resentment toward these groups.

Specifically, Tea Party House members disdainfully reflected on liberal elites and their apparent contempt for “every day Americans.” Lamalfa, in a pair of tweets, promoted a story that the “architect” of Obamacare (the MIT economist Jonathan Gruber) claimed the “stupidity” of American voter was necessary for the law to pass (see Skocpol, 2014). DeSantis announced “#ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber’s comments displayed an appalling contempt for the American people.” Huelskamp picked up on this story, too, tweeting “#Stupid: That is what #ObamaCares architect called Americans. Lack of transparency helped pass bill.” He added in another post, “This is what Liberals think about average Americans. #Stupid.”

Gruber was not the only “liberal elite” accused of being indifferent to or having contempt for average, hard-working, and honorable Americans. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)—unsubtly—attempted to induce outrage when he tweeted, “Sen Reid exempts some of his staff from #ObamaCare. Typical Washington elitism. Time to show some outrage America!” Huelskamp announced in one tweet, “Heading to send off brave Ft Riley soldiers to Iraq while Obama heads to 3 exclusive fundraisers with his uber-wealthy Friends #Outrageous.” Referencing former Attorney General Eric Holder, Huelskamp tweeted, “Holder hates voters: attacks marriage again & tramples on voter rights with new edict.”

The reference to “attacks on marriage” epitomizes another angle of this narrative—elite liberals are undergoing an assault on religious (Christian) and conservative values. Huelskamp in particular was apt to point out liberal hostility to these values; in one tweet, he announced “Dirty #HarryReid set to attack that pesky 1st Amendment, hopes to strip Americans of their #ReligiousLiberty.” In another 2014 post, he wrote, “More ridiculous catering to the Anti-family agenda, USDA is launching program for rural LGBT,” and asserted in another, “The Left’s #WarOnWomen continues. Most women reject King Obama’s attack on religious liberty.”

The hostiles in the war on religious liberty were not just members of the Obama administration or the federal government, as Huelskamp announced in a tweet “#ReligiousLiberty under assault by #TolerancePolice. Pastors forced 2 officiate Same-Sex ‘Marriages’ or face jail.” Following the passage of an anti- discrimination ordinance in Houston, TX, in 2015, Huelskamp tweeted, “Houston attacks #ReligiousLiberty under guise of anti-discrimination law.” He was joined by Bachmann, who accused the city of Houston of “attacking religious liberty' and freedom of speech” and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who argued that the subpoenaing of several Houston pastors amounted to “harassment for exercising 1st Amendment #religiousfreedoms.” Gosar, referencing a supposed “war on Christmas” waged by secular liberals, retweeted the line, ‘“I Dare the PC. Police’ to Punish Me for a ‘Merry Christmas’ Message”

Nonetheless, on many occasions, the Obama administration was accused of being indifferent or hostile toward Christians, Christian values, and religious liberty. Gohmert warned in a March 2014 tweet, “Under this admin, #religious- freedom has been under attack & our rights continue to be removed or penalized day by day,” and Huelskamp tweeted, #Obama Admin continues intimidation campaign to bully nuns #LittleSistersOfThePoor.” Matt Salmon (R-AZ) captured Obama’s indifference to Christian suffering and cultural elitism in a single July 2014 post: “ISIL demanding Christians flee or be killed. Where is @ BarackObama? Golfing on Marthas Vineyard. #Obamaspriorities.” Around the same time, Franks retweeted the following: “Obama Is Silent On Christians Being Crucified Tortured By ISIS, Chides Israel For Killing Terrorists! #Obama Failures.” The accusation that Obama lacked support for Israel, an important cause among conservative Evangelicals was common; as Ron DeSantis (R-FL) tweeted, “Obama doesn’t harbor intense hostility' towards Iran or Hamas like he does towards Israel and Bibi [referencing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] (and to the GOP).”

In a number of Black Green Tea tweets, ObamaCare was interpreted as a restriction on conservatives’ rights, particularly elements of the law concerning contraception. Among a long series of posts using the hashtag “#ObamaFailures,” Franks accuses Obama of “Attacking medical workers’ rights of conscience.” Likewise, Bridenstine shared a quote from the founder of Hobby Lobby—“Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law”—and argued that “Obamacare is forcing institutions like [the evangelical Oklahoma Wesley'an University] to violate their religious principles.”

