Bannon Is Failing the Leadership Test

by Cinzia Croce

Ever since leaving the White House, Steve Bannon has done a masterful job crafting a public persona as the insurgent general leading the fight to rescue Trump’s agenda from the corrupt GOP establishment.  Complete with the crumpled Indiana Jones jacket and unshaven face, the self-described president’s wingman wasted no time declaring war on Mitch McConnell and calling for a populist takeover of the Republican Party. Bannon’s fiery rhetoric and pledge to hold accountable Republicans who betrayed their voters are music to the ears and hearts of many party activists who long ago realized that the likes of Ryan and McConnell pose the greater obstacle to their aspirations than the Democrats. If anyone still has any doubts about McConnell’s commitment to undermine the president, his handling of tax reform should remove them. The Senate GOP bill postpones the corporate tax cut – the very jet fuel Trump needs to get the economy roaring – until 2019. It is almost as if McConnell is hoping the GOP will lose control of Congress and clear the way for the Democrats to remove the president from office.

When it comes to taking on the GOP establishment, Bannon deserves encouragement and applause from anyone who wants the Trump administration to succeed. However, holding political enemies accountable is not enough to be an effective leader. It is very easy to rail against those we despise – in fact, it is quite enjoyable. The true test of leadership is holding political friends accountable when their actions are just as harmful as enemy attacks and on this score Bannon is failing — bigly! Continue reading


On Tax Reform, Trump’s Chasing Another Dead-End

by Cinzia Croce

The Mooch warned us. After his departure from the White House, Anthony Scaramucci granted his first interview to George Stephanopoulos and declared that Trump needed  “to move away from that sort of Bannonbart nonsense”  and “…move more into the mainstream. He’s got to be more into where moderates are and the independents are.”

A week later, we got the first taste of what a more “mainstream” Trump will be like. In his Afghanistan speech, he announced that he was going to turn his back on his instincts and campaign promises and send more troops to Afghanistan to “seek an honorable and enduring outcome.” Yesterday, we got the second taste of the New Trump, when he delivered a speech calling for tax reform that could have easily been delivered by Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. It was full of the old Reagan Republican buzzwords like “growth” and “opportunity,” and stale, crusty talking points like “Americans know better than Washington how to spend their own money.” Trump the rebel, the insurgent candidate that took Washington by storm, is slowly morphing into just another traditional Republican politician promising more tax cuts and wars. Continue reading

Is Marco Rubio Still Overrated?

By Alex Knepper

For many months, the pundit class tried to force a narrative into existence to make Marco Rubio the front-running ‘establishment lane’ candidate, and perhaps even simply the front-runner, full-stop. There’s no doubt that Sen. Rubio did what he needed to do in Iowa, coming closer to Donald Trump than Trump came to Ted Cruz, but there are a number of obstacles to Rubio consolidating ‘establishment’ support in a timely manner that the over-excitable chattering classes seem to think.

New Hampshire jealously guards its ‘first-in-the-nation’ role, and rarely cares what Iowa has to say. It is usually the case that New Hampshire takes a maybe-mischievous enjoyment in rebuking Iowa. Despite the strange confluence of events that have marked Sen. Rubio as an ‘establishment’ candidate, he is really not a typical ‘establishment’ candidate: besides making his mark by defeating ex-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primaries, he has toyed with support for granting Constitutional rights to fetuses, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president in 2008 despite there being minimal incentive to do so, has called for a new Constitutional convention, stridently opposes same-sex marriage, and has refused to say how old the Earth is, on the grounds that he’s “not a scientist, man.” Keeping in line with the GOP’s typical delusions about youth and minority outreach, we are supposed to believe that since he’s slightly darker than Mitt Romney, under the age of 50, and listens to hip-hop, millennials and black voters are suddenly going to be interested in the same old Reaganite platform. Putting an old, losing message in a young, brown person’s mouth isn’t sufficient.

Cruz winning Iowa was undoubtedly a blow to Donald Trump, although Trump is still the prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire by double-digits. But thanks to his Iowa victory, Cruz has earned a ticket to at least the SEC primaries, where he will have to contend with Trump for a significant share of the same voters. Yet, we should not be so sure that Rubio will have the ‘establishment’ lane to himself by then: New Hampshire independents are showing a strong preference for John Kasich, and there is no sign of that changing. Rubio has been in a traffic jam with Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie for months. If Kasich defeats Rubio in New Hampshire, he too will have earned a ticket through February. It is also possible that even Jeb Bush will stay in through South Carolina, a state in which he continues to over-perform his national polls and in which he has invested a large amount of money. Purely out of pride he may decide to fight on his home turf in Florida, too, rather than cede that to his former protege. Rubio may have the ‘establishment lane’ to himself by March, but his momentum could be severely undercut by likely losses to Trump in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump also has a commanding lead — and for failing to have fully consolidated the Kasich-Bush vote by then (Christie should be gone by South Carolina). If Trump manages to win Florida, too, which is more than possible, given recent polling (and the likely burst of momentum he could earn from wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina), Cruz might be too weakened to pose a serious threat to him after that, anyway. Only at that point would we have a Rubio-Trump race on our hands, and it’s not clear Rubio would be the favorite in that match-up.

