If there is one thing we absolutely need to do in the new year, it is to destroy “the GOP establishment.” Not just the thing itself — more on that later — but the term, “the GOP establishment.” It was once useful but now, along with the acronym RINO (Republican In Name Only), it has been abused to the point where it is worse than useless.
While counting down the top stories of last year, it struck me that one of the big new developments in 2015 was the way that staunch ideological advocates for the Right were suddenly attacked as “establishment,” “elitists,” and “RINOs” with no regard for our actual ideas or track record. The charge was levied merely because we were insufficiently enthusiastic about somebody’s favorite Republican candidate.
In part, this is the normal vice of a party primary. People form a partisan attachment to their guy and have to insist that absolutely nobody else will do; that every other candidate is a weak-kneed establishment shill, and so is everybody who supports him. This is what we’re hearing a lot of right now from some supporters of Ted Cruz, but most of all from online supporters of Donald Trump.
I should point out the irony of this and why it rubs so many of us wrong when Trumpkins call us “the establishment.”
Here’s a small example. Back in 2009, I got very involved with my local Tea Party group and ended up moderating a Tea Party-sponsored Republican primary debate for Virginia’s fifth congressional district. When the establishment candidate (he was backed by Eric Cantor and other Virginia Republican bigwigs) looked like he was going to be the only no-show at the event, our local Tea Party leader put together a cardboard cutout of him, dressed it in a suit and tie, and put it at his podium as a visual reminder mocking him for ducking out. Before the debate, the organizer asked me if this was OK; she didn’t want to embarrass me as moderator. I told her to go for it, and it made the front page of the local paper.
The point is that I’m no stranger to helping the grassroots poke a finger in the eye of the establishment. And where was Trump when all this was going on? Saying nice things about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. So tell me again how he’s the true conservative, and I’m the establishment shill.
But I’m not bitter. No. Really.
The point is that “the establishment” was a useful concept, but the Trump and Cruz people have wrecked it by throwing it around with no regard for its actual meaning.
The term has now come to embody a totally wrong view of the real dividing lines within the Right. It assumes that the only choice is between an angry populist “base” and an “establishment” of professional political operatives in DC. But that was not what the establishment was originally meant to convey. It was meant to differentiate the non-ideological political careerists from the ideological “movement conservatives” who are here to promote a cause.
To be sure, this division was never quite so cut and dried. The rap against the establishment is that they just want to hold down their jobs as aides and consultants and deputy undersecretaries while they rise up the ladder in the D.C. power structure, which makes them timid, risk-averse, and unwilling to upset the status quo. There’s a lot of truth to that, but on the other hand, their careers would probably be better served by defecting to the moderate Left. So when they stay on the right, it’s because they really are sympathetic to its goals and ideals. And sometimes their counsels of caution are based on real experience and an appreciation for what is and isn’t possible in our political system. Change is hard, and there are ways in which that’s a good thing.
By the same token, among the ideological movement types, it’s very easy to make a loud show of your ideological purity and how you’re the voice of the populist base as a cover for opportunism. (Certain struggling radio hosts come to mind.)
But railing against the establishment was originally the rallying cry of principled ideological conservatives who were agitating for a Republican Party that would be more loyal to a consistent small-government agenda. Yet this is precisely the wing of the Right that Trump and his supporters have been attacking and alienating. So under the cover of pitting his supporters against the establishment, Trump is pitting them against the ideologically motivated Right.
That makes sense when you consider Trump’s long history of ideological inconsistency, but it may well turn out to be a political mistake. As much as he has secured the loyalty of a certain corner of the Right — people who either don’t know his record or just love the fact that finally a politician is pandering to them — he has pretty much repelled everyone else. That’s a problem for him, because the usual path to the nomination is to try to bring together different constituencies rather than dividing them against one another. And pitting Republicans against one another is exactly what the terms “RINO” and “establishment” are now doing.
Yes, the establishment needs to be reformed. We’re never going to eliminate it, because every political party needs some permanent staff — it needs pollsters and fundraisers and legislative aides and all the rest. But we can make the establishment smaller and less fat by giving them less government to feed off of. We can try to get more people in these positions who are ideological firebrands, and we can try to chasten them by letting them know they have to answer to the base and to the ideological wing of the movement.
That’s a difficult and ongoing battle, and we’re making some progress. It takes a real debate over ideology and the limits of compromise. But the way “the GOP establishment” is being used right now doesn’t accomplish that goal. It’s just a club to beat someone over the head for not backing your guy.
More to the point, denouncing “the establishment” is a crutch a lot of people are using to avoid having to make the case for why their guy is really the most consistent or will be the most effective in advancing a pro-American, small-government agenda.
It’s time to knock out that crutch and require them to make the case on its merits. It’s time to eliminate “the GOP establishment.”
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