The Establishment Won

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

If I had asked you six months ago to sketch a scenario in which Donald Trump loses the Iowa caucuses, what would that scenario have looked like?

I assume it would have gone like this:

The field needs to winnow early. We can’t afford to have the anti-Trump vote splinter this time as it did in 2016.

We also need influential conservatives to get behind his opponents. Convincing Republican voters that they have “permission” to abandon their leader will require real exertion by opinion-makers.

And we need an electability argument. The more polls show that other candidates in the field stand a better chance of beating Joe Biden, the stronger the case for a new nominee becomes.

My editor pointed out to me this morning that all three of those wishes came true before Monday night’s Iowa caucuses.

We got winnowing. Mike Pence and Tim Scott left the race early and Vivek Ramaswamy faded into irrelevance long ago. Despite having forged on in Iowa, Ron DeSantis appears doomed to a distant third place in the next early primaries. If you believed that a “Trump versus Not Trump” dynamic was essential to beating him, that choice was available Monday night in the person of Nikki Haley.

We got a “permission structure” too. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical power-broker Bob Vander Plaats endorsed and campaigned for DeSantis. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu became Haley’s most prominent surrogate. Iowans could have treated any of those endorsements as reason to break with Trump and take a chance on one of his challengers.

We also got an electability argument—sort of. That Trump might face voters in November as a convicted felon is a live possibility well known to Republican voters, and many are nervous about it. Meanwhile, although Biden’s dreadful polling has left him trailing Trump in national surveys, Haley frequently outperforms everyone else in head-to-head polling against the president. A CBS News survey published on Sunday found her trouncing Biden by 8 points while Trump leads him by just 2.

In short, the stars had aligned for Never Trumpers. And here’s what it was worth in Iowa: Trump 51, DeSantis 21, Haley 19.

Not only did the frontrunner clear a majority, he piled up the biggest margin of victory in the history of the caucuses. He topped the combined vote share of his two most formidable opponents by double digits. As of Tuesday morning, he had won 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties—and in the one he lost, he trailed Haley by a single vote.

Even the rosiest interpretation of the results—that he earned “only” slightly more than half of the vote—is complicated by how well the other post-liberals in the race did. Had Haley gotten a true one-on-one race with Trump, there’s every reason to think most of DeSantis’ and Ramaswamy’s voters would have switched to the frontrunner and handed him a landslide victory.

All of this happened despite the fact that Trump scarcely bothered to campaign in Iowa, capping off his meager effort there with a victory speech on Monday evening that was, to borrow a phrase, “low energy.”

This is what it looks like when the establishment wins.

“Establishment” is a gassy term by design, the better to serve the situational needs of demagogues who deploy it.

When Fox News covers the border crisis, a populist might commend the network for putting “establishment” media to shame. If Fox turns around the next day and runs a flattering piece about Nikki Haley, the same populist might grumble about the network’s “establishment” sympathies.

The aperture of the term can be widened or narrowed as circumstances require. Classically liberal beliefs—like expecting members of government to be more loyal to the Constitution than to the president—will be derided as “establishment” in due course, possibly sooner than we think. But the term does have a more or less coherent meaning in the way that much of the right commonly uses it.

“Establishment” refers to a suite of traditional bipartisan Washington preferences on big questions of policy and culture. Free trade, not protectionism; intervention abroad, not isolationism; immigration reform, not nativism; pluralism, including and especially tolerance of unorthodox sexual identities, not tribalism. When Trump and his minions complained about the Republican “establishment” in 2015, that’s what they were complaining about—that the most powerful figures in the party of the right shared a grand vision for the country with the most powerful figures in the party of the left.

There was something to that. Eight years later, the idea is still there in sporadic populist whining about “the uniparty.” But it seems more passé than ever after Monday night’s blowout in Iowa.

The hard fact is that practically all of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party now either support Trump earnestly, pretend to support him in the interest of keeping their jobs, or are all but completely irrelevant. Inasmuch as the term “establishment” refers to a bloc of elites who set policy for a political movement and impose their will on its direction, he and his many toadies are the Republican establishment.

When a writer at Red State gently pointed that out on social media after the Iowa results were in, one reader lamely replied by rattling off the names of various “establishment” boogeymen. What about Kevin McCarthy? What about Paul Ryan? What about Karl Rove?

