September 6, 2022

On the “Establishment”

By: Rodney Rios

In many quarters of conservative and rightwing media and politics, some continue to fight against the Republican establishment as if it were some external power completely independent from Trump and his movement. Yet, despite the claims of former President Trump and many on the populist right, Trump and Trumpism are part of the mainstream GOP. In fact, they have been the Republican establishment for quite a few years now.

In political terms, an establishment is defined as “a dominant group or elite that controls a polity or an organization.” In a few words, it’s when a group with a particular agenda takes control of a party. Furthermore, political parties’ establishments change over time. For that reason, the Republican Party has had different visions and coalitions throughout its history. At various points, Republicans have been isolationists, protectionists, free traders, interventionists, traditionalists, neoconservatives, etc. For example, part of the charm of the Reagan Revolution that began in the 1976 primaries was that Reagan was taking on the GOP establishment of that time, which was more liberal and more compromising with the then-dominant liberal ideology of the Democratic Party. Reagan eventually won not only control of the GOP but also remade the American political context for decades. In short, after winning, the challenger became the establishment. The results of change and “revolutions” is that, paradoxically, the moment these become victorious, they become a new establishment.

Nonetheless, a mixture of Reaganism and Country Club Republicans became the establishment for some time. Then along came Trumpism, which won in 2016 by mainly rejecting that Republican establishment and cementing Trumpism in its place. After Trump won, a familiar pattern began to set itself. Brooke Sample noted, “During the presidential nomination competition in 2015-2016, Republican party actors generally opposed Trump. […] When push came to shove, however, the elected officials, party professionals, interest group activists, party-aligned media figures, and others who might have prevented his nomination chose not to challenge him.” For the most part, Trump supporters are placed in all the levers of control at the Republican National Committee; the majority of the candidates that he endorsed won their primaries, and those who survived their primaries after resisting Trump—especially over his 2020 election lies—only did so because they refused to challenge him or the new Republican establishment. As The Economist explained recently, “The party’s base is still devoted to Mr. Trump (65% net approval in polls) and to his Big Lie about the 2020 election (70% tell pollsters they believe it was stolen from him), and he can focus their ire on anyone whose head rises above the parapet.” The crowning moment of Trumpism’s apogee was the lopsided defeat of Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming’s primary.

By every conceivable measure, Trumpism is the Republican Party now. For all these reasons, it is absurd to keep trying to defeat the hated Republican establishment when Trump is the establishment since the old one has long since been defeated. This does not mean that it is an absolute thing. Nothing in politics ever is. Still, without question, Trumpism is the dominant faction in the GOP. But, Trump has a paradox at the core of his establishment. Although inside the party, Trumpism is prevalent, in the general electorate, it’s not. For example, “It is easy to forget that Mr. Trump loses elections. In the four years of his presidency, he lost his party both houses of Congress as well as the White House.” Not to mention Trump never won the popular vote and, in 2020, lost the Electoral College. All in all, the worst performance by a President since Herbert Hoover. Trumpism’s paradox is that it is an electoral juggernaut inside Republican politics, but not outside it.

Back in the day, the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli wrote a book entitled “Sybil or The Two Nations.” Disraeli stated that England had “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy.” Though he was writing about social classes, the analogy imperfectly fits the Republican Party’s divisions. There is the Populist Right, on the one hand, exemplified by President Trump amongst others, and the traditional Conservative faction (which I suppose includes classical liberals) on the other. Of course, a healthy political organism incorporates the best of all elements in such a way as to expand its coalition and win elections. It is a fact that Trumpism transcended ossified policies and politicians who were relics of another age. But that populism lacked a governing plan for the most part. It depended, in the end, on the former Republican establishment to translate its grievances and ideas into policy which in the final analysis looked remarkably like traditional and successful Republican governance. This shows why conservatism regarding institutions, free markets, and America’s exceptionalism and role in the world are necessary to properly tune populism within our Republic’s rules and constitutional order.

In short, there are two Republican parties, and they need each other to survive and thrive. One cannot alienate the other. As such, the future of the Republicans joins the Trumpist penchant for cultural resistance and working-class support with traditional Republican governance. Does this mean Trumpism without Trump? Only time will tell, but it seems a coalition among these lines has the capacity for remarkable electoral growth. In any case, neither one of the two Republican parties will be able to eradicate the other. As such Republican leaders must seek ways to build on Trump’s legacy and unite the two parties.