Next month marks seven years since I walked to the Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City to witness something new — a protest by a group calling itself a tea party.
The local gathering was just one of several such parties organized nationwide that day. As I wrote then, many pundits, particularly on the left, dismissed these. Thomas Frank, the Wall Street Journal’s liberal columnist at the time, questioned the resolve of those involved. He said the rallies would take place, “Unless it rains today …”
Coincidentally, it was snowing as I walked to the Federal Building — one of those intense spring storms where the outdoors becomes a miserable mess. No one seemed to notice. When a speaker suggested she cut her remarks short because of the weather, people shouted, “No!”
At the time, I saw this as a sign of how intensely upset the attendees were with big government.
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Looking back, however, there were a lot of signs there about what was unfolding, including a unique Utah version of it that continues to make this state different from the rest.
Utah’s chance to host a GOP debate this year — always hovering somewhere between slim and none — fell apart Wednesday morning like a house of cards in a windstorm. Donald Trump said he wasn’t coming, using the flimsy excuse that he didn’t know about the debate and had made other plans. But really, getting him here always was a long shot, and would have represented somewhat of a political gamble.
Yes, as many have said, Trump probably wasn’t excited about another Fox News debate, or about facing his debate-questioning nemesis, Megyn Kelly, once again. But the truth is, this region is different from the rest, and he doesn’t poll well here.
In a recent survey by UtahPolicy.com, Trump came in third among Utah Republicans, with only 18 percent. The front-runner in that poll, Marco Rubio (with 24 percent) has dropped out, but my guess is little of that support here has shifted Trump’s way.
Trump has been tone deaf concerning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, confusing it with a much smaller, unrelated group that practices polygamy. And, after all, the debate would have been only a few blocks from where Mitt Romney blasted him in a speech earlier this month. Much of that speech focused on Trump’s vulgarities and incivilities, things that matter a lot around here.
Utah doesn’t get a lot of Election Year attention. This is the first time in recent memory that its 40 delegates actually have some meaning in the outcome of the nomination process. Because of this, candidates have given the state a little more attention, but a debate would have focused a hard-to-ignore spotlight.
Each debate has included issues that matter to the host site. In Detroit, for instance, candidates were asked about the city’s economic troubles and other things important to Michigan. A debate here might have turned to topics such as religious freedom, the federal ownership of land, air quality and other environmental concerns, or even moral issues of importance to many here, such as the spread of pornography and gambling, or civility in public office. Those things might not rank high on a tea party list in other parts of the country.
That rally seven years ago had a different feel to it than the anti-Bush, anti-Obama tenor elsewhere in the nation. Current members of Congress and the state’s attorney general, all professional politicians, were invited to speak. And while tea party fervor certainly gripped the state during the 2010 elections, folks around here tend to be more moderate about immigration and about helping the downtrodden than the current rhetoric. The state benefits a lot from foreign trade.
Back then I noted how disorganized it all seemed. Anti-gun control advocates mingled with anti-immigration advocates who competed for attention with people handing out fliers urging me to read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” What did it all mean?
Seven years later, no one questions the resolve any more. Trump, however, has come along to provide his version of direction to the anger. He’s apparently smart enough to know a lot of people here aren’t buying it.