Karl Rove does occasional hits on Fox News and writes a column for the Wall Street Journal. His most noteworthy venture in Republican electoral politics over the last decade was advising, er, Donald Trump. Paul Ryan has been out of government for five years and has become a byword for “RINO” among the GOP base. Kevin McCarthy is currently unemployed after a revolt led by one of Trump’s most repellent sycophants ousted him from the speakership last October. No matter, though: He’s still supporting Trump in the Republican primary and is willing to serve in his next cabinet.

The fact that populist critics of the “Republican establishment” typically bring up has-beens when identifying their enemies within the party only proves the point about who the true establishment is. Ardent opponents of Trumpism have either been chased out of politics a la Liz Cheney or demoralized into retiring a la Mitt Romney. The closest thing left to an influential figure from the pre-Trump establishment is Mitch McConnell, who’s unlikely to serve another term in the Senate and has pledged to support the eventual Republican nominee no matter who he might be.

To understand the state of the current “Republican establishment” you need only two words: Marco Rubio.

In 2016, Rubio was the darling of the traditional GOP establishment. Young, eloquent, dogmatically conservative, of Latino ancestry, he was the future of the party, allegedly—so much so that he earned the endorsement of another next-gen up-and-comer who had been touted as a potential national candidate, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. By the time that primary ended, Rubio appeared visibly shaken by what the voters of his party seemed to want in a presidential nominee. If you’ve never seen this clip from the final days of his 2016 campaign, watch it; it shows a man coming to grips in real time with the bitter truth of what brand of politics his base truly craves.

Two days ago, on the eve of the Iowa caucus, he leaned into that brand of politics by endorsing the frontrunner in this year’s race over the conservative who endorsed him eight years ago. Whether he did so out of unbidden sycophancy or because Trump’s team warned him that refusing to endorse in a timely way would be held against him, only Rubio knows. But for our purposes, it doesn’t matter: The darling of the old establishment has become a tool of the new establishment, willingly or otherwise. Probably willingly.

The irony of populists reaching back to figures like Rove and Ryan to define the “establishment” is that it’s usually Trump’s conservative critics who are accused of living in the past. I’ve been told by populists many times that I’m trapped in a fantasy in which, supposedly, defeating Trump will usher in a glorious Reaganite-Bushian restoration. Those people must not read this newsletter, though; I’m the guy who’s forever warning that “there is no Trump problem, only a Trump-voter problem,” aren’t I? Few are as grimly pessimistic about the future of the party as I am.

It’s actually the MAGA types and other demagogic populists who can’t seem to accept that it’s no longer 2015 and thus they’re no longer romantically rebelling against a neoliberal Republican establishment that views them contemptuously. The remnants of that establishment are either long gone or their spirits have been broken as thoroughly as Marco Rubio’s and Mike Lee’s have.

The true Republican establishment romped Monday night in Iowa. In fact, everything about Trump’s victory in Iowa reeked of an establishment campaign. He proceeded with a sense of entitlement, holding far fewer events in the state than his rivals and snubbing their invitations to debate. He dwarfed them in the Beltway endorsement race, locking down the entire House GOP leadership, among others. Behind the scenes, his aides connived with state party officials to implement primary rules that would give him an advantage in the delegate race. Even his political operation has functioned efficiently and professionally this time, without any of the drama or dysfunction that has plagued DeSantis.

Trump is the establishment now. If there’s any lasting significance to the outcome in Iowa on Monday, it’s that all pretense to the contrary is gone.

Many traditional conservatives have spent the past six months holding their breath, I suspect, hoping that something dramatic might happen in the polls to restore their faith in their party.

Most of them are diehard partisans. My hunch is that what they wanted from this primary was some sign that there’s more to the GOP in 2024 than Donald Trump’s cult of personality.

The fact that so many of them got behind Ron DeSantis felt to me like an olive branch to the GOP’s populists. It was an offer to compromise: In the name of forging a winning coalition that can beat Joe Biden, conservatives would set aside their qualms about the governor’s post-liberal excesses and support him over Haley. In return, they wanted populists to set aside their hero-worship of Trump and join them in backing DeSantis—who, for all of his faults, hasn’t masterminded any coup attempts or egged on any insurrections or committed any crimes.

