2016 was not supposed to look like this. After six years of laying a foundation for a true conservative resurgence, 2016 was supposed to be our year. This year, we said, young committed conservatives would showcase a vision for the United States that would stand in sharp contrast, not just to the Democrats, but to a tired GOP Establishment that had been rocked back on its heels over the last six years. Indeed, the Establishment had been reduced to employing incredibly underhanded tactics to beat back conservative challengers, and their surrender theater following the last Congressional elections had galvanized the grassroots to such a degree that the Establishment victories in 2014 seemed to signal not so much an Establishment resurgence, but instead the last, desperate gasps from an old and dying political machine.
2016 was supposed to be the year of the conservative. Instead, because of Donald Trump, the Establishment seems poised for a resurgence that would have seemed impossible even a year ago.
Put down your brickbats, Trump supporters; I will not use this diary to disparage Trump (overly much, at least). For five months I have watched Donald Trump soar from one indecency to another, from one dishonesty to the next, and yet his supporters stuff halls to the rafters and pledge their support with full throats. The reasons to oppose Donald Trump are legion, and have been articulated with far more eloquence than I could manage. And yet, Trump supporters are not moved. So, no, I will not use this diary persuade Trump supporters to see the light; the light has been shined on their candidate, and they clearly prefer the dark.
But, to you Trump supporters, I say this: have no doubt that a victory for Donald Trump would be a crowning, earth-shaking victory for the inside-the-Beltway Establishment and would severely damage the conservative movement.
Don’t believe me, Trump supporters? Let’s look, then, at where our Party has been, where our Party is today, and where our Party will be if Trump is our standard-bearer.
In 2010, after two years of reckless spending and liberal arrogance, the GOP base came together in a remarkable fashion to send a number of true conservatives to the Senate. Marco Rubio defeated the loathsome Crist in Florida, despite the Establishment throwing all its weight behind the soon-to-be Democrat. Rand Paul defeated Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in Kentucky, and Mike Lee unhorsed Bob Bennett in Utah. Pat Toomey, who had at long last forced the ghoulish Arlen Specter from the GOP, was only one of many GOP candidates who carried States that Obama had won in 2008. In the House of Representatives, many of the conservatives who are now the heart of the Freedom Caucus won their seats, and the myth of the so-called “conservative Democrat” was put to bed as the GOP began a two-cycle sweep of the South.
The Establishment had been knocked back on its heels. In 2012, with the Establishment’s chosen Presidential candidate losing by almost five points to a wildly unpopular Obama, the GOP lost a net two seats down-ballot. 2012 was not a good year for conservatives—but it was, in many respects, a worse year for the Establishment. Establishment Senate candidates were trounced in winnable States like Florida. In Texas, Ted Cruz beat Establishment favorite son David Dewhurstm and in Utah, Hatch survived a stiff primary challenge that forced him to take actual conservative positions- a novel thing for Mr. Hatch. While the Establishment, as it is wont to do, fixated on men like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock to proclaim that conservative candidates were unelectable, even those Establishment candidates who survived primaries and won elections did so by aping conservative bona fides. It was clear that the Party base had moved rightward, and the Establishment was none too thrilled.
As the 2014 campaign season kicked off, conservatives committed themselves to beating Democrats and increasing Republican majorities in the House and Senate…but the Establishment committed itself to beating conservatives. “I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” Mitch McConnell declared, and he made sure that the Establishment had the warchest to do it. The GOP Establishment and the Chamber of Commerce poured oceans of money into beating back conservative challengers. In spite of this deluge of money, conservatives managed some high-profile victories: Eric Cantor and Ralph Hall were beaten, and Ben Sasse and Tom Cotton took Senate seats. However, less high-profile conservative challengers in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were beaten by committed Establishment Republicans. Mitch McConnell easily dispatched his primary challenger and, as noted above, the Establishment opened the bag of dirty tricks to carry the entirely senile Thad Cochran across the finish line.
