The Establishment Needs to Get Its Act Together

The fate of nations ultimately rests of the quality of their political establishment, and it often matters more, in the end, what a Talleyrand or Kissinger actually does than even what a monarch or dictator or president might think at any given time. The character of a people probably matters less than the leadership they produce, and since the leadership’s control of information makes them largely responsible for the opinions and passions of the people, what they choose to “teach” the people is largely determinative of the people’s character.

Representative government is less some magic way of overcoming these dynamics than a way for there to be some accountability and self-correction in the system. It’s also much easier to govern when the governed consent to be governed, and the more consent you can generate, the more freedom, rights and security the establishment can provide. In any nation or political society, there is a system of laws and norms that more or less perfectly provide for freedom, rights, and security, and when the system malfunctions, the consent begins to disappear. When dissent arises, security is diminished and it becomes necessary to chip away at rights and freedoms to restore it, if possible. In an extreme case, civil war is required to restore consent and therefore security and thereby freedoms and rights. In less extreme cases, a goodly dose of repression and brutality and terror can manufacture consent, but it does so by giving up on providing freedom, rights, or the true security that comes with the ability to express your real conscience.

We used to see the latter situations in places like Libya, Iraq, and Syria, and now we see the former.

Keep this in mind when reading Jeff Greenfield’s piece in Politico about the Republican establishment bolting the party if Donald Trump is the nominee to back a third-party candidate. Greenfield has talked to many people who are accustomed to providing leadership to the nation not through any formal arrangement whereby the people selected them as representatives, but more as individuals with the money and connections that confers actual power. These aren’t just kingmakers in the traditional sense, and their predicament is partly that they seem to have lost their kingmaking ability. More importantly, they are part of a class of people whose opinions shape what actually happens when the government has to make big decisions. We might wish that these people didn’t exist, but they always do, in every society. And, if they’re a rotten lot of selfish short-sighted bastards, national ruin is likely to follow in short order. If, on the other hand, they have wisdom and generosity of heart, they are likely to steady the ship of state.

On the right, the establishment in this country is trying to come to terms with the fact that the Republican Party seems increasingly poised to nominate someone who it would simply be irresponsible to make president of the United States. And, as greedy and short-sighted as they may be, and as much responsibility for their own predicament as they may have, they aren’t prepared to argue that Donald Trump would be an acceptable leader.

As Greenfield points out, Trump’s Republican opponents have called him everything from “unhinged” to a “drunk driver” to “a cancer on conservatism.” The word “fascist” is being used to describe Trumpism with increasingly frequency, and just as often on the right as on the left.

This is not the usual rhetoric of intraparty battles, the kind of thing that gets resolved in handshakes under the convention banners. These are stake-in-the-ground positions, strongly suggesting that a Trump nomination would create a fissure within the party as deep and indivisible as any in American political history, driven both by ideology and by questions of personal character.

Indeed, it would be a fissure so deep that, if the operatives I talked with are right, Trump running as a Republican could well face a third-party run—from the Republicans themselves.

It’s true that personal character is a big part of the objection to Trump, but it’s more than that. There’s an ideological component, certainly, because Trump isn’t a consistent conservative by any means. But, whatever low opinion you may have of the Republican establishment, they also have a basic feeling of responsibility for the well-being of the nation. As much as they might dislike Hillary Clinton, and as frequently that they will predict that she’d be a disaster as a president, they seem to agree that she’d be less of a risk than Trump.

Says one self-described “structural, sycophantic Republican” who has been involved at high levels of GOP campaigns for decades: “Hillary would be bad for the country—he’d be worse.”

The objection isn’t wholly high-minded. There is a real instinct for self-preservation at play, too, because it is widely assumed that Trump would not actually become president; he would lose, and bring other Republican candidates down with him.

But what kind of defections? Based on the folks I’ve talked with, it could take different forms. One is a simple, quiet step away from any work on behalf of the top of the ticket. That’s what the self-described “structural, sycophantic Republican”—will do. While he fervently hopes Trump will meet the fate of past front-runners like [Rudy] Giuliani and [Newt] Gingrich, he says that in the event of Trump’s victory, “I would put all my heart, soul and energy into saving the Senate. I’d work to turn out votes so that [Kelly] Ayotte and [Pat] Toomey and [Ron] Johnson survive. In the end, every Republican, every conservative, knows what a disaster it would be to have Clinton as president. So the key is to make sure the checks and balances were in place.”