Compromise would have proven that Republican voters still prioritize policy over personality. For the good of the country, in the name of advancing a right-wing agenda, each faction of the party would have given a little toward a victory both could be happy with. What traditional conservatives needed to know was that they’re still members of something that is recognizably a political party, not a Christian nationalist sect built around an inconsolably aggrieved authoritarian imbecile. That’s anti-politics, if not something worse.

Last night in Iowa, despite months of tireless campaigning by DeSantis, populists finally responded to their offer. There will be no compromise. There’s no room left in the new Republican “establishment” for anything resembling conservatism or classical liberalism to the extent either runs afoul of Trump’s political needs. The illusion that there’s a “fight” or negotiation happening over the soul of the American right has ended. Trump is king: Conservatives can take it or leave it.

After the results came in, DeSantis supporter Charles C.W. Cooke declared in a post for National Review that he’ll leave it:

Businesses that offer terrible products deserve to go out of business. Parties that offer terrible candidates deserve to lose. The Republicans know what the country thinks of Donald Trump. They know who Donald Trump is. And yet, inexplicably, they are in the process of choosing him nevertheless. They, like the Democrats, must face the consequences of that choice.

I get the sense that both parties think that the public is bluffing. I don’t think it is. Joe Biden really is fatally unpopular. Donald Trump really is hated. Shout at me if you wish, but I relate all this calmly—as a matter of dull fact. I understand that I have no right to a political party that shares my worldview, or to a presidential candidate whom I find acceptable. I also understand that this works both ways. Over the last eight years or so, I have been told repeatedly by Republicans that they don’t want my type in the coalition. Once again, they’ve got their wish. Congratulations! You don’t want me; I don’t want you; let’s call the whole thing off.

Yes, let’s. Those who held their breath for so long on DeSantis’ behalf in hopes of a more encouraging result should treat the one we got in Iowa as a last gasp of identifying as a Republican.

Most voters don’t take their political principles as seriously as National Review writers do, but if the coming election is as tight as recent elections have been, it won’t take many refuseniks to tip the balance against Trump by withholding their votes in November. According to the final NBC News poll of Iowa, plenty of Haley’s supporters there were already poised to do so. I have no doubt there are sincere Reaganites who had hoped to rescue the party from Trumpism might reasonably decide in the aftermath of her third-place finish that the party no longer deserves rescuing.

“I can’t believe that out of 340 million Americans, those are the two best options that we can come up with,” one Haley supporter in Waukee, Iowa, told my Dispatch Politics colleagues Monday night about a potential Trump-Biden rematch. “But yes, I cannot see myself voting for Trump under any circumstances. He’s an insurrectionist and a criminal, and I will not support him.”

And some conservatives who supported DeSantis in the name of compromising with the GOP’s illiberal wing might reasonably decide that they don’t wish to be minority partners in a coalition that has no interest in accommodating them anymore. Again, we shouldn’t be unrealistic about their number: The Republican “hostage crisis” has persisted for as long as it has in part because most traditional GOP voters have continued to vote like traditional GOP voters rather than join with Democrats to defeat Trump’s movement.

But, for some, the result in Iowa may amount to final proof that hostage negotiations over the fate of the party have failed. They’ve spent eight years trying to resolve this peacefully, mitigating damage to the GOP’s political prospects. They offered populists two viable alternatives to Trump this cycle, one of whom may be the most electable figure in the party while the other ran on having delivered more culture-war victories in his home state than Trump ever has or could as president. All they got in return was a shellacking in Iowa.

The hostage negotiations should have ended years ago. If, however, the caucuses are the thing that ends up finally, finally convincing conservative negotiators that the party in its current form isn’t worth saving, I’ll take it.

A colleague suggested in Slack this morning that we are witnessing the GOP die in slow motion. I wouldn’t put it that way: I doubt that the political entity known as “the Republican Party” is going anywhere. But the old establishment is certainly dead and the coalition that’s defined the Republican Party for most of my life is dying (as Nikki Haley learned the hard way in Iowa’s suburbs last night). Let those troubled by the new order find the courage to do the right thing by leaving. For everyone else, you deserve what’s left.

Read more at The Dispatch

The Dispatch is a new digital media company providing engaged citizens with fact-based reporting and commentary, informed by conservative principles. Sign up for free.