The Establishment crowed like the cock of the walk. The 2014 elections set a “powerful precedent” for dealing with conservatives, the Establishment gloated. But under the surface, beneath the sound of Mitch McConnell’s strutting, it was clear that the base had made the Party much more conservative, and would be holding its Senators and Representatives to their promises. Establishment candidates had won, but they had won by pledging to govern as conservatives and by pledging to do the things their challengers had accused them of failing to do– that is, fighting for conservative causes and values. In beating back those challengers, the Establishment failed to recognize that conservative voters had woken up, and while conservatives were willing to give Establishment incumbents like McConnell and Graham another six years in Washington (seeing it as the lesser evil as compared to sending a Democrat), conservatives expected those incumbents to live up to the promises they had made on the trail.
The Establishment, of course, had no intentions of keeping any of their promises. Indeed, the Republicans of the 114th United States Congress promptly betrayed their constituents across the board. Failure theater was the order of the day on immigration, on Iran, on Obamacare, and on Planned Parenthood. But, this time, things were different. Only months removed from an election in which the Establishment had promised everything, this time conservatives were not willing to accept a basket full of nothing. With 62% of the base feeling betrayed by their Party, it was clear that the status quo was no longer tenable. Boehner was forced out, and his hand-picked successor was forced to step away from the race to succeed him. The Establishment, which only months before had declared itself ready to vanquish the conservative movement, was now seen as losing its grip over the Party. The Establishment, of course, was went into a petulant snit. Peter King of New York declared that Boehner’s resignation was a “victory for the crazies,” and David Jolly of Florida declared that conservatives had engaged in “self-serving idiocy.” Democrats, meanwhile, piled the laurels high around the departing Speaker (which, in and of itself, should tell us all we need to know about John Boehner).
This extended, far-too-long review of the last few years brings us, more or less, to where we were as this primary season began to pick up steam last year. The Establishment, which had declared victory only months before, had been rocked back on its heels, while conservatives were resurgent. Much has been made of the shallowness of the Democrat Party bench, but as the primary season kicked into high gear, it became apparent that the Establishment bench, too, was shallow. The Establishment put its weight behind Jeb Bush and John Kasich, neither of whom could be called dynamic on a good day and both of whom are into their 60’s; meanwhile, Ted Cruz, who threw his hat into the ring in April, and Marco Rubio, who entered the race in May, stood ready to campaign on their strong, consistent, conservative records. Both are young, excellent communicators, fiercely conservative, and (despite the media spin on Ted Cruz) likable. At long last, we conservatives had two champions who could articulate our message, and who had an excellent shot at becoming not only the nominee, but the next President of the United States. Truly, the hard work of six years seemed to be paying off. We conservatives, it seemed, had our moment.
Enter Donald Trump. It would be pointless to recap the course of his campaign. It is enough to note that, despite the frantic cries from his supporters that “he fights,” and that he will stand up to the Establishment, Donald Trump now enjoys the support of a GOP Establishment that sees little hope in Jeb Bush (that the Establishment musters up the likes of Bob Dole and John Feehery to rally the troops to Trump and away from Ted Cruz is a damning indictment of their weakness overall, but I digress). Interestingly, the Establishment is pulling no punches as to why it prefers Trump to Cruz. Cruz will upset their apple-cart, and stand for conservative values and governing principles, whereas Trump will wheel, deal, and merrily sip martinis with the Beltway Elite. Trump wants the Establishment to like him, and he wants to make deals; Cruz cares little and less about whether he’s popular with the cocktail crowd, and he wants to go to Washington to restore the Constitution, not to make deals which further erode it. For the Establishment, the choice between the two is obvious.
By now, of course, none of this is news. The Establishment prefers Trump over Cruz, because the Establishment will prefer almost anyone over a conservative.
But, there is much more to this calculation than preferring a Trump Presidency to a Cruz Presidency. The Establishment understands that if Trump wins, they will have delivered a lasting blow to the conservative movement.
So, to the Trump supporters, I ask you this: why is Donald Trump bigger, and more important, than the conservative movement generally?