In another “#ObamaFailures” tweet, Franks blames Obama for the “Assault on free speech and due process on college campuses.” This type of concern about “speech” on college campuses—i.e., who was invited to speak and who denied—was another theme. For instance, Lamalfa tweeted indignation regarding a speaking fee Hillary Clinton would be collecting from UNLV—arguing that UNLV should “repeal and replace with Condi Rice”—and retweeted former Black Tea member Allen West’s (R-FL) post, “What is our nation coming to, when a convicted cop killer is invited 2 speak at college commencement? Despicable.”

Threats from Immigration and Diversity

On July 4, 2016, Donald Trump—the de facto Republican nominee for president—tweeted, “With Hillary and Obama, the terrorist attacks will only get worse. Politically correct fools, won’t even call it what it is—RADICAL ISLAM!” A week later, he proudly proclaimed on Twitter, “AMERICA FIRST!”—a slogan with a dark, anti-Semitic, nationalist history (Bennett, 2017). With tweets like these, denouncing political correctness, multicultur- alism, and immigration—particularly from Latin America and countries with large populations of Muslims—Trump tapped into anxiety and resentment about a globalizing, diversifying America. Hochschild (2016) describes such feelings among Tea Party-aligned conservatives in Louisiana and their reactions to Trump’s ascension:

[T|hey felt under the eye of the “PC police.” In the realm of emotions, the right felt like they were being treated as criminals, and the liberals had the guns. So it was with joyous relief that many heard a Donald Trump who seemed to be wildly, omnipotently, magically free of all PC constraint. He generalized about all Muslims, all Mexicans, all women.

(p. 221)

This, too, was a theme of the outrage industry following Obama’s election, and it was a theme evident in the tweets of Black and Green Teas. The angry tweet rhetoric of Tea Party members in many ways foreshadowed Trump’s. Weber, for instance, discussed “American greatness,” proclaimed “Political Correctness is killing us. immigration,” and asked Obama to “put American first.” Consistent with Trump’s exclamations about “radical Islam,” Gohmert warned on Twitter that Americans must “fight Islamic #tyranny.” Also like Trump, Tea Partiers were critical of Obama’s reluctance to use the phrase “radical Islam.” In a pair of tweets on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Jeff Duncan lashed out on Obama, stating, ‘“The Islamic State is not Islamic’ might just be single dumbest thing an American President has ever said. Good Grief!” and “they call themselves that—define who the enemy is and defeat the enemy. Right now the enemy is violent Islamic extremists!”

Undocumented immigration from Mexico was a popular concern among Tea Party legislators and their constituents; as Tom McClintock (R-CA) tweeted to his followers, “Wherever I go, people express a growing anger over the illegal immigration that is overwhelming our southern border.” From what we can tell, members self-identifying as Tea Party members did little to quell this anger in their tweets during the 113th Congress. Often, discussion of illegal immigration from Mexico was framed as a national security issue. Gosar explained to his followers, “The #ImmigrationCrisis at our southern border isnt [sic] just a humanitarian crisis; its [sic] a threat to our national security,” and Huelskamp warned,

“#ObamasBorderCrisis is a national security threat. Terrorists apprehended on our porous border.”

Yet many others pointed out that Obama administration efforts to protect certain classes of undocumented workers (e.g., DACA recipients) amounted to subversion of the Constitution and a threat to American culture. As Gohmert proclaimed on Twitter “#Obama’s #amnesty is outrageous and an offense to the #Constitution,” an idea Bachmann concurred with, adding that it evinced Obama’s “contempt for Americans.” Black and Green Teas also suggested that undocumented immigrants were beneficiaries of social insurance and welfare programs. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) proclaimed in a tweet, “Most Americans would be offended that many citizens are homeless & hungry, while illegal immigrants receive fed funds.” Similarly, to fight against “executive amnesty,” Sam Johnson (R-TX) announced on Twitter his “No Social Security Numbers and Benefits for Illegal Aliens Act.”

Perhaps no member of Congress was more active in promoting the threat of illegal immigration and Obamas role in in protecting undocumented workers than Steve King (R-IA). In a May 2014 tweet, he warned that “Obama released 36,007 criminal aliens murderers [included].” In September 2014, King took to Twitter to congratulate former Alabama senator (and current Attorney General) Jeff' Sessions, remarking, “Senator Sessions nails Obama & Senate Democrats for ‘executive amnesty’ & greedy assault on jobs of American workers.” In other posts he claimed that “Obama’s illegal alien drunken uncle Omar receives #Amnesty like his aunt. Three Obamas above law. Hat trick demolition of the Rule of Law” and that “The government is threatening to arrest people who expose health risks posed by illegal immigrants. #Backwards.” Beyond undocumented immigration, King warned about “political correctness” and abuses of power that come with enforcing it. He retweeted Glenn Beck’s claim that “McCarthyites [were] destroying lives for PC.” In regards to moves to end the use of the controversial name and logo of Washington’s NFL team, King tweeted in June 2014, “Obama raids Redskins by weaponizing USPTO. Cancels Redskins logo! Free people will not tolerate a Kim Jong POTUS.”

