I’ve been hearing about the impending “conservative crackup” for nearly 25 years. The term was coined by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the founder of The American Spectator. He meant that conservatism had lost its philosophical coherence. But the phrase almost instantly became a catchall for any prediction of the Right’s imminent demise or dissolution…
Well, thanks to Donald Trump, tomorrow may be here. There’s a fierce internecine battle over whether to oppose Trump’s run, passively accept his popularity, or zealously support his bid…
There’s no shortage of reasons for the fact that the Right is at war over whether or not to take a flier on Trump. All of the various establishments and the counter-establishments overpromised and underdelivered in recent years. Congressional leaders talked a big game while campaigning but played small ball once reelected. Cruz and his supporters accused his fellow politicians of being corrupt sellouts, and so many people believed him, they’d now rather take a gamble on Trump than back Cruz, a mere politician.
Tomorrow seems closer than ever before.
As if to validate every insult ever hurled at it, the GOP elite is putting on a display of fecklessness that has to surprise even its most vociferous critics.
It is the quisling establishment. All signs are that Beltway Republicans are ready and willing to accept their new Trumpian overlord.
There is much argument about what really constitutes the establishment. The past few weeks suggest a simple acid test: If you look at Donald Trump and think, “There’s a man I can deal with.” If you tell yourself, “He’s utterly without principle and therefore encouragingly malleable.” If you wonder, “How can I keep my head down, and maybe come out OK during a Trump campaign or even a Trump administration?” Well then, you are a member of the establishment in good standing, and you’ve got a problem.
The Trump rationalizations emanating from the wise old hands are something to behold. We’ve seen Republican consultants go from trying to organize Stop Trump efforts to declaring the Donald inevitable and the best of all alternatives in the space of a couple of weeks.
But what’s become clear in this election is that there are another set of voters, more loosely connected to the Republican party, who sound populist tones and often have the same enemies as anti-Establishment conservatives. Yet they are much less concerned with actually advancing a clear conservative agenda.
This fissure can be seen in the closing fight between Trump and Cruz. Though early on, they were seen as appealing to the same set of voters, it isn’t really quite true…
Cruz supporters want to advance a specific set of ideas, and they believe that doing so requires making fundamental changes to how business is conducted in Washington. Trump supporters aren’t particularly ideological. They are frustrated because they think America is in decline economically, culturally and militarily, threatened by other nations on the world stage and by foreigners here at home. They don’t care about economic arguments in favor of free trade or constitutional arguments for executive restraint. They don’t bat an eye when Trump touts the importance of government seizures of private property for non-public use or the virtues of single-payer healthcare.
A Cruz supporter is the type of person who complains about the appropriations process in Washington, how the GOP leadership is undermining conservatives, and sees it as important to end corporate welfare institutions such as the Export-Import Bank. Trump supporters would be fine with more government spending, on, say, infrastructure, haven’t particularly paid much attention to fights about the chairmanship of congressional committees, and would probably be fine doubling corporate Export-Import bank subsidies if Trump told them it would help crush China.
What does that mean for the Reagan revolution?
For Iowa Evangelicals, in particular, beware: Trump would not fight for Kim Davis, and he’s not going to fight for you when the Left comes after your schools, charities, churches, and other institutions. Not if it costs him. His Supreme Court picks will be a total gamble. And as a mother, I simply shudder at the thought of living in an America where the president engages in ranting, insulting tweets from the White House. Some people might think that’s a small thing, in part because they think the Big Man Trump will save America. Not me.
Trump’s dominance of the Republican party reveals how weak today that coalition of principled conservatives — the old Reagan Revolutionaries — is. And it’s an agonizing reality — so close, we imagined, to getting the trifecta of a conservative president with a Republican Congress. Finally, the era of limited government, the real Constitution, federalism, free enterprise, economic growth, and a strong defense could begin.
Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”
Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.
It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.
In their approach to unseating Obama, the party rejected a populist angle, as well. Mitt Romney surrounded himself with a cadre of corporate lobbyists and leaned on Wall Street for fundraising, rather than on the huge grassroots donor network the Tea Party had uncovered…
Why has the GOP behaved this way? Part of it is just old habits. Part of it is that populism would require war against corporate welfare and the lobbyist revolving door that enriches all of these insiders at the expense of the rest of the country.
But part of it is elite identity politics: Republican leaders would rather be the party of White-Bread suburbia than of Blue-Collar America. Republican leaders want to be the party of Scarsdale, New York, and so they ignore Upstate New York, where the voters are up for grabs.