Imagine, for a moment, the political landscape that would follow Trump getting the Republican Party nomination. It is, in quite a few respects, an Establishment Republican dream come true.
1.) If Trump is the nominee, Conservatism as an American political philosophy would be dealt a serious blow.
One of the reasons the Establishment is so terrified of a Ted Cruz candidacy is that its knows, even if he were to lose to Hillary Clinton, he and the conservative philosophy he represents would likely be back in 2020. After all, it is for practical, not nostalgic reasons that nominees who fail to win the Presidency are often able to launch viable campaigns the next time around. When a candidate wins the nomination, over the course of the campaign the candidate builds a network of donors and supporters, grows a databases to reach those supporters, and gains an organization of staffers. These can call upon in the future, in less time and at less expense than it takes to build a new campaign from scratch. Unfortunately, much as Ted Cruz would be in prime position to run again in 2020, the same would be true of Donald Trump. Trump is an egomaniac; he will not exist the stage after a loss to Hillary Clinton, and over the course of the campaign he will have strengthened his organization and solidified his standing in the eyes of many of his already somewhat unhinged supporters. This is incredibly dangerous for the future of conservatism. Trump is not a conservative, but if he is nominated, whatever his bumbling ideology comes to be called (national-populism? Trumpettism?) will solidify over the course of the campaign as Trump both builds an organization and unveils a platform. Trump has created a cult of personality, and nothing creates a bunker mentality among fanatical supporters more than a difficult, ugly campaign (read: exactly what a Trump/Clinton contest would be) so there is certainly reason to believe that a large number of Trump voters would stand with their man long after November. Trump’s ideology, then, would become another ideology under the wing under the GOP Big Tent, against which conservatives would have to compete. Trump is already boasting that the Establishment is reaching out to him, and he can easily fit himself and his ideology into the framework of the GOP tent without losing supporters by claiming that he is accepting, so to speak, the GOP’s surrender. So, Trump supporters, tell me—what is it about a weakened conservative movement that appeals to you?
2.) If Trump is the nominee, the Establishment will be emboldened.
In the 2014 primary season, as discussed above, the Establishment did all they could to crush the conservative movement and to protect Senators such as the philandering Thad Cochran and the gutless Lamar Alexander. Whether we conservatives made a mistake in carrying those tired old men across the November finish line is an argument for another day, but what cannot be argued is that the Establishment believed they had de-fanged the conservative movement. They responded with Failure Theater so extreme, and so outrageous in the face of their election promises, that it sparked a backlash that toppled Speaker Boehner and Kevin McCarthy. For the moment, the Establishment fears its base, as well it should. But, recall: the Establishment felt they had “crushed” us, in McConnell’s phrasing, in the 2014 primaries, and in their hubris they responded by selling us completely down the river in 2015. If Trump is the nominee, the Establishment will believe it has crushed us again. Trump, we must always remember, is not a conservative. The Establishment knows this. The Establishment also knows that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are the greatest communicators of a conservative message since Ronald Reagan, and the Establishment knows that the anti-Washington mood in this country is as strong as it has ever been. If, with these candidates and under these conditions, we cannot nominate a conservative candidate for President, then the GOP Establishment will come to the conclusion that they have beaten us again. They will respond as they did in 2015, after they concluded they had beaten us in the 2014 primaries: with contempt, with pandering, and with outright surrender in the face of Democrats. So, Trump supporters, tell me—what is it about an emboldened GOP Establishment that appeals to you the most?
3.) If Trump is the nominee, two of our greatest conservative messengers will be relegated to the sidelines.
