The rotten three legs of the stool: Donald Trump didn't destroy American Conservatism, it was rotten to the core

May 9, 2016
February 6, 2020
US Politics

Almost no one expected Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for President in 2016, and I would be lying if I tried to claim such foresight. I did, however, successfully highlight the intellectual and political bankruptcy of the"Conservative Movement" as it stood in 2015, something that has been apparent to me for the better part of a decade. Where I erred was in who would profit from its implosion and how quickly it would come. In fact, while I was skeptical from the start of the ability of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker to win the nomination on the basis of a rehash of either the Romney or Bush playbooks, I presumed that the beneficiaries of the almost certain failure of the establishment would be those waiting in the wings, Marco Rubio, who offered all things to all Republicans in a young, Hispanic guise, and Ted Cruz, the smartest of the prospective candidates, if generally hated within political circles.

As late as last fall, I presumed that Donald Trump, even as he acted as the executioner of Republican orthodoxy, would fail to benefit from his regicide. This was based not only on my skepticism of his ability to "go the distance"but also on global political history. Assassins rarely inherit the crown, something that can be testified to by candidates as diverse as Eugene McCarthy(who took down LBJ in 1968), Michael Heseltine (who eliminated Margaret Thatcher in 1990), and Howard Dean(who took down a host of Democrats in 2004 along with the Clinton-establishment).

What did I get wrong? Well for one thing I underestimated Donald Trump, and his ability to make his campaign the greatest show on earth. Just as importantly, I failed to foresee the extent to which he would personify what was ultimately an ideological challenge in his own personal garb to such a degree that moderate Republican voters in the north east voted for Trump over John Kasich despite the latter arguably better appealing to their views. They cared more about ending "Sunbelt" and"Neoconserative" domination of the Republican party than what replaced it, and Trump was the only figure strong enough to succeed in that task.

The same thing in many ways was true of the Rubio campaign. Rubio was happy to accept the endorsements of hordes of intellectuals and policy specialists, taking on-board defectors like the Hoover Institute's Lanhee Chen who had headed up Policy for Romney in 2012 and then Scott Walker in 2015 when the Wisconsin dropped out. Rubio had the support of virtually the entire young guard of "Reformcons" who advocated moving the party in a direction on economic issues that would appeal to its increasingly blue collar electorate rather than to a tiny donor elite, urging it to become the party of "Sam's Club." But none of this nominal policy strength ever made it into the candidate's messaging which was almost a caricature of generic GOP orthodoxy circa 2015. I made my thoughts on this clear after Rubio's pre-Iowa debate performence which was almost universally lauded in the media, but which I thought was an abyss of content or substance. In the end, that prefigured disaster not just in the New Hampshire debate, but later in the campaign, when after South Carolina Rubio became the effective heir of George W. Bush. Even after the New Hampshire debacle, Rubio doubled down on substance-less talking points during debates(which did not stop the media from continuing to declare each performence a triumph for the Florida senator) as well as on an ill-advised attempt to hit Trump for deviating from GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy. Both were acts of madness, and based on any past experience of the Republican nomination process, both also should have easily worked.

What happened to Rubio after South Carolina illustrated a truism of the 2016 campaign. Normally in Republican politics early victories are decisive. They provide the groundwork for the party elite to come together, triggering a wave of endorsements from elected officials. More important than those, which Nate Silver and the 538 team invested enormous value in this year was the support of Talk Radio and conservative media. Political endorsements are only worth a news cycle. Talk Radio however, is a constant presence with many listeners spending two hours or more aday listening while commuting to work. That they listen while all too often stuck in traffic jams or otherwise provoked to anger in many cases feeds into a willingness to emotionally engage with the exhortations of many hosts. As such, Talk Radio plays a key role in identifying enemies outside and traitors within. Its decisive influence has not been to chose a candidate - support for Scott Walker proved of little value in 2015, but to enforce a call to tribal unity once such a choice has been made. Hence once a candidate wins the decisive race, as McCain did in Florida or Romney in Ohio(or Florida again over Newt Gingrich), the continued presence of other candidates becomes a liability to the party in the general election,and a 24/7 lobbying campaign is conducted over the air-waves to drive them out.