Refusing to work for the top of the ticket while trying to reduce the down-ballot damage is a minimalist reaction. That’s basically what much of the Democratic establishment opted for in 1972 when they didn’t feel that they could support George McGovern. And they had some success with that strategy.

A more radical countermeasure, however, is to run an actual third-party candidate against Trump, knowing full-well that it will assure that the Democrats retain the presidency.

Dan Schnur spent a lifetime in the vineyards of the Republican Party, working in the Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns and serving as communications director for the California Republican Party. He’s now an independent and heads the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He argues “a Trump nomination would virtually guarantee a third-party campaign from a more traditional Republican candidate.”

Why a Republican? The short answer is to save the party over the long term. “It’s impossible to conceive that Republican leaders would simply forfeit their party to him,” he says. “Even without the formal party apparatus, they’d need to fly their flag behind an alternative, if only to keep the GOP brand somewhat viable for the future. Otherwise, it would be toxic for a long, long time.”

Here’s Romney’s top strategist, Stu Stevens:

“I think a third candidate would be very likely on many state ballots,” he says. “First of all, I think most GOP voters would want an alternative to vote for out of conscience. But Trump would also be devastating to the party and other GOP candidates. A solid conservative third candidate would give options to senators like [Kelly] Ayotte, [Ron] Johnson and [Mark] Kirk to run with someone else and still be opposed to Hillary. In fact, I think it’s plausible such a candidate could beat Trump in many states.”

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece by popular historian Kevin Baker that is well worth reading. It’s basically a review of the interplay of political parties since the country’s inception, and a repudiation of the idea that the system works better when the two main parties offer clear distinctions to the voters. His most compelling example comes from 1944 when Wendell Wilkie approached FDR about joining forces to create a new political party that would shut out the conservatives.

DURING the tumultuous wartime summer of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt fielded an incredible proposal. His Republican opponent from 1940, Wendell Willkie, would quit his party and join the president in a new, liberal coalition.

Both men had grown deeply frustrated with the conservative factions of their own parties. The more isolationist Republican “Old Guard” had just blocked Willkie’s bid to win his party’s nomination again, and scoffed in particular at his idea for a postwar “world government.” A coalition, Roosevelt told a close adviser, would enable the Democrats “to get rid of its reactionary elements in the South, and to attract to it the liberals in the Republican Party,” while “leaving the conservatives in both parties to join together as they see fit.”

Roosevelt elaborated: “We ought to have two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative. As it is now, each party is split by dissenters.”

Baker views this idea as misguided and devotes most of his essay to explaining why, but the need was perceived at the time by the establishment of both parties because events were too fraught to leave the conservatives in charge of something as powerful as one of our two viable political parties.

The situation today is similar in some ways, but also quite different.

I can’t see Mitt Romney going to Hillary Clinton and suggesting that they join forces to sideline Trump or some other equally deranged and more consistently conservative Republican nominee. Yet, the need is definitely there, especially on the right. The Democrats are struggling with their own populist uprising, but it’s not over something as morally urgent as Jim Crow. Consent is beginning to crumble on both sides, though, and anti-government acts are becoming more frequent leading to a diminished sense of security and the predictable need to ramp up countermeasures that diminish the rights and freedoms of the people.

There’s a growing consensus that our establishment has failed us and isn’t worthy. Self-correction has broken down. Accountability is in short supply.

We can’t abolish the establishment. They are always with us in every society. But they need to –we need them to– get their act together.

So, we don’t need the old guard Republicans to run a third-party candidate to protect their brand. What we need is something more like what Wilkie and Roosevelt envisioned, which is a new consensus that is built to address the root causes of this populist revolt and deal with it in a way that is satisfactory enough to restore our belief in the system. Without that, consent will continue to wither, along with our freedoms and rights.

Now, as then, conservatives need to be sidelined so that responsible people can make the urgent decisions that need to be made.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.