The effect would most pronounced as to Ted Cruz, who has been a true conservative lion in the Senate. The GOP Establishment, I assure you, is salivating at the prospect of Ted Cruz losing to Donald Trump, because they know it will seriously curtail his influence. Already, his fellow Senators are offering up criticisms that are almost unfathomable for a sitting Senator to be making against another. The Establishment Senators who dominate the Senate have long had their knives out for Ted Cruz; imagine the gloating faces of McConnell, McCain, and Graham if Ted Cruz were to go down in defeat against Donald Trump. As it stands, the Establishment Senators have thrown down the gauntlet- by publicly declaring their disdain for Senator Cruz, they effectively warned the rest of the GOP Senate delegation “embrace him at your peril.” Cruz would find his position precarious- his Establishment colleagues in the Senate would have all the more cover to condescend, ignore, and work around the junior Senator from Texas, and the apparent weakness of the conservative movement that would follow a Trump candidacy would make it much more difficult for other Senators to follow Cruz’s leadership.
A Trump candidacy would sideline Marco Rubio much more seriously than a failed general election bid against Hillary Clinton, or Cruz candidacy, would sideline him. Marco Rubio, of course, is leaving the Senate; Florida does not allow a candidate to appear on the ballot for two offices at once. There is, however, a world of difference between leaving the Senate as the head of a resurgent conservative movement (that is, as an elected President or as the standard-bearer of the Party) and leaving as a second or third place conservative finisher in an election where a decidedly non-conservative Donald Trump won the nomination. If Rubio wins the nomination, he will build a network during the campaign that will allow him to stay in the public eye even if he fails to win the White House; he would immediately be the front-runner in the 2020 Florida Senate race or the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. The same would be true if he finishes behind Cruz in the primary process—he would still be an incredibly talented, well-liked conservative in a Party where conservatism is resurgent. If, however, Donald Trump is the nominee, then Marco Rubio will be a failed conservative candidate in a party that has, in many respects, turned its back on conservatism. The Establishment will not be eager to help Marco Rubio up off the mat if that is the case. To the extent the Establishment ever supported Rubio for President, it did so begrudgingly; the Establishment does not like Marco Rubio (this is no surprise—Rubio is a committed, consistent conservative) and it has not forgiven him for defeating Democrat Charlie Crist. If Trump is the nominee, the general recession of the conservative tide that follows (as Trump’s “ideology” becomes a long-term player within the party, and as the Establishment grows emboldened, as discussed above) will work to sideline Rubio, and make it difficult for him to reemerge in 2018 or 2020. If you are skeptical of the idea that the Establishment would let such a talented politician stay sidelined simply because he is conservative, look at the race to succeed him in Florida: Jolly, with his 40% Heritage Action Scorecard, will find the Establishment lined up behind him in his campaign against Ron DeSantis, a strong conservative and a decorated Navy SEAL.
So tell me, Trump supporters: why do you think our political discourse is better when Cruz and Rubio are weaker, and the Establishment is stronger?
4.) If Trump is the nominee, he will shift the Overton window on a number of issues leftward.
If Trump is our standard-bearer, then both the Democrats and the Republicans will feature nominees who have supported, or do support, raising taxes, abortion, partial birth abortion, gun control, affirmative action, universal healthcare, and the use of eminent domain. To the absolute delight of the GOP Establishment, the candidates of both Parties will be united in their opinion that Government is good, and that the answer to bad Government is better Government, instead of less Government. The GOP Establishment has always dreamed of a world in which the United States political parties modeled those in the United Kingdom; that is, where Republicans were Tories, committed to merely occupying the center, and dedicated to little more than making government work smoother and more efficiently. The idea of shrinking the Federal Government—the idea of taking power from Washington, and restoring it to the States, and to the people—is anathema to the GOP Establishment, because it means taking power away from them. Luckily for the GOP Establishment, if Trump is the nominee, both the Democrat and the Republican in the race will agree that, fundamentally, a strong, growing, centralized government is good.
So tell me, Trump supporters, what is it about the Federal Government that you like the most?
If Donald Trump is the Republican candidate, the damage done to the conservative movement will reverberate long after the confetti has fallen on the next President of the United States. Our Party will be divided, our intellectual leaders will be hobbled, and our opponents will be emboldened. Trump supporters who claim to care about conservative ideals must begin to seriously examine the consequences of their votes over these next few months.