In the famous cartoon depicting the futility and tragedy of the French Revolution, the ringleader of the “Reign of Terror,” Maximilien Robespierre, is shown putting the executioner in the guillotine because there is no one left to behead. The inscription on a monument behind him reads “Herein lies all of France.” For Republicans, after Tuesday, the inscription may as well read, “Herein lies our party” because there may be no one left to purge.
For conservatives, 2016 is a waking nightmare. Donald Trump, a demagogic authoritarian strongman posing as a Republican, has a chance to take over our party. And the hard truth is that in spite of the complex causes of Trumpism — globalization, wage stagnation, the collective failure of both parties to solve problems, etc. — we, as conservatives, are partly to blame. The sooner we confront our role in the rise of Trump the sooner we can get on with the business of defeating him and washing away the shame and disgrace he has brought to our movement and party.
First, for Trump supporters who view all criticism as coming from “the establishment” let me offer some context: This is a subject I approach not as a pundit but as a practitioner. As a long-time aide to former congressman turned Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and other bona fide conservatives such as former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and former congressman and Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), I helped plan, implement and execute coups and insurrections against “the establishment” that in other systems of government — and in other times — would have sent my employers and my colleagues to labor camps and firing squads.
Thus, the anti-establishment chest beating by Trump and his allies in talk radio and elsewhere doesn’t impress me. I’ve been a part of operations that have accomplished what they only talk about. For instance, when Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (who, incidentally, is accused of assaulting reporter Michelle Fields) was helping his former boss and convicted felon Bob Ney avoid punishment for accepting bribes in the Jack Abramoff scandal, I was helping Coburn end the Republican Party’s addiction to earmarks. The notion that Trump is a refreshing outsider when his top aide was at the heart of the biggest corruption scandal of the past 20 years is one of the greatest con jobs ever pulled in American politics.
The violence at Trump rallies in recent days (which is the fault of both protestors who want to silence speech and a campaign that condones and practices violence) has focused the nation on the right question: What happened to provoke such anger and what can be done to respond constructively?
This question exposes the real fault line for Republicans in 2016. The fight on the right isn’t between outsiders and the establishment — the presence of Trump and Sanders prove the absence of an establishment, or at least expose its weakness. Instead, the divide is between two factions of conservatives that emerged in the government shutdown fight over Obamacare in 2013: an American Revolutionary wing of the Tea Party and a French Revolutionary wing of the Tea Party.
The Americans favor persuasion, incrementalism and principled compromise. The French favor purges, instant gratification and purity. The Americans believe the proper responses to anger are empathy, policy solutions and servant leadership willing to sacrifice itself in pursuit of the most conservative compromise possible. The French believe anger should be amplified, fomented and used to annihilate impure opponents so that only the righteous will remain.
When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) outlined his strategy to defund Obamacare, it was widely viewed as a presidential campaign announcement event. Cruz wanted to use the showdown to brand himself as a heroic conservative fighter. What conservatives didn’t anticipate at the time was how ruthlessly and maniacally Cruz and his allies would direct voter anger at the very conservatives who had worked hardest to prevent the passage of Obamacare.
Cruz’s framing of the issue as a fight against the “surrender caucus,” a phrase he used to describe his less pure conservative colleagues, was a nihilistic “Reign of Terror” assault on conservatism. One Tea Party senator privately blasted the effort as an outburst of mini-McCarthyism. Cruz’s gambit was an anti-constitutional gesture that asked voters to imagine a political system other than the one our founders had created — a system in which President Obama would give up his signature achievement if Republicans would only “stand firm.” Cruz’s demand for an all-or-nothing frontal assault rejected incremental gains, which are usually the only possible outcome in the system of separation of powers established by our Constitution. The French Revolutionaries effectively bombarded the American Revolutionaries into submission. It was a gratuitous exchange of unfriendly fire.
Moreover, by condemning senators such as Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) as insufficiently conservative, Cruz demonstrated a willingness to jeopardize the Bill of Rights to further his own political interests. Conservative hopes of protecting free speech, religious liberty and the Second Amendment depend in part on maintaining seats occupied by senators Cruz derided as members of the “surrender caucus.”
It’s worth noting that after the French Revolutionary plan to kill Obamacare failed, the American Revolutionaries led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) carried on and struck a targeted but grievous blow to the law by killing a bailout fund for insurance companies.
Coburn, who has endorsed Rubio, didn’t attack Cruz personally for his handling of the shutdown (Trump fabricated a quote to this effect). In fact, Coburn speaks warmly of Cruz and his friend Barack Obama. Like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Coburn prefers to attack ideas rather than individuals. But Coburn did criticize the strategy as “intellectually dishonest.” Coburn later warned against the consequences of the “Cruz effect” that heightens voter anger by creating false hope and unrealistic expectations. Coburn recently repeated criticisms of Cruz’s “technique” saying it’s not enough to be right; you must also be effective.
Regardless of what happens on Tuesday — a Rubio surge and victory in Florida, a Kasich surge and victory in Ohio, or the beginning of a two-man race between Cruz and Trump — conservatives need to acknowledge the fact that the Cruz effect is the Trump effect. Trump is the Napoleon in Cruz’s French Revolution. Both are guilty of doing grievous harm to the conservative movement by fomenting voter anger rather than directing that anger toward achievable policy goals. The difference is, as a RINO, Trump may not know better; Cruz does.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Cruz once said, “In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative.” Cruz is right. But he has lost control of his narrative. From Cruz’s standpoint, voters are rallying behind the wrong hero.
If Tuesday ends with a bad night for Rubio and a narrowing of the field, conservatives should reflect on how our internal French Revolution purged the most electable candidate in the field before demanding allegiance to Cruz. For Cruz, this would create a moment for healing. He has a responsibility to mitigate the damage he helped cause and can do so if he embraces the rarest of virtues in politics — humility.
Confessing, repenting and reconciling with his colleagues and the voters he misled will communicate strength and statesmanship. Doing so would help Cruz consolidate support and defeat Trump. A leading conservative Senate aide confirmed people are ready to forgive Cruz for his insufferable egoism, narcissistic exhibitionism and nihilistic exploitation of voter anger, but noted a little humility will help. The aide joked that it’s like “the guy who tried to run over your dog and poison your lawn expecting he should be invited over to dinner.”
But if a two-man race starts after Tuesday, or at some point in the future, it won’t be enough for conservatives to rally around Cruz. In a general election race, he will also need to win the hearts and minds of skeptical independent voters. A little humility and admission of error from the Texan would go a long way.
In revolutionary France, the Reign of Terror didn’t end well for Cruz’s occasional soul mate Robespierre and his un-merry band. Robespierre himself met his end in the guillotine he used so liberally. And Napoleon ended the French Revolution with a “whiff of grapeshot” against the masses in Paris. One can already smell a whiff of grapeshot from Trump, at least rhetorically.
While the French Revolution produced terror and a tyrant, the American Revolution created a generation of statesman unlike any in history. If Cruz has the courage to become a shill for compromising sell-outs like James Madison and John Adams, he’ll find himself in very good company, and with much better odds should he survive until November.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.