Establishment Republicans Will Lose Their Civil War With the Insurgents

As we draw closer to the 2018 midterm primaries, one of the most fascinating things to watch will be what I’ve described as the battle of the oligarchs. It pits Steve Bannon as the proxy warrior for the Mercers against Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as the proxy warrior for the Koch brothers. In terms we’ve been throwing around a lot over the last couple of years, it’s all about the insurgents taking on the establishment.

But the truth is, this really isn’t much of a contest. The establishment might come out ahead occasionally in a specific skirmish, but when it comes to the soul of the Republican Party, the insurgents took over a while ago. Recently I pointed to an article by David Drucker titled, “Trump has won the civil war where it counts—with voters.” But as David Hopkins points out, that is the result of a victory that was realized a while ago.

The increasingly bitter divide between the elected and unelected wings of the Republican Party pits traditional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell against media personalities like Breitbart chair (and ex-Trump adviser) Steve Bannon — two men who are now openly attacking each other as they fight for control of the GOP…

The turmoil in Republican ranks is often described as pitting the party’s leadership class against an unruly popular “base.” But as scholars of public opinion often point out, few citizens develop strong political opinions or are mobilized to political action without influence from trusted authorities. What’s changed is whom voters are listening to: Unelected elite actors, especially conservative media figures, are gaining influence over the behavior of Republican voters while officeholders and candidates are losing it…

Many Republicans cheered the emergence of the modern conservative media universe during the 1990s and early 2000s as a necessary counterweight to the perceived ideological bias of mainstream journalism. They may regret that support today. Over the past decade, it’s become clear the conservative media can be weaponized against Republican politicians even more easily than against Democrats, since most of its audience is far more likely to participate in a Republican primary than to consider voting Democratic in a general election.

That reminded me of a fascinating piece written by Oliver Darcy over a year ago about how GOP leaders had been ejected from the epistemic bubble created by right wing media.

For the most part, Republicans and the conservative media existed symbiotically. Republicans used their newfound apparatus as a vehicle to drive home their message to supporters. Simultaneously, the conservative news media sought to lock in its audience by characterizing the mainstream press as an industry comprising dishonest liberals — something with which the GOP was more than happy to go along…

“And so in an attempt to capture an audience, they almost made them slaves to those news outlets. So there is a whole group of people who will only watch Fox, who will only read Breitbart. And they are living in a bubble,” he added.

But along the way things went awry. I’ve always thought that David Frum captured it best back in 2010 after the passage of Obamacare.

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination…If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

As Hopkins said, conservative media was weaponized against “establishment” Republicans, and that led to this:

That has left conservatives who oppose Trump in a tricky position when trying to get their message to supporters. No longer can Ryan or Cruz turn to Hannity for a softball interview. They can’t work with Breitbart or rely on Drudge to help with their legislative agenda.

These Republicans have effectively been exiled from the conservative news media, leaving them with a problem.

“They don’t have any place to go. How else do you get your message out?”

So the Republican establishment lost their base to right wing media personalities who don’t care about actual governing, but instead thrive on confrontation and recrimination in order to sell Sleepnumber beds (or gold bullion as the case may be). That worked well for elected officials like McConnell when they were in the minority and simply wanted to obstruct anything Obama tried to do. But it has come back to haunt them now, and is why they will ultimately lose this civil war with the insurgents.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.