The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Establishment vs. the Conservatives

Conservatives are griping at each other a lot these days. If you haven’t noticed, I envy your ability to ignore the obvious. One of the problems, I think, is that people are talking past each other.

A major reason for this stems from the fact that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have spent the last year lumped together by those conservatives who consider themselves “anti-establishment.” That’s fine, and it is absolutely true that both Trump and Cruz are anti-establishment. But being anti-establishment isn’t in and of itself an ideologically coherent worldview. Bernie Sanders is anti-establishment, too. That doesn’t make him conservative, does it?

While Ted Cruz may be slippery on this issue or that — like most politicians — he is obviously and clearly a conservative. Unless you are willing to take Donald Trump at his word — and a great many are for reasons that baffle me — he’s not a conservative. Or if you think that’s too harsh, the case that he’s a conservative requires an enormous amount of subjective good will and credulousness. Even those who hate Ted Cruz readily concede he’s a conservative, because that’s an objective judgment. There’s nothing in the record that requires Trump’s critics to make the same concession. 

Think of it this way: There were Christians who were opposed to the Roman Empire and there were barbarian pagans opposed to the Roman Empire. One could, for strategic or conversational simplicity, refer to both groups as “anti-Roman” or even “anti-establishment” but that doesn’t mean the pagans should be confused for Christians or vice versa.

The problem, by my lights, is that too many people, particularly our friends in talk radio, have made exactly this error. I’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh and Hannity quite a bit over the last few months, and they routinely talk about how the establishment hates or fears both Trump and Cruz. That’s true. But they quite often leave in the air the insinuation that therefore they are ideologically similar. I don’t see it. At all.

The other night I was on Sean Hannity’s show to discuss the war of words between Cruz and Trump (despite being a fan of Trump, Hannity has a solid record of giving Trump critics airtime). At one point, Sean said, “I don’t like it. Conservatives are getting angry at Trump because they like Ted Cruz. It’s different than, quote, ‘an establishment candidate.’”

Later on, there was this exchange between Sean, Monica Crowley (an unreconstructed Trump fan), Geraldo Rivera (another Trump fan), and myself:

HANNITY: Here’s the flipside of it, Monica. If you get in a general election with Hillary, do you want the guy that’s going to fight her hard? And he’s already shown he is willing to take her on and the Clintons on in a way that nobody else will.

CROWLEY: You want somebody who has been deep in the competition, who has absorbed punches from their own side so that they’re more prepared to take punches from the other side, because whether the Democratic candidate is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or somebody else, you want a candidate who is prepared, who knows how to dish it and to take it and how to dish it out and take it. Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are in that position now.

I’m with you. We don’t like to see conservatives or Republican candidates beating each other up, but this is presidential politics. And I’d rather see it now –

GOLDBERG: You were fine with it when Donald Trump was doing it to everybody else. Let’s just be straight about this. The idea that all of a sudden you don’t like these guys attacking each other –

RIVERA: They can take care of themselves.

HANNITY: But I think the difference is, Jonah, is that I think conservatives like Ted Cruz more than they do some of these establishment guys.

As I conceded, that’s absolutely true. What I should have added though is that there are plenty of conservatives — real, full spectrum conservatives — who do like “these establishment guys.”

The problem is this implicit notion that if you are an “establishment candidate” you aren’t a “real” conservative. It may be true that if you are an establishment candidate you aren’t a populist, but the notion that Rubio, Christie, and Bush – never mind Huckabee, Santorum, Fiorina, et al – aren’t conservatives strikes me as indefensible. Maybe they aren’t conservative enough on this issue or that. Maybe they aren’t sufficiently hostile to “the establishment” (however you define that infinitely malleable word). Perhaps you have reason to think they won’t hold their ground sufficiently once elected, but that doesn’t make them un-conservative and it doesn’t make their supporters un-conservative either.

Donald Trump savaged Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Scott Walker to the point where he was a major reason they dropped out of the race. The argument that it was fine for Trump to do that but it’s wrong for Trump to attack Cruz because Ted Cruz is a conservative simply makes no sense. You can criticize Trump for his attacks on Cruz, but you can’t appeal to Cruz’s conservatism as the reason you didn’t object to his attacks on the other candidates. Well, in a literal sense you can, because you can say anything you want. But I don’t think you can make that argument persuasively and with much intellectual consistency.

In pretty much any fight between Trump and Cruz, I side with Cruz unapologetically because Cruz is an ideologically consistent conservative (for instance, whatever flaws a president Cruz might have, I don’t worry about the kinds of Supreme Court justices he would look for). Indeed, among the reasons I hope Cruz beats Trump in Iowa, one of the biggest is that I want Cruz to be rewarded for opposing the crony capitalist moonshine known as ethanol. Governor Terry Branstad came out against Cruz — violating his pledge of neutrality — because as the living embodiment of the GOP establishment in Iowa, he sees Cruz as a threat to the ethanol racket. Given Cruz’s need to win in Iowa, that makes his position a profile in courage. Trump meanwhile is pandering to the ethanol lobby. Perhaps pandering is the wrong word, given that support for industrial policy and crony capitalism is perfectly in sync with his economic philosophy. And that, again, is one of the many reasons I don’t think the guy is a conservative.


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