Donald Trump is not the fault of some mythical “Establishment,” nor is he the natural result of righteous public anger with “Washington.” He is, rather, the unfortunate byproduct of one political faction and its all-consuming fight for power within the Republican Party.
James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 that factions were the “diseases most incident to republican government,” arguing that the combination of liberty and free political participation would inevitably create factions that only constitutional government could balance.
Factions, Madison said, were both natural and inevitable. They make up both of our political parties and, from time to time, fight with one another for primacy and power.
Sadly, one GOP faction has taken its intraparty war to the streets, inadvertently giving rise to the incoherent populism of Donald Trump. They call themselves the Conservative Movement, but really they’re just a group of professional activists — an anti-Establishment Establishment that is really at odds with the real conservative movement: millions of Americans who are rightly alarmed at the growth and size of government.
This battle is not about policy and it is barely about principles. In truth, it is all about primacy within the GOP. It is an effort to oust Republican elected officials as party leaders and replace them with these professional activists and their allies.
We should, though, take care to make an important distinction between conservatism — the ideological system of Burke, Buckley and Reagan — and the professional activists of the Conservative Movement. The difference is that while the professional activists that make up the Movement are usually ideologically conservative, they are also a faction within the Republican Party, jockeying with other factions — elected officials, business leaders, and religious traditionalists — for power and influence
The Movement’s leaders are chiefly Washington, D.C. political insiders and elites who, like all political actors seek to harness public support and opinion in the service of their own ends. While they call their intra-party opponents “the Establishment” in truth they represent an “Establishment” of their own — the anti-Establishment Establishment.
The first casualties: conservative policies
To seize power within the GOP, the Movement launched a relentless campaign of grassroots organizing aimed at delegitimizing GOP elected officials in the minds of American voters. Countless emails, direct mailers, and social media posts bombarded American voters with the myth that the “Republican Establishment” was to blame for everything from abortion funding to the deficit to Obamacare itself.
Movement leaders cynically opposed Republican elected officials at every turn, often demanding that then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) or Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) magically force President Obama to sign bills that often didn’t even have enough votes to pass through Congress. When these quixotic efforts inevitably failed, “the Establishment” was accused of “caving” to the Democrats.
Key to this never-ending struggle with “the Establishment” was a messaging campaign that misled American voters about how the federal government functions. Movement leaders claimed constantly that if only congressional Republicans would “fight” for principle then anything was possible.
This isn’t how American government works, of course, and as long-time Washington insiders Movement leaders are well aware of how legislation actually gets passed. Still, it made for a very convenient cudgel with which to beat their intraparty enemies.
However, by organizing the GOP base around this fictional system of legislative combat, Movement leaders would lay the groundwork for the ignorant populism of Donald Trump.
Voters, having been told that Congress just lacked strong leaders willing to fight for principle, would flock to a figure who embodied exactly the kind of fiery machismo they had been told was needed.
The end goal of the Movement’s war within the GOP was never Donald Trump. Instead, they wanted a politician like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to lead their intra-party rebellion. Though Cruz was himself a long-time member of the GOP’s elite class, he was a willing ally who was eager to step over his former compatriots to join this new, ascendant faction.
To aid their growing grassroots campaign, Movement leaders began inviting Donald Trump into the fold, giving him prime speaking slots at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and other grassroots events. They hoped to leverage Trump’s celebrity and rhetorical skill to help push their message into the broader media environment. It would prove a disastrous blunder.
Trump, ever the narcissist and self-promoter, stole the Movement’s intra-party revolution away from Cruz and his Washington allies. Trump’s superior celebrity and mastery of modern media has allowed him to seize on the ignorance created by the Movement’s phony “anti-Establishment” campaign.
He has, with frightening skill, channeled the misplaced frustration and mistrust carefully sewn over the past seven years by Movement organizations and entertainers.
Now, as the presidential primary is down to Trump and Sen. Cruz, the Movement appears trapped. They cannot credibly attack Trump without disavowing their “anti-Establishment” mythology. However, if Trump isn’t stopped, they risk losing control of their own revolution entirely.
If Trump does win, business leaders and their lobbyist allies will quickly move to work with him. K-Street is interested only in acquiring the power it needs to please its clients. They aren’t concerned with anyone’s liberty and they will be Trump’s natural allies. The real victims of Trump’s rise, of the Movement’s factional war, will be the everyday Americans who would have benefitted from the lower taxes, looser regulations, and less-intrusive government of a real conservative president.
Matt Cover is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCover.