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The Establishment’s “Anti-Establishment” Candidates

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.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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26 thoughts on “The Establishment’s “Anti-Establishment” Candidates

  1. Excellent. Bout time folks realized this and wrote it. Can say the same thing for Bernie and O’malley and HRC too. Anyone running in either of the two parties, is by definition, establishment.

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    • O’Malley certainly is establishment. He was a mainstream Democratic governor. Sanders is a trickier matter. His political history is decidedly unconventional. Defining anyone running in either of the two parties as “establishment” is not terribly useful. Recall that Lyndon LaRouche ran for the Democratic presidential nomination seven times.

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  2. Cruz is an elite but he’s not the establishment; there is a difference.

    And he’s not unprincipled, he’s just a schmuck.

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  3. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the GOP slamming each of them without endorsing the other and watching Cruz and Trump angle for anti-establishment street cred bonafides. If/when some establishment playas get behind Trump all hell’s gonna break loose.

    Oh, and alsotoo Cruz is truly hideous.

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    • His personality. His policies are stridently conservative and very religious conservative but those aren’t that odd. But people of all sorts report he is highly dislikable. He is self-righteous, preening and sure he is smarter than everybody else.

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    • Personality. I’ve seen interviews going back to college (college, clerk days for SCOTUS, every political level he’s ever worked at) that all boil down to “He’s a freaking a**hole”, sometimes varied with “creepy a**hole”.

      Look, I’m not the most beloved man to walk the earth. But I can promise you, that even at my most abrasive, nobody I went to college with 20 years ago even remembers me. Do you know what a colossus a**hole you have to be to have people you knew in college, from roommates to people that were just in study groups, remember you? Pretty much solely for that?

      Then his current coworkers are, by and large, standing up and saying “Jesus, this guy is an a**hole, and this is coming from professional a**hole wranglers”.

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  4. Spot on. Though I think Kohole makes an interesting point above. A person can be in the elite but not in the establishment. That would fit lots of politicians. Defining the Establishment is rather hard.

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  5. American politics has really high entry requirements. Any politician is going to be Establishment in one way or another regardless of their politics because of this. Most European countries have much lower entry requirements and more non-Establishment parties and candidates can get in. This isn’t always for the better.

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  6. I think that the GOP is best seen as having multiple establishments. Cruz and Jeb Bush are part of very different establishments, in my estimation.

    Also, in terms of GOP elected officials rallying to Trump, I see it as a “one war at a time” strategy: first get rid of Cruz, then turn on Trump. This strikes me as deeply risky and overconfident. The further into voting we get without somebody destroying Trump, the more likely it is that he can consolidate some faction of disaffected voters into a substantial delegate total.

    If they actually *can* accept Trump, and they’re not just saying that as an anti-Cruz maneuver… well, American politics might be heading in a (very) different direction in the next few years.

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    • “Also, in terms of GOP elected officials rallying to Trump, I see it as a “one war at a time” strategy: first get rid of Cruz, then turn on Trump. This strikes me as deeply risky and overconfident.

      I agree. This would require the ‘establishment’ of the GOP to be able to take down both the #1 and #2 polling candidates. Those two have also demonstrated that they are quite happy with people hating them. The establisment would then have to put one of the next guys in, and there are really no #3 or #4 in line, just a bunch of also-rans in the #5-10 zone, way down the line, who have demonstrated total incompetence in running.

      They would have to keep Trump from running as an independent. He would have zero chance of winning, but quite a good chance at splitting the right-wing vote in a few states. 5% in this state, 7% in that state, 2% in the other, and suddenly several states could flip.

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      • This line of thinking makes sense. The establishement may percieve Trump’s support as being shallower in the long run vs Cruz’s whereas Cruz, if he can get traction in early states, could put down deep roots that they can’t plausibly defeat without causing too much pain to their supporters. In that Cruz has genuine rather than transitory appeal to socialcons I can actually see the reasoning there if I squint. If Cruz won a number of early states he could get a big flock-to effect that Trump might not enjoy and the socialcon wing has deep roots of support both in the grass roots and in the establishment that would be difficult to deal with if they comitted to Cruz. Trump in contrast could win some early states with his shallower support but still be defeatable by delegate count in the long run because he wouldn’t form the same connections to a powerful GOP constituency.

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  7. My read on this dynamic is that the Establishment of the GOP is of one of two minds:
    -Either they believe Trump will flop with actual voters and thus won’t be the nominee or
    -They believe they can stop him using the party’s delegate rules without badly damaging their support from his voters or prompting a credible third party run.

    If one presumes this then their attacks on Cruz make sense as they’re attacking the most politically unpalatable plausible candidate (who they also happen to dislike intensly on a personal level). Now I am second to none in considering Trump’s nomination victory implasible to impossible but I’m uncertain what the GOP establishment is thinking here. They very clearly view Cruz as the greater threat.

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  8. Pingback: The Limits of Enthusiasm: Iowa 2016 | Ordinary Times

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