If, as expected, Hillary Clinton humiliates Donald Trump in America’s presidential election next week, Republicans must quickly stamp out his nativist insurgency — or risk a hostile takeover by his supporters.
The immediate fight will be in Congress, where Republicans could face two big decisions:
- Relent and allow Judge Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s relatively centrist nominee, to take Antonin Scalia’s place on the Supreme Court or dig in and risk Hillary Clinton nominating a more left-wing justice in January.
- Approve the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a strategic and trade initiative with eleven other Pacific Rim nations that most Republicans support in principle — assuming Obama sends it to the Senate for ratification — or refuse to give the president a final “win” on his way out and risk the treaty being scuttled as a result of Clinton’s stated opposition to it.
In both cases, Republican lawmakers are torn between doing the right thing and appeasing their hard-right base, which is now in thrall to Trump.
Principled conservatives should be able to justify approving Garland (Clinton’s pick would be worse) and TPP (there was a time when Republicans supported free trade and containing China).
But principled conservatism is not what Trump and his movement are about.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the right-wing media, where Trump’s candidacy has pitted erstwhile foes of the Republican “establishment” against each other.
Robert Draper writes for The New York Times Magazine that there was always a divide between conservative “institution builders”, like William F. Buckley of National Review and Roger Ailes of Fox News, and “rowdy entrepreneurs”, like talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report.
Trump has opened up a new rift.
Until this year, rabble rousers like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Erick Erickson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin were united in their opposition to both Democrats and what they called “Republicans In Name Only” (RINOs).
Now those who oppose Trump on principle (Beck, Erickson, Levin) are reviled as RINOs by the others.
Then there is the old right: “the East Coast think tanks, opinion journals and bow-tied columnists who traditionally defined the conservative intelligentsia,” as Draper puts it. They shaped the conservatism that flourished under Ronald Reagan: a combination of small government, low taxes, social conservatism and a hawkish foreign policy.
The loud voices that emerged on the right in the 1990s didn’t use to challenge this orthodoxy.
What they mostly did was provide the Republican Party with a set of exceptionally loud megaphones, which liberals have often envied and tried unsuccessfully to emulate.
Now those who have embraced the Trump ideology (such as it is) are actively trying to redefine Republicanism as a hybrid of economic populism and white nationalism.
Unsatisfied talking heads
Do not underestimate the influence of these opinion makers.
Brian Rosenwald, a political scientist, and Michael A. Smerconish, a journalist, have shown that during the same three decades that the right was on the ascendancy, media personalities surpassed Republican Party officials and even elected representatives in their influence.
“Yet they prioritize goals seemingly at odds with good governance and often even the party’s sole purpose for existence,” Rosenwald and Smerconish argue.
By surrendering issue control to entertainers on the fringe of contemporary thought, the Republican Party has limited its ability to reach the 42 percent of Americans who, according to Gallup, regard themselves as independents in a national, general election.
These pundits won’t be satisfied no matter how many times conservatives block a Democratic policy or get their own through, because — like Trump — they thrive on grievance, not success.
The reality that America has turned rightward in the last three decades; that conservative views on abortion, economic policy, guns and security dominate; and that Republicans are all-powerful at the state level seems totally lost on these agitators.
In the last few years alone, their incessant disparagement of Republican politicians who dare attempt to govern has led to such spectacles as the nomination of hopeless extremists, like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, and the ouster of promising center-right leaders, such as Eric Cantor and House speaker John Boehner.
Throughout the Obama presidency, fear of the conservative media complex and its take-no-prisoners mentality has kept the majority party in Congress from carrying out even its most basic functions: passing budgets, raising the debt ceiling in time and confirming ambassadorial and judicial appointments.
“We have created a monster”
To be fair, it’s not all the media’s fault.
Jonathan Bernstein has argued at Bloomberg View that right-wing politicians for decades told their supporters there were easy solutions to complicated problems and that the normal frustrations of politics were the product of villains, collaborators and fellow travelers.
Some now recognize the damage that has been done.
Paul Ryan, the supply-sider who succeeded Boehner as House speaker, recently warned that “when voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.”
Talk radio host Charlie Sykes has said that the conservative media created the “monster” that is Trump and his fact-free politics by demonizing their mainstream counterparts. “A lot of it has been justifiable,” he argued. “There is real bias. But at a certain point you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.”
Bret Stephens, an editor of The Wall Street Journal, has gone further, accusing firebrands like Sean Hannity of making increasingly unreasonable demands of policymakers for their own financial gain.
“Those who can make themselves rich by shouting and hearing echoes of themselves even as the GOP loses one presidential election after another” are the only ones who stand to benefit from Trump, Stephens believes.
Coulter, Drudge, Hannity, Ingraham and Limbaugh are all multimillionaires.
So, of course, is Trump.
Purge the insurgents
These self-proclaimed tribunes of the working man don’t have the Republican Party’s interests at heart.
A political party exists to advance certain policies, protect certain interests and act as an intermediary between the whims of the electorate and the business of government.
If that’s what Republicans want to be, rather than an emotionally satisfying but powerless protest movement, they must expel those thought leaders who are sabotaging them from within — and, if necessary, their followers with them.
Appeasing fanaticism begets more fanaticism. Republicans believe that more than anyone. It is about time the grownups in the party call a halt to its descent into authoritarianism and, ultimately, irrelevance.
Republicans may lose around a third of their electorate to a Trumpist movement in the short term, but the alternative is surrendering the center ground to Democrats and becoming a minority faction.