22 January 2016

Who is the Establishment? Part Two

Somehow the two most popular candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are the two most hated by people we usually think of as Republicans. The big stories going into this weekend are that National Review, in an attempt to reclaim its historic role as gatekeeper for the conservative movement, has published a special issue dedicated to the destruction of Donald Trump, and that simultaneously many GOP leaders, including elected officials and especially U.S. Senators, are urging Republicans to rally around Trump in order to defeat Senator Cruz. It seems that many of Cruz's colleagues in the Republican Senate caucus hate his guts; one has been quoted saying he'd rather vote for Bernie Sanders than Cruz in a general election. Throughout 2015, since Trump declared his candidacy, I predicted that once it came down to Trump vs. the "establishment" candidate, Trump would lose, but now it looks like Trump himself could be the "establishment" candidate battling a more radical and possibly more unelectable rival in Cruz. What we're really seeing is the Republican establishment turning against itself, like Dr. Strangelove's artificial hand choking him with a will of its own.

As with the Democrats, there's a battle over exactly what the establishment is. National Review represents the ideologues who would define the establishment, understandably, in ideological terms. If liberals see Trump as the ultimate conservative Republican, many actual conservative Republicans see him as just the opposite: an unprincipled egoist as likely to rule by executive order, and to as unwelcome ends, as President Obama. From what I understand, not having read the issue yet, their beef isn't with his stance on immigration -- they appear to suspect that he won't live up to his promises -- but with his overall demagoguery. Above all, it's easy to guess that the ideologues resent Trump having risen without first receiving their seals of approval. They simply don't trust him in any respect. For their trouble National Review has been dismissed from its share of future debate-moderating duties by the Republican National Committee for its show of bias. In other words, none of their people will be allowed to ask Trump questions on TV. That move seems well timed with reports that "establishment" Republicans are moving to favor Trump over Cruz.

It's all very strange, given that Trump's appeal is supposedly purely "anti-establishment" in nature, despite his wealth and celebrity -- or because of them -- while Cruz is a sitting U.S. Senator. How much of a threat to the establishment can Cruz be? Much of the hostility toward him right now is based on the belief that he's become less electable than Trump, but is that because Trump remains phenomenally popular or because something is really wrong with Cruz, the only candidate close to Trump in the polls? Now, of course, is the moment for Cruz to crow that he is, and has always, been the true anti-establishment candidate, and to cry that Trump will be co-opted by the establishment. It's possibly true that Cruz has always been the most radical of the Republican candidates, but if his kind of ideological radicalism puts him at odds with an "establishment" which now rallies to Trump in its own defense, what does that tell us about the Republican establishment? If the problem with Cruz is that he really wants to do what they all talk about doing, doesn't that indicate that their ideology has to some extent been bullshit all along? If that's the case, what does it mean to be the Republican establishment? Not much, I suspect, other than rich folks keeping their money and possibly making some more on the side. Radical reform could only mess with a good thing from this point of view.

Of course, just as there are multiple "establishments" it can mean more than one thing to be "anti-establishment." While Trump rails against conventional politicians, he's given no indication, to my knowledge, that he plans drastic changes in the way government works. He's anti-establishment to the extent that he articulates grassroots anger, but more essentially in his indifference to the establishment. He's expressed his willingness to work with everybody, and boasts of his ability to cajole anyone, but he depends on nothing or no one in this establishment for his current popularity. Cruz, meanwhile, seems to want to destroy an establishment he abhors, though presumably by constitutional means. To whatever actual establishment exists Trump may be a threat by virtue of his independence, but compared to Cruz he may not be an enemy, unless the ideologues declare him one.

In any complex society there is bound to be an "establishment" of some sort, and there's bound to be resentment of it on the part of people who feel excluded from or oppressed by it. Whether that resentment is justified depends in particular on what the establishment does and in general on how it's constituted. If an establishment comes into being and perpetuates itself in a way that usurps the people's authority, then anti-establishment feeling is justified. But if an establishment exists by virtue of the people's will, and is accountable to the people through normal channels, anti-establishment feeling may be no more than the carping of self-interested malcontents. You can only complain so much about elected officials forming an establishment, for instance, since that's what they're meant to be. But you could complain if the establishment seems to go out of its way to exclude certain groups from its ranks, or to oppress others. For some, the opposite of an establishment is "democracy," but in practice it may more likely be anarchy. What really counts isn't who you're for or against, but what you're for or against. The point of political activism isn't to be "anti-establishment" as if that alone meant something, but to determine what kind of establishment we'll have, since we have to have one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I've been saying for a couple of years now, the two parties exist to maintain the status quo and they are severely threatened by anyone who looks like they might be able to truly "rock the boat". Clinton, Bush, and Trump all represent some facet of the "establishment" in that they all represent wealth.

Insofar as the Repugnican party goes, that split has been building since the advent of the teabaggers. That "us vs. them" mentality will always continually split the "us" into a smaller and smaller group until it is one person strong.