Steve Bannon was arrested this morning by federal investigators — he was reportedly nabbed on his boat by Postal Service inspectors — for skimming money from a crowdfunded effort to build a border wall with private funds. “We Build the Wall” raised over $25 million, to little public effect. The indictment names three other codefendants. For conservatives, this sort of thing should be enraging: Movement conservative journalism, activism, outreach, and cultural education has been chronically underfunded for years, so the diversion of big chunks of money into the pockets of grifters should anger anyone who prefers to see those funds put to a productive use. That is doubly so at a time when movement progressivism is bathing in streams of money from its capture of corporate America’s human-resources and legal departments on top of its existing institutional infrastructure in universities, media and entertainment, and public- and private-sector labor unions.
There is a broader issue regarding the future of the conservative movement: the failure of Trumpism to put down deep institutional roots. From the 1950s to the 1980s, movement conservatives built a series of institutions of their own — National Review, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union, Young Americans for Freedom, the Manhattan Institute, Media Research Center, Eagle Forum, the Claremont Institute, Human Events, the Moral Majority, etc. These groups — despite their different missions, members, and viewpoints — created a vibrant and reasonably cohesive institutional movement that produced and hashed out ideas, trained young people who would go on to serve in government and mainstream institutions, and generally put the stamp of Reagan/Goldwater/Buckley style conservatism on the Republican Party and the American Right.
A measure of the durability of these institutions has been their ability to weather good times and bad: to remain functioning and relevant during times of Republican and Democratic control, conservative and liberal ascendancy, even the waxing and waning of conservatism within the Republican Party. To paraphrase Bill James, a sturdy tree may grow only ten or 15 inches in a year; if something grows six feet in one summer, it’s a weed. Movement conservatives have survived by patiently tending and pruning their gardens with care, year after year, decade after decade.
Since the rise of Donald Trump, one of the great debates among conservatives has been whether “Trumpism” constituted a new movement that pointed to the future of the Right, or simply an ad hoc coalition that would not outlast Trump, much like “compassionate conservatism” or “national greatness conservatism” or, if you go back far enough, Bull Moose Progressivism. In 2015–16, nobody seemed more central to the argument about Trumpism than Bannon. And Bannon is hardly the only Trumpist to fall on legal or professional hard times of late, most notably the suspension of Jerry Falwell Jr. from his post at Liberty University.
Where are the Trumpist institutions? True, a few of the old institutions of the Reagan-era movement have bent to varying degrees in Trump’s direction, but some of that is just the natural tendency of political institutions to work with power. That tendency that does not guarantee that such institutions will act as long-term intellectual guardians and advocates of Trumpism within the movement when Trump is gone. Institutions do not survive without good stewards, and the seemingly chronic tendency of Trumpist stewards to scam their own donors and abandon their own troops on the field of battle does not bode well for the ability of such institutions to survive the transition when the White House passes out of Donald Trump’s hands.