Some of the betting markets now peg Rubio as the likely nominee. I think the edge is still with Trump, whose ability to win a quarter of the vote among a two-thirds Evangelical electorate — despite having no significant ground game and being a thrice-married, irreligious, vulgar New York City billionaire who has kissed a drag-laden Rudy Giuliani, was once ‘roasted’ on Comedy Central by Snoop Dogg, and once tackled Vince MacMahon and shaved his head — is actually extremely impressive. He overcame that which did in Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Marco Rubio is racking up Congressional endorsements and earning the support of new big-money donors, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this cycle, it’s that having Wall Street backers, Congressional cheerleaders, and a traditional pedigree might actually be liabilities.

Rubio has done everything he needs to do so far, but the rest of February poses more challenges than the mainstream media, which has underestimated Trump all along, is willing to concede. We should not let our desire for ‘normalcy’ — that is: for this election cycle to closely resemble the cycles of the past several decades — deceive us into thinking that this cycle has suddenly become ‘normal’ simply because Marco Rubio managed to come in a strong third in Iowa.

Same Old Song and Dance

By Cinzia Croce

As soon as Ted Cruz was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses, the factions that have traditionally dominated GOP primaries wasted no time reverting to form. They are elated to have dodged the bullet of a Trump win, which could have made him unstoppable and forever change Republican politics. That may still be in the cards, but the entrenched factions are working overtime to use the week between Iowa and New Hampshire to turn the primaries into a repeat of the quadrennial war of establishment candidate versus the base.

Both factions claim to have the perfect formula for winning the general election. The establishment usually selects candidates who are center-right, in the hopes of appealing to moderate voters. The GOP base holds the opposite view: that the surest path to the White House is to nominate a rock-ribbed conservative who will draw to the polls millions of disenchanted conservative voters. Only “bold colors” can guarantee victory, they say — no “pale pastels.”

Continue reading

How Trump Put Reaganism On Death-Watch

By Alex Knepper

The indispensable Sean Trende of has repeatedly challenged my belief that Trump is the product of a base in revolt by pointing out that a surprisingly large portion of his support comes from self-described ‘moderate’ Republicans. The idea that Trump was attracting disproportionate support from supposedly moderate people made little sense to me, but I was not sure how to account for it. One popular argument used to be that Trump’s success across all Republican factions was due mostly to his name ID and media domination. But Jeb Bush and Chris Christie for a very long time had much higher name ID than Ben Carson — and Carson was still frequently tying or defeating the former candidates among Republicans overall. Among conservatives, a less-covered, less-known conservative could beat more-covered, more-known ‘center-right’ candidates, so we would expect at least that these supposed ‘moderates’ would disproportionately break for Bush and Christie. But no: they liked Trump as much as anyone else.

I have come to a different conclusion: that ‘moderate’ Republicans since Reagan’s presidency have never really been ‘moderates’ at all. Many if not most of them really are basically secular people who, just as much as self-described conservatives, have understood Reaganism — a mixture of pro-business and libertarian economics, religious advocacy, and a muscular foreign policy, with a nice helping of civic mythology — to be the foundation of the modern Republican Party. They call themselves ‘moderate’ because they de-emphasize issues like abortion, religion in public life, and same-sex marriage. They score only two out of three on the Reagan test, and they know it. Lest we forget beneath the recent torrent of positive coverage about homosexuality and feminism: the Religious Right was prominent and influential in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, during the ‘culture war.’ In polls, many secular Republicans will sooner identify as ‘moderate’ than ‘conservative,’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ sooner than ‘very conservative.’ But they are still tethered in Reaganism’s assumptions and attitudes.


There’s little that’s ‘moderate’ about the modern Republican Party in the sense we ordinarily take that word. The truly centrist wing of the party abandoned it little by little in the 90s and the 00s, recognizing it was not welcome any longer — and now we can count their numbers in Congress using our hands. They were replaced by Jacksonian former Democrats, especially from the South, and Evangelicals new to politics. Reagan pushed out the old guard of moderate establishmentarians and brought in the populists. Reagan was not a populist himself, but he found room for them and promised them that his agenda would make them freer and more prosperous — and that it would take our down their enemies at home and abroad. And they accepted that.

