How the Republican Party and Movement Conservatives Are Victims of Their Own Success

Donald J. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, is steaming mad.


After losing Tuesday’s primary in Wisconsin to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the Trump campaign issued a statement decrying the machinations of party leaders. “Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet—he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump," the statement read.

And he might just be right. As I wrote last week, the endorsement of Cruz by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a former presidential contender himself and a beneficiary of the political apparatus built by the billionaire Koch brothers, suggested as much. It was a move that seemed engineered more for the purpose of keeping Trump from bearing the standard of the GOP than of assisting a candidate capable of winning the nomination outright, which Cruz is likely not.

Even if, with the help of party establishment types such as Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, Cruz manages to stop Trump from accumulating the 1,237 delegates he’ll need to win the nomination on the first ballot when the party convenes in Cleveland this July, there’s no guarantee that Cruz will be the nominee once pledged delegates are unbound in subsequent rounds of balloting. But he will have done for the establishment what it could not do for itself—kept control of the party in the hands of party leaders.

Undermining Party Leaders

That Republican officials should turn to Ted Cruz to save the party stands as proof of the thesis laid out in Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, by E.J. Dionne Jr.— that in reaping the rewards of resentment, the GOP is now the victim of its own success. Dionne masterfully traces the influence of movement conservatism and its offshoots on the party of Lincoln, revealing how—despite all assertions of noble principles by conservative thinkers—the party’s rightward turn first led to the election of candidates bent on undermining party leaders. Nonetheless, those very same leaders indulged absurd declarations from the right’s most fevered swamps in exchange for Republican control of Congress.

Take Cruz, for example. Former Representative John Boehner, during his tenure as House speaker, surely wished someone would have. In 2013, Cruz instigated a government shutdown with a preposterous scheme to tie the passage of a continuing resolution that would keep the government running to a repeal of Obamacare, a cause to which he enlisted House Republicans. As Dionne shows, this maneuver was a departure even for a party known for its obstruction of virtually any initiative tied to President Barack Obama. With the shutdown, Dionne writes, “the GOP had caused fiscal chaos over an issue quite apart from normal budget wrangling and made a demand most of them knew would never be met.”

Few believed that Cruz actually thought his strategy would work on its face; what it did was give the freshman senator from Texas a lot of face time on television as he launched into a 13-hour speech designed to resemble a filibuster. (Were it an actual filibuster, Cruz’s speech would have held up voting on the continuing resolution. The vote went on as scheduled.)

The government was closed for 16 days, and Republicans took the blame. “What he did was stood up for Ted and threw the Republican Party under the bus,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolinian who abandoned his own presidential bid in December, in an interview on Fox News Radio’s Kilmeade & Friends. Last month, Graham endorsed Cruz’s campaign for the presidency. Anything to stop Trump.

Chaos and Logic

As Dionne demonstrates in Why the Right Went Wrong, the Cruz shutdown gambit, opposed by such anti-government stalwarts as Grover Norquist, can be seen as a natural result of the anti-government rhetoric used to prime the party’s right wing, which forms its base. These are the people who can be counted on to vote in primaries and caucuses. For many members of the base, the coupling of invective against Obamacare—a big government program initiated by a black president—with opposition to funding the big, bad, Democrat-led government had its own kind of coherence. Its momentum was fed by the spectacle of Cruz, an upstart elected to the Senate as part of the Tea Party wave, sticking it to those yellow-bellied party leaders who would rather compromise, in the view of many in the base, than stand on principle.

But the views embraced by the Republican base, of course, are hardly representative of those of the American electorate writ large. As Dionne notes, “Americans often respond to antigovernment arguments in theory, but in practice value the services government provides.”

And this is the part of the equation that Trump truly gets, Dionne asserts, citing the billionaire’s promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, and to tax the wealthy at higher rates than they currently enjoy.

It would seem that Cruz, now with visions of nominational sugar plums dancing in his head, is beginning to understand. In his victory speech celebrating his blowout win in Wisconsin’s primary, Cruz even made a pitch to “union members”—men and women “with callouses on their hands.” (Perhaps he’s been reading Dionne.)

Indulging Conspiracy Theorists

The other thing Trump understands is the psychological insecurity experienced by people who feel the ground shifting beneath their feet as the role of women changes in society; as new immigrants to the U.S. tend not to be white; as a religion unfamiliar to most Americans (and identified with the enemy) has a growing presence in the country; as African Americans become more integrated into the larger society. That psychological insecurity has long been exploited by right-wing forces, and the failure of party leaders to tamp it down in recent years paved the way for Trump’s presidential candidacy under the GOP banner.

Dionne cites a telling interview of Boehner that took place on NBC’s Meet the Pressin 2011. The right-wing conspiracy theory that Obama had not been born in the United States was still in full fury, with none other than Donald Trump often leading the charge, along with the notion that Obama was a secret practitioner of Islam (a religion whose adherents, Trump recently said, should be barred from entering the United States). Asked by host David Gregory to repudiate such notions, Boehner replied, “David, it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” He went on to say that he takes the president at his word when he calls himself a Christian, and trusts the State of Hawaii when it says that Obama was born there.

Two weeks ago, Boehner said he’d like House Speaker Paul Ryan to be the party’s nominee, assuming that no candidate wins the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention, which will take place in the former speaker’s home state. Ryan may put a nicer face on the Republican ticket but he’s a champion of the right-wing war on government, a long-time practitioner of the rhetoric that divides American society into categories of “makers and takers”—the very ideological expression that Dionne sees as having done in the GOP.

It speaks volumes that Ryan recently apologized for having used such language, for having demonized poor people in that way. Perhaps he, too, has been reading Dionne.

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