Mask, COVID-19 vaccine mandates fuel new round of tea party protests

Tea Party Patriots faded from prominence during the Trump administration but now plans dozens of rallies around the country Wednesday, spurred into action by government mandates for masks and COVID-19 vaccines.

Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the group, said the anger nationwide over mandates reminds her of the rage that gave birth to the tea party 12 years ago. The outrage over the government’s response to the pandemic, she said, is driving a new generation of conservative activists.

“There is a similar kind of anger and a similar willingness to speak out in the first year of the Biden administration as in the first year of the Obama administration,” Ms. Martin said.

Still, the new generation isn’t your typical tea partyers. Many are working with the movement but not necessarily joining tea party organizations.

Tea Party Patriots is staging at least 28 rallies in 17 states to protest local government and hospital requirements of masks and vaccines.

The rallies, often organized as sign-waving events, will also protest President Biden’s order this month for new regulations for businesses with more than 100 employees to require workers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. He also ordered the vaccine mandate for federal and health care workers.

The debate over the mandates fits neatly within the tea party’s core tenet of opposing government overreach.

“The government is deciding a one-size-fits-all solution to health care treatment,” said Ms. Martin, now honorary chairwoman of Tea Party Action. “That simply should not be the case. Individuals should be making decisions with their doctors.”

The newcomers to the tea party are younger than the over-50 crowd who first put the movement on the political map by crashing lawmakers’ town hall meetings and railing against runaway spending, Obamacare and the trampling of the Constitution.

The new blood in the movement tends to be parents of small children, said Ms. Martin.

“I think they’re concerned about the impact on their children,” she said.

While Ms. Martin disagreed that the tea party had faded from the political scene, she acknowledged that “there wasn’t as much to protest during the Trump years.”

She also said the group has moved cautiously to stage protests or rallies in the wake of political violence that has swept the country, including pro-Trump protesters’ storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Since January, for obvious reasons, we’ve been careful about calling people to action,” she said. “It’s also not just about what happened in January. When the riots were happening around the country last summer, a lot of our members were worried, are we going to be safe if we do this?’”

Former tea party leaders said the movement is absorbed by the cultlike following of former President Donald Trump.

“All those groups, the Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express, all sort of have gone by the wayside in many ways,” said Ken Crow, former president and co-founder of the Tea Party of America. He also blamed the dissipation of the movement on “corruption at the top level.”

Mr. Crow detailed his misgivings with tea party leadership in his 2016 book “Ego in a Tea Bag: How Greed, Corruption and Deceit Threaten a Great American Movement.”

Brandon Steinhauser, the lead organizer of the 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, said the tea party groups have become less active as members move on to different outlets for their activism.

“The movement itself changed. Some got involved in political campaigns. Some became involved in school boards and became watchdogs. Now it’s all part of the soup of the Republican Party — the Trump voters, the tea party, the Christian conservatives and different activists,” said Mr. Steinhauser, a political consultant in Texas who managed Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s reelection campaign.

Mr. Steinhauser also said the focus of the movement has shifted.

“I think the big difference is that at the height of it, we were a grassroots effort to hold politicians accountable,” he said.

He noted that the tea party didn’t make a peep as the federal deficit ballooned by $7.8 trillion under Mr. Trump and that cultural issues such as COVID-19 mandates capture the attention of conservatives as much as the liberal spending spree in Washington.

Ms. Martin and Mr. Crow both said Mr. Biden’s proposed tax hikes and $3.5 trillion social welfare bill were fueling conservative anger.

Yet Ms. Martin cited the mask and vaccine mandates as the prime reason for taking the movement back to the streets, despite concerns about political violence.

“We’re not saying don’t wear a mask. Just don’t mandate it. If a person wants to wear a mask, wear a mask,” she said. “The same with the vaccine. If you want to put something in your body where the long-term risks are not known, it’s up to you and your doctor.”

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