How Steve Bannon Walked Away a Winner

by Cinzia Croce

As the resident populist commentator, I actually welcome the departure of Steve Bannon from the White House, and am not at all surprised by it. Months ago, I came to the conclusion that Bannon would be more effective on the outside — where he doesn’t have to worry about keeping a low profile just to appease the president’s ego, or watch his back in the midst of all the palace intrigue. For the past year, Bannon has cleverly used his association with Trump to build his brand — through magazine covers, books, and documentary profiles like the one done by Frontline. He now enjoys international fame, and his publication Breitbart is set to become the premier voice in Republican politics, while old standbys National Review, the Weekly Standard and even Fox News will continue to fade, which is the price they pay for making the wrong bet. Reporters from all over the world will look to Breitbart for reactions to everything the Trump administration does going forward. Does Bannon approve or disapprove of the latest policy decision? Does Bannon believe the president is staying true to his promises? On top of this, his enemies no longer can scapegoat him for any failures of the Trump administration. Bannon personally could not be in a better strategic position than if he had carefully planned it.

No one should be surprised by Bannon’s departure. On several occasions, Trump has signaled his displeasure with Bannon receiving so much credit for his victory. During his last press conference, Trump (once again) pointed out that Bannon joined his campaign late, and only after he had defeated seventeen Republican primary opponents — many of whom were considered the best and the brightest the party had to offer. Of course, the president conveniently ignores that it was Bannon who built a large, receptive audience for Trump, given his stances on immigration, trade and foreign intervention. It was Breitbart that enthusiastically backed his candidacy when more mainstream conservative publications were publishing “Against Trump” symposiums and Fox News was trying desperately to convince their audience that Marco Rubio was the future of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, it was clear that the media portraying Bannon as The Brain and Trump as The Performer was simply too much for the president to bear. Trump is a proud man, and the thought that Bannon would also receive the credit for any future successes must have been intolerable. Continue reading

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Conservative Movement Inc. and the Strange Case of Jonah Goldberg

By Alex Knepper

Here’s an article typical of the hyperventilating it’s-my-ballism circulating among Conservative Movement, Inc. It’s written by Jonah Goldberg, and while I surely don’t mean to pick on him in particular, this is such a strange and revealing piece:

Those who do not yield [to Donald Trump] can hear the executioner’s axe sharpening against the wheel. Trump has dispatched one of his top minions, Sarah Palin, to punish Ryan for his effrontery in second-guessing Trump’s commitment to conservatism. She said she’ll work to defeat Ryan’s reelection bid this fall. “His political career is over,” Palin said on CNN.

She’ll probably fail, but the message is clear. The litmus test in the new Republican party boils down to loyalty, not to a principle or conviction, but to a man: Trump. … It’s a cult of personality, pure and simple…

… “I have to stay true to my principles also,” Trump told Stephanopoulos. “And I’m a conservative, but don’t forget: This is called the Republican party, not the Conservative party”…

Conservatives who still have the courage of Perry’s former convictions have no role in the party so long as Trump’s running it. He has admitted that he doesn’t want or need Reaganite conservatives; he’d rather rely on the rank-and-file supporters of a socialist instead.

Can we imagine for one moment what Mr. Goldberg’s reaction might have been if the sitting Republican Speaker of the House had refused to support the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012? National Review would have condemned him — rightly and justly — as a fanatic and a factionalist, and would have issued commandments from on-high to dissenters: Thou shalt unite behind the nominee! And this would have been a very good thing for them to say, since party loyalty is indeed essential to forming and maintaining a long-term coalition that can consistently win a majority. But since Goldberg is a self-aware man, he must know all this. So why is he refusing to follow the same instructions he expected others to obey not so long ago? Loyalty to the nominee, we must conclude, is a virtue when Goldberg approves of the nominee — but loyalty to the nominee is reminiscent of a ‘personality cult’ when Goldberg disapproves of the nominee; he suddenly discovers he is above the noise of party politics.

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The mental gymnastics required to believe Trump is markedly deviating from the standard behavior of presumptive nominees must be exhausting. The notion that nominees should not try to reach out to disaffected supporters of the losing candidates of the opposition party is strange, since ‘electability’ and appeal to the ‘other side’ has been one of the major selling points of ‘establishment’-oriented center-right nominees for ages. The notion that the winning faction of the party is required to defer to the losing faction is stranger still. Trump’s rhetoric is — obviously — full of theatrics and bluster, but he has embraced high-profile endorsements from figures with unquestionable right-of-center pedigrees from all over the Reaganite spectrum, from Sarah Palin to Chris Christie to Rick Perry to Kevin McCarthy. Of course, the likes of Palin, Christie, and Perry are surely looking for a new lease on their political lives through Trump — he is an awfully convenient vehicle for their continued relevance — but that’s no great psychological insight; whether Goldberg can see the Palinesque nature of his lashing out at the winning faction of his is a far more edifying inquiry — especially after the sturm und drang of the self-important ‘Against Trump’ issue amounted to approximately nothing.

Moreover, polls show Trump already securing over 80% of the Republican vote — during peak it’s-my-ball season. Trump is right: It’s really not the ‘conservative party’; the ‘tent’ is much bigger than the people who pretended to want a Big Tent thought — big enough, in fact, for non-orthodox (that is: non-Reaganite) perspectives — and he proved it. The Reaganites must now learn to live as one faction among many rather than as the unquestioned domineers of the party and legislators of its orthodoxy.

Continue reading

How Trump Put Reaganism On Death-Watch

By Alex Knepper

The indispensable Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics.com 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.

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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.