Conservatives, You Are the Republican Establishment

America’s conservative movement continues to define itself against an establishment it vanquished long ago.

President Ronald Reagan and conservative author William Buckley pose for a photograph in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, January 21, 1988
President Ronald Reagan and conservative author William Buckley pose for a photograph in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, January 21, 1988 (White House)

When we reported on the National Review‘s stand against presidential candidate Donald Trump last week, we were quick to dismiss editor Rich Lowry’s claim that his magazine isn’t part of a “Republican establishment” that, according to him, is missing in action against the billionaire property magnate.

As we see it, publications like National Review are very much part of the broad coalition that comprises “the” Republican Party. This not only includes elected and party officials, but fundraisers, insiders, interest and lobby groups as well as sympathetic media organizations.

Call it the “establishment” or not; National Review‘s anti-endorsement seems to fall within the theory of political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller, who argued in 2008 that “the party decides” presidential primary contests in the United States.

But perhaps the fact that even National Review, a sixty-year-old publication that is widely read by Republicans, doesn’t think of itself as part of the establishment warrants closer examination.

Damon Linker argues in The Week that it does.

Hostile takeover

Linker agrees there was a time when right-wing voices like National Review belonged on the fringe of American politics. Up to the 1960s and 70s, the American “establishment” was liberal. It included Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, media like Time magazine, The New York Times and the Big Three television networks. In those decades, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the rise of the conservative movement realigned the political landscape. The Republican Party was taken over by ideological conservatives, culminating in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory.

Since then, there has been a proliferation of right-wing advocacy groups, think tanks and media outlets, from the Heritage Foundation to Fox News. What was once a conservative counter-establishment now simply is the conservative establishment — and hence the Republican establishment.

After all, who else is there?

Responsibility

“By thinking of themselves as perennially outside the Republican power structure,” though, “members of the counter-establishment conveniently exempt themselves from the need to admit and learn from their own mistakes,” argues Linker. “It’s always someone else’s fault.”

The Iraq War, which conservative organizations and media backed fanatically, is surely the most egregious and disgraceful example.

But so are election defeats, which seem to only fuel the fantasy that there is a defeatist Republican establishment determined to keep true conservatives out of power.

Consider the example of Florida’s Marco Rubio. He was elected in 2010 with the support of conservative blogs like RedState and activists in the Tea Party, defeating establishment favorite Charlie Crist in the primaries. But now that he’s languishing in the polls for the party’s presidential nomination, Rubio is suddenly considered an establishment candidate himself!

Linker warns that until those conservatives who really are the establishment start taking responsibility, the party “will remain vulnerable to the anti-establishment furies it unleashed so many years ago and has never ceased to encourage.”

National Review‘s willingness to stand up to Trump is a start. It shows that not all Republicans will indefinitely pander to the most reactionary elements in their party. But as long as they continue to define themselves against an establishment that no longer exists, Republicans are going to suffer the likes of Trump who can always claim to be more anti-establishment.

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