So Donald Trump has occupied Upstate New York — and Western Pennsylvania, and Lowell, Massachusetts. And maybe Iowa and New Hampshire
At the same time, Trump is offering something genuinely transformational. His candidacy would reshape the Republican Party as more of a European-style white-identity party, rather than a party rooted in opposition to big government. Far-right parties in Europe organize their politics around opposition to immigration and defense of cultural traditionalism. Unlike the Republican Party, they do not take notably right-wing positions on taxes and spending. Indeed, they fuse together social traditionalism with populist economics in a political style some call herrenvolk democracy — a welfare state whose benefits should be restricted to people like us…
For Republicans, white identity politics is a political style. A Republican presidential candidate might run on Willie Horton and opposing same-sex marriage, but after being elected, he was expected to turn to reducing the top tax rate and deregulating business. Cultural appeal was the means, and economics the ends. What conservatives fear is that Trump might upend that delicate, unstated system by turning the means into the ends.
Their fear is by no means unfounded. Trump may currently line up with Republican doctrine, but he has not always.
If there is anything positive I can say about Trump it is this: He gets this cosmopolitan/traditionalist divide, and he is the only candidate who lands foursquare with the traditionalists. He isn’t a fundamentalist, but he gets the whole “why can’t we just say Merry Christmas in supermarkets anymore?” He’s a billionaire, but he gets the anger at wealthy donors that many see as perverting the political system. There’s little doubt that his hotels have employed undocumented workers, but he gets the anger at what many see as a foolish unwillingness of this country to “control its borders” as the unwillingness of many in the Republican leadership to take strong, unambiguous stands on these issues (largely as a result of their own discomfort with these stands).
How did Republicans and the political class respond to Trump initially? They made fun of how he talked. Everyone was then surprised when people whose speech patterns are among the only patterns that are still socially appropriate to mock responded by liking Trump more (I actually think Trump’s accent is one of his biggest advantages). Making fun of his hair? Think about this the next time you make fun of someone with a mullet. Expressing outrage at his politically incorrect statements? I think Kevin Drum is part of the way there in this typically thoughtful essay in which he discusses the impact that political correctness has on people who feel silenced because they don’t know how to talk. But even this reflects Drum’s own internalized belief that the politically correct way to speak is the correct way to speak, while non-cosmopolitan Americans’ response is more visceral: “Why the hell can’t we call them illegal immigrants? Says who?” And Trump is the only candidate who unambiguously calls this out…
All of this is a lengthy way of saying that Trump is a creation of the Republican establishment, which is frankly uncomfortable with many of its own voters, and which mostly seeks to “manage” them. This is a group that looked at the Tea Party revolts of the past decade, looked at the broad field of Republican candidates (many of whom at least had ties to successful Tea Party revolts), and decided that none of these candidates were good enough.
Trump is vain, vulgar, self-obsessed. He is everything that I dislike about America. I do not believe his candidacy is moving the Overton Window away from global market fundamentalism and toward a healthy American nationalism. He is instead making the causes of a pro-American trade policy and foreign policy more stupid, ugly, and repulsive to many who would benefit from them. He is basically hated by Independents and Democrats, many of whom could be attracted to a Republican Party that recognized that the economy is for man, and not the reverse.
I have wanted a nationalist course-correction for the Republican Party for a long time. America needs at least one political party that is working to create a political economy in which any family that has one hard-worker in it will surely live a decent and secure life. And further, that any family that lacks this through no fault of their own will not be reduced to circumstances that disgrace their nation.
Really, America should have two parties working for this ideal, even as they try to preserve the existing system that richly rewards some superstars and entrepreneurs. Trump will not effect this change in the Republican Party. Rather his political career is already entrenching the already-alarming and corrupting dynamic where the natural political antagonism of the two major parties is exacerbating and heightening racial and ethnic antagonism in American society generally. My best hope is that the scare Trump is delivering to the GOP and the conservative movement will allow steadier men to advance. Men who are less ideological and more attuned to the actual economic and spiritual needs of the party and the nation.
More than his showman’s instinct for working a room, more than his ability to disrupt narratives with a single tweet, and even more than his unique New York patter, the most dangerous thing about him, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Ted Cruz, is that he alone can run as if he has nothing lose, because he doesn’t, and they cannot. He can say whatever is on his mind, Bullworth-esque, because the risks are minimal. The others must still calibrate their messages carefully, because they’ve invested their lives in a cause…
Let’s say you were part of the tiny cabal that controls American politics, and you were to come to Hillary Clinton and propose, in exchange for dropping her candidate’s mask, she’d have a 50 percent greater chance of becoming president if she were to admit that, of all the people involved in her husband’s Oval Office affair, Monica Lewinsky has handled herself with the most grace and courage and deserves a lot better than she’s gotten…
Let’s say that the cabal proposed to Trump that it would make him president if only he agreed to drop his proposal to build a wall around the United States and instead focus on creating an immediate pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already living here.
Trump would take the deal. The others would not.
And that tells you all you need to know about the presidential race after the nomination.