From the start, conservative media did not fulfill its role as it was meant to. Part of this was due to the appeal of Trump to segments of its audience, but Trump actively made a number of moves which threw potential media foes off-guard. His feud with Fox News over Megyn Kelly, something that was treated as a liability and then as the cause of his loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa actually worked to his benefit by forcing Fox News to bend over backwards in order to not be perceived as running an anti-Trump campaign lest his supporters be alienated. Furthermore, it compromised any support that could be provided to his foes ahead of time. To talk about media conspiracies while facing negative coverage appears a sign of weakness; to preemptively warn against such moves means that any hostility will be interpreted as vindication. The only time where the Talk Radio machine worked was in the lead-up to the Wisconsin primary, where it effectively engineered Cruz's spectacular victory over Trump. But there was nowhere to go from there, not least because Cruz could not exploit it.

The same fate befell Cruz after Wisconsin, an ironic fate given how steadfastly the media denied him any credit and sought to drive him out of the race in favor of Rubio prior to the latter's loss in Florida. His victory in Iowa was downplayed, his angry exchange at the South Carolina debate in which Rubio mocked him for not speaking Spanish only to have Cruz respond in the language was proclaimed a decisive victory for the Florida Senator, and when Rubio, with the support of the state's governor along with virtually the entire politically elite edged Cruz out by less than two tenths of a percentage point for second, was urged to drop-out in favor of Rubio. The same message was repeated when Rubio pulled off a similarly narrow second place finish in Nevada, again with the support of almost the entire state apparatus.

Pragmatically, the hostility to Cruz may have made sense. On paper, Rubio could have united the party and beaten Trump. By contrast, Cruz was for both ideological and personal reasons believed to have a hard ceiling, a view that arguably was vindicated later. But Rubio never performed as well as he should have on paper, and rather than trying to fix the problems the party establishment preferred to blame those who pointed them out. Chris Christie for devastating Rubio at the New Hampshire Debate, Cruz for sucking up air time in South Carolina and Nevada despite limited evidence of overlap between their supporters, a view that was vindicated when Rubio dropped out and his support generally went to hitherto asterisk John Kasich rather than Cruz.

It is ironic then that Cruz was as much undone by the establishment embrace following Rubio's withdrawal as by the hostility shown by the same groups prior to that moment. Cruz increasingly became a figurehead for a plot to deny Republican voters their choice, a suggestion lent credence by Cruz's need to campaign not for the nomination itself but rather for a contested convention. Ironically, these impressions were reinforced by Cruz's success in placing his own supporters in delegate spots allocated to Trump, a move which would have blocked any effort to nominate an establishment "White Knight" such as Paul Ryan, but which nevertheless condemned him as an insider. The final indignity was when Cruz was pilloried in his final week for doing what the media had urged him to in regards to Rubio throughout February and March, namely for forming a pact with his remaining non-Trump opponent John Kasich. 

Cruz struggled to exploit it because elite support was as much of a liability as an asset this year. Endorsements created the impression not just that a conspiracy was afoot to block Trump, which would only have been damaging with Trump supporters, but also in effect emasculated their beneficiaries by making them appear to be the pawns and puppets of the party elite. The effectiveness of Trump's attacks on Little Marco lay not in the juvenile nature of Marco Rubio's personal attacks, but in the eagerness with which elements of the Republican and Conservative media embraced them. A willingness to go toe to toe with Trump in abstract may have been an asset for Rubio. Becoming the darling of the party and media which embraced those attacks and declared them successful even before votes were cast turned them into a figure of mockery. Media praise even undermined Rubio's image itself. Constant predictions and declarations of "momentum" for Rubio after almost every debate, combined with the candidate's own tendency to give victory speeches following distant second or even third place finishes as occurred in New Hampshire turned Rubio into a figure of fun and ridicule. Anytime he lost a contest, or appeared poised to do so, jokes would be made about when Rubio would give his "victory speech." Rather than aiding him, media and elite support destroyed him, turning him into "Little Marco" indeed.

Cruz is not a sympathetic actor on a personal, ideological or political level. He almost certainly would have lost the general election badly. By all accounts he has also done much to earn the personal antipathy which seems to be felt against him by almost everyone he has ever interacted with. Nonetheless, his treatment this year was hypocritical, nonsensical, and illustrated many of the key reasons why Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee.