Trump understood all this, but he also understood further: he wrote in his Art of the Deal that Reagan was a smooth talker who never delivered the goods. And he’s right: Reagan didn’t. Big Government kept growing. Christianity kept receding. ‘Reaganomics’ boosted growth, but, decades on, is no longer effective. Nobody feels freer for having elected Republicans. Even the revered Reagan could not reverse the intrinsic logic of liberal democracy. And what is worse: it turns out Reaganism is not actually very good at winning presidential elections. The nation as a whole was willing to send Reagan to Washington as a response to the excesses of liberalism in the 60s and 70s, but Reaganism as a positive ideology has never since been very popular, and Republicans have only won the popular vote once since Reagan’s vice-president was elected in 1988 — and even that was during wartime, three years after the only attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor.

About a quarter-century after the publication of Trump’s book, the many political children Reagan fathered have caught on to the fact that two Bushes, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and others have repeatedly failed to deliver the goods — and are revolting. Many of them are intent on doubling-down on Reaganism and want to nominate a Reaganite with a radical temperament: Ted Cruz. Sen. Cruz, while taking on the ‘establishment,’ is still saying basically the same things conservatives have been saying for 40 years. But Trump is doing something different: he is implying their decades of ineffectiveness are the direct result of their dogmatic attachment to right-wing ideology. Siding mindlessly with elite business interests inevitably leads to acceptance or tolerance of policies like amnesty, unfettered free trade, and ‘political correctness.’ Hence Trump’s Sanders-like attacks on Cruz’s loans from Goldman-Sachs and his game-playing during the 2013-2014 immigration reform debate. Trump suggests, in essence: ‘The aim is not to be a good disciple of someone else’s belief system, but to deliver the goods to the people. The deals we should be making are deals where we get something we really want — not where we get only scraps while in the big picture our country keeps going to hell.’ It seems there are more people open to this message than who are receptive to Cruz’s message that what we really need is someone who really means it. Trump’s shrewdness beats Cruz’s sincerity. Reaganism as a doctrine is now in question.

Trump’s attacks against his opponents, from Jeb Bush to Rich Lowry to Charles Krauthammer, are basically all the same, which is why they’ve all worked: ‘Why should you listen to them? They’re the same people who want to make a deal on amnesty. They’re the same people who want you to shut your mouth about Islam while more Americans die. They don’t want to admit that, so they criticize my tone, just like people criticize yours when you’ve tried to talk about these things honestly and have been called a bigot and a racist. We’re not bigots or racists. We’re good people who are going through hard times and nobody seems to care. I’m not gonna put up with the old guard’s crap anymore, and neither should you. And the beauty of me is: I’m very rich. Unlike these other guys you’ve elected, I cannot be bought. I already have everything. I do not need anything they could give me, and I’m gonna change things. If you need proof, look at what’s happened already.’

It seems the only way Trump can now lose the nomination is if his supporters fail to show up to vote. He made an audacious decision to make a play for the most alienated factions of the Republican Party. But even if he loses, there is no going back: the post-Trump Republican Party is not going to look like it did in May 2015.

Against “Against Trump”

By Alex Knepper

To mild fanfare, National Review has published a symposium opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy, featuring just under two dozen representatives of various right-of-center strains of thought. It is unclear who is the target audience of this piece. Someone may have persuaded Bill Kristol that Iowa caucus-goers are likely to turn against Trump after having Leo Strauss on vulgarity quoted to them. Maybe, with the symposium’s fourteen mentions of St. Ronald Reagan, Conservative Movement Inc. still holds to the belief that struggling citizens crave more 80s nostalgia about a president whose youngest living voter is 50 years old. What’s more likely, I think, is that this editorial is primarily about the writers themselves, many of whom consider themselves gatekeepers of respectable conservative opinion: they mean to draw their lines in the sand. I can only hope they are not pretending to be winning the battle against their Frankenstein monster.

Trump has steamrolled through the GOP ‘establishment’ and the ‘old guard’ of conservative punditry with a mystifying ease — and has revealed the dead ideology of Reagan conservatism for the paper tiger it is. It no longer represents a viable coalition. The people have moved on, even if professional right-wingers have not. The Republican divide between establishmentarians and the populist/movement ‘base’ is no longer merely one about strategy. American politics are increasingly resembling European politics. The parties are as polarized as they have been in the modern era. The fabled center is not ‘holding.’ Because it has no positive case to make for a winning alternative, the Republican superstructure has been utterly paralyzed in its response to Trump. The old truism stands: something always beats nothing. These writers, many of whom I respect, can berate Trump every day from now until the Republican convention — but they can’t beat someone with no one. And their collective paralysis — their stunning inability to stop a man like Trump — points to the urgent need for a new era of right-of-center thinkers to rise.