The conservative movement is so confused about what constitutes “the establishment” that the recent discord between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump has led to even greater heights of cognitive dissonance in this already mind-boggling election campaign on the Republican side.
Both Trump and Cruz have painted themselves as outsiders with a burning duty to dislodge “the establishment” from power and bring real conservative values to the Republican Party and the nation as a whole. Yet, even with their rhetorical bombast and incendiary proclamations, both candidates represent typical members of this country’s establishment. These men, along with their allies in the media, epitomize the faux-populist everyman the establishment has been marketing to the people for centuries.
That being said, the political infighting in the Republican Party did take an interesting turn this week. Sarah Palin threw her political weight, if that’s the right term, behind Trump in what will be remembered as one of the greatest political speeches ever delivered as Beat poetry, but her support may have been overshadowed by a handful of anti-endorsements for Cruz. Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad made an unprecedented move by publicly stating he hopes Ted Cruz would lose the state’s caucuses set for only two weeks from now. Bob Dole, Lindsey Graham, and Paul Ryan all articulated their distaste for Cruz and their yearning for his defeat.
Thankfully for Cruz, he has friends in the establishment. Talk-radio heavyweights (assuming that adjective is still apt) were quick to turn on the Trumpenstein monster they created after he set his sights on Ted Cruz. Since the SC Republican debate, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin have been hammering Trump as an anti-conservative abomination that had to be stopped, painting Trump as “the establishment”‘s choice without noting their own role in helping establish him. For months they cheered Trump on as he attacked figures they held in contempt. They championed the energy surrounding his campaign and the enthusiasm it generated in some conservative circles to “make America great again.”
As Trump diminished and degraded anyone who got in his way, including rather conservative Republicans running for the same office, they gave no thought to defending these maligned individuals’ records or conservative credentials. Yet, once Trump predictably turned his eye to Cruz, they screamed foul and attacked Republicans who neglected to join them. To Limbaugh and Levin, their failure to rush to Cruz’s aid was a sign that Trump was “the establishment’s” man, rather than a simple acknowledgment that these attacks are just Trump being Trump. Cruz himself was happy to let Trump attack other Republicans on stage, but when the Donald eventually landed on Cruz as his target, he moaned that this was indicative of a conspiracy against him.
Nor did Levin and Limbaugh reflect on their actual position as establishment figures, or at least as established ones, within the conservative movement. It is unclear to me how two media personalities that have had the ear of every Republican running for office in the last 20 years can justifiably claim to be outsiders in the political process. Candidates are more than willing to appear on their programs and toe the line, giving the hosts a significant position of authority in setting the tone of the party’s internal narratives.
As for Cruz and Trump. both are wealthy political figures with incredible influence in our nation. One is a wealthy tycoon, the other a relatively wealthy senator. Simply because they are not best buds with John Boehner doesn’t make them “anti-establishment” figures. They are both deeply entwined with the American economic and social system, benefiting significantly from it. Painting them as outsiders raging against the ruling class is, to put it bluntly, propaganda.
The willingness of others in the Republican Party to attack Cruz, one of their own, even now, does say something about him. In Trump, the GOP has a demagogue without any firmly held political positions who routinely issues contradictory claims and arguments; he is terribly unpopular with the very electorate required to succeed in a general election, and his nomination might destroy the chances of other Republican candidates running local races in 2016. Yet John Feehery, a Capitol Hill lobbyist, recently claimed Cruz would damage the long-term GOP coalition in a way Trump wouldn’t. Then, according to the AP, at a recent private fundraiser Senator Richard Burr uttered the unthinkable:
Cruz has become such a pariah that one of his colleagues, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, told supporters at a campaign fundraiser for his own re-election that he would vote for liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders for president before Cruz, according to one person who attended the event. Burr did not appear to be joking, said the person, who demanded anonymity to discuss the private gathering.
Levin, Cruz, and Limbaugh may be thankful National Review has come out full throated against Trump, but the fact that many Republicans are willing to accept Trump (or Sanders!) over a sitting senator like Cruz should still concern him and his followers.
With just weeks before the first votes are cast, one thing is clear: Unless a surge occurs from one of the second-tier Republican candidates, the party electorate is likely stuck between a vote for a crass, unprincipled haranguer or a Canadian with similar characteristics.