Yet not all of those reasons can be ascribed to the strategic failings of his foes. Nor to Trump's personal charisma, though to ignore Donald Trump's remarkable ability to remain likable while going negative is something Democrats would be well advised to avoid. Rather, Trump rode an ideological perfect storm. It has become a tradition among Washington Republicans when faced with policy questions to invoke Ronald Reagan reference the "three-legged-stool" of conservatism, involving Social, Economic and Foriegn Policy views, but all three have become rotted in recent years. Social issues have been a major source of public strife, not least because they pit the interests of the party elite - the donors, staffers, and in many cases elected officials themselves - against a largely voiceless grassroots constituency. This has especially been the case regarding Gay Rights issues, where the party has increasingly made up for an all-but-official abandonment of orthodoxy with a strident move to the right on abortion rights such that increasingly Republicans run for office no longer favor exemptions for rape or incest. But the other two legs have been equally undermined. Foriegn Policy orthodoxy has since  2003 meant a commitment to defending the wisdom of what looks increasingly like a mistaken invasion of Iraq. Rather than reaching a middle ground, for instance suggesting that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake with the benefit of hindsight, but was perhaps justifiable at the time, neoconservatives have over-valued their importance to the Republican party and pushed their luck. Mistaking DC prominence with political appeal, they have not only demanded absolute adherence to orthodoxy on Iraq, but insisted on punishing heretics. Going even farther, they have demanded a maximally confrontational policy against all major foreign powers - Russia, Iran, ISIS, China - even in cases where such policies are incoherent such as Syria. The result, has been to cripple any candidates who try to meet their standards. Jeb Bush was famously demolished by Donald Trump on both Iraq and Syria, but it is worth noting that Marco Rubio's foreign policy answers, ability to recite a glossary entry for Triad notwithstanding, were equally incoherent, especially regarding what he expected to happen with regards to Syria and Iran.  

Finally, on economic issues, the party has stuck increasingly to an almost religious interpretation of trickle down economics in which any tax cut of any form or type will always increase revenue and budget deficits, incentives or evasion do not matter in the least, even as the party itself has become more blue-collar. Makers and Takers could get some mileage when it was racialized implicitly as in 2012, but when offered a criticism of free trade or tax cuts from within the party, orthodox candidates such as Rubio who had relied on tribal loyalty to fend off such challenges from Democrats found themselves speechless. The fundamental fact is that however effective Paul Ryan's ode to the idea that young Americans should enjoy prospects other than moving back in with their parents where fading Obama posters still adorn their childhood bedrooms may have been rhetorically, the Republican party did not offer the least reason to believe it would be a better option for any of those young people on policy grounds. The only selling point in 2012 in effect was competence, which required three assumptions - first that Obama's failures were due to incompetence so that better management would solve them, second that Mitt Romney would be a competent President despite a mediocre campaign, and thirdly that even if this "competence" produced a more prosperous economy, the median young American would be in a position to benefit from it. The latter was the killer. The American job market has increasingly begun to imitate that of the UK in that the decisive years of one's career, all but determining future economic cast, are now those between 22 and 24. A failure to secure a job in the financial or consulting sector during that critical period makes it highly unlikely one will ever be able to secure entry given that one will be competing with new annual intakes each succeeding year. In fact, given the increased importance of internships to securing offers in the first place, it is arguable that the decisive years are now even earlier, starting from the second year of university at the latest. As I highlighted almost three years ago, an economic system that increasingly tells individuals at age 26, much less 23 that they have most likely already failed to enter the economic elite and never will be part of it is not a demographic that can ever be sold on supply-side economics, much less a dichotomy between makers and takers.

Donald Trump challenged the party on all three legs of the stool, and on all of them except perhaps social issues where one could potentially say he fought to a draw, he emerged victorious. He did so not merely because he was eloquent, but because the intellectual justifications for the other legs had deteriorated to the point where no one could defend them. Nor was this a sudden development. For the past decade many Republicans have had reservations about Iraq, remaining silent due to party loyalty. It is hardly shocking how eagerly Fox News began attacking Hillary Clinton for having voted to invade Iraq on the night of the Indiana primary. With Trump's victory, Republicans no longer need to pretend the invasion was a good idea. It is equally clear why those voters chose Trump over Kasich and remained loyal. Voting for Trump was not so much about electing him, but as about liberating themselves and the party from Iraq. A victory for Trump meant freedom for Republicans to say what they really thought.

The implications going forward then should be obvious. Whatever Trump's personal appeal, and what happens to him in November, what has been demonstrated is how little appeal his foes or ideological orthodoxy has on the American right. Whether the party takes that lesson will be interesting to see, but I suspect going forward support for Iraq will at the very least be the exception rather than the rule.


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