Trump’s election has seemingly accelerated concern about cultural threat—or emboldened those in Congress and the outrage industry to express views critical of a diversifying America. The culmination (or nadir) of King’s exhortations about cultural change, for example, would come after Trump’s inauguration, when, in praising a Dutch nationalist, he tweeted, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”


As some of the research in this volume have highlighted, “outrage” rhetoric served as a signature component of the conservative media establishment during the

Obama presidency. The contribution of this chapter is to demonstrate similarities between the rhetoric of outrage personalities and Tea Party Republicans during this same period. Our research on the Tea Party in the House demonstrates that members who made the greatest efforts to attach themselves to the movement also made the most consistent efforts to stoke opposition to Obama (and immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community) with emotional appeals to voters inclined toward social and racial conservatism. This finding might be disconcerting for many; emotional appeals are certainly part and parcel of American politics—and have been since before the founding—but when this is the primary mechanism for building constituencies and mobilizing voters, it becomes a significant obstacle to the types of thoughtful, fact-based negotiation and principled compromise on which good public policy is founded. As the emotional appeals of our Black Tea and Green Tea Republicans (and President Trump himself) feed seamlessly into the outrage, we are led to wonder if and when rational debate will work its way into the policy process again.

We end with two additional thoughts. First, future research must be directed toward a more thorough and complete understanding of the role of elected officials in the outrage industry. More specifically, we need to understand the interrelationship between the participation of elected officials and the nonelected contributors to the outrage industry. Who leads whom? That is, do legislators follow the cues of outrage industry? Or the vice versa? Or is it a truly reciprocal relationship? Previous research suggests the latter case, with political elites on Twitter influencing and being influenced by traditional media when it comes to the issues they discuss (e.g., Conway, Kenski, & Wang, 2015). However, given the uniqueness of Tea Party-type legislators and the outrage industry, a reciprocal relationship is not a given.

Other aspects regarding this interrelationship ought to be explored, as well. Are constituents who frequently access media outlets within the outrage industry more likely to receive the emotion-laden social media messages from their representatives? Or do the angry, uncivil tweets from representatives lead constituents to seek political information from outlets within the outrage industry? We have previously found evidence that members’ uncivil tweets have the greatest impact on constituents who are most active on social media (Gervais & Morris, 2018, pp. 225-230), but we lack a detailed understanding of this phenomenon and the related relationship between the social media activities of members of Congress and the outrage industry.

Second, we want to highlight the fact that affectively based political participation is exceedingly difficult to control (Gervais & Morris, 2018, pp. 168-186). Anger, once cultivated, may be turned in unexpected directions and focused on new targets. Likewise, new leaders and new candidates may use the anger for their own purposes—even if the targets of the anger remain the same. That is to say, contributing to the outrage can have potentially counterproductive effects. Consider the case of Black Tea and Green Tea House members and their endorsements for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Hardly any of these House Republicans endorsed Donald Trump (at least, Trump was rarely the initial endorsement). In the end, Candidate Trump was more effective in harnessing the anger fomented by House Tea Party Republicans than Candidate Ted Cruz (R-TX) (the candidate most often endorsed by these same House Tea Party Republicans). Cruz would join the ranks of Eric Cantor (R-VA), John Boehner (R-OH), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Paul Ryan (R-WI) as elites who once fomented resentment, only to see the forces of resentment turn on them (Ger- vais & Morris, 2018, pp. 55-65). The career trajectories of many of these latter Republicans expose the dangers of fanning the flames of simmering anger: if you play with fire, you are likely to get burned.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Who leads whom? That is, do legislators follow the cues of the outrage industry? Or vice versa? Or is it a truly reciprocal relationship?
  • 2. Are constituents who frequently access media outlets within the outrage industry more likely to receive the emotion-laden social media messages from their representatives? Or do the angry, uncivil tweets from representatives lead constituents to seek political information from outlets within the outrage industry?
  • 3. For political leaders, is there more to be gained or lost—in the long run—by fanning the flames of resentment?


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