How the Republican establishment learned to shirk responsibility

Who's in charge of the GOP?

Leading nowhere
(Image credit: Mart Klein/Ikon Images/Corbis)

It's a good thing I don't own a gun — because if I hear one more member of this country's political establishment denounce "the establishment," I just might go postal. (Well, not literally. But since the Republican frontrunner has started to joke about shooting people, I figured it was time to get in on the fun.)

Bernie Sanders has now gone beyond attacking the nexus between Wall Street and the Democratic Party to tar not just Hillary Clinton but Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign as part of the establishment he wants to overthrow. For her part, Clinton claims that the socialist Sanders is an establishment figure as well.

Even more ridiculous has been the way participants in National Review's full-frontal attack on Donald Trump have sought to portray themselves as something other than members of the Republican Party establishment. Here's NR editor Rich Lowry, interviewed in The Washington Post:

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FIX: So if Trump paints you as part of the establishment, you would resist that label?LOWRY: We're not the Republican establishment; we're conservative. We're coming at it from a perspective of conservatism. We're not a business interest. We're not a donor. We exist outside the system, in that sense, and always have and always will. [The Washington Post]

I don't doubt that Lowry and his ideological compatriots really believe this. But it's nonsense, and the nonsense isn't benign. It obscures the reality of who exercises power on the right — and allows those who wield it to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their reckless rhetoric and foolish mistakes.

Once upon a time, in the immediate postwar years, the elites who ran the country's two major political parties were part of the country's broader political establishment, which included the owners of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time magazine, the heads of the three national television networks, and the directors of a small number of leading political, cultural, and religious institutions.

This establishment was dominated by an ideology of liberal centrism that one of its key figures famously described as "the vital center." It fostered, cultivated, and presided over a broad consensus in favor of the New Deal at home and the Cold War containment of communism abroad.

From the beginning, the modern conservative movement thought of itself as an insurrection against the liberal establishment and its representatives at the head of the Republican Party. One of the movement's formative, galvanizing events was the 1955 founding of National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr. as a place where right-wing intellectuals could work on fashioning an anti-liberal governing ideology. Less than a decade later, the magazine championed the populist candidacy of Barry Goldwater in the hopes that he would depose the reigning liberal consensus and pursue a policy of rolling back both the New Deal and the Soviet Union.

The effort failed. But by the mid-1970s, the movement had been joined by a new group of intellectuals. In addition to uncommonly sharp polemical skills and a training in policy analysis, the formerly liberal neoconservatives brought to the movement an awareness that to succeed it would need foment a counter-establishment, both to help overthrow the liberal establishment and to serve as an alternative to it once an electoral victory had been achieved.

No longer the sole outlet for argument and analysis on the right, NR was now joined by Commentary, The Public Interest, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and The American Spectator. Right-leaning think tanks (The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation) became more stridently ideological. Later on, a range of media outlets were captured or founded to serve as an alternative source of information for the silent conservative majority: talk radio, Fox News, blogs, and websites.

This counter-establishment tasted power for the first time with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan 35 years ago, and since then it has grown massively in strength and influence. Today the counter-establishment simply is the conservative and Republican establishment.

And yet, because its ideological outlook was formed when it was out of power, this establishment seems incapable of thinking about itself as an establishment. And so we get the editor of National Review, a regular fixture on TV, saying (presumably with a straight face) that his magazine, which has been closely read among leading members of the Republican Party for decades, isn't a part of the Republican establishment.

I saw this incoherence up close when I worked as an editor at First Things, a neoconservative religious magazine, from 2001 to 2005. Inside the magazine's offices, we talked about ourselves as if we were independent — an important theological and ideological ally of the conservative movement, to be sure, but certainly not a part of any establishment, "counter" or otherwise. The "establishment" was the institutions of liberalism — the media (especially The New York Times), the universities, the courts. We, by contrast, were outsiders, training low-caliber arms fire at the high, fortified walls protecting the liberals who really wielded power.

The fact that the magazine's editor in chief advised George W. Bush prior to his run for the White House and then occasionally visited the president of the United States in the Oval Office was irrelevant. So was the fact that one of Bush's senior advisors (Peter Wehner, who now writes regular op-eds for the Times) sent frequent faxes to our offices giving the administration's spin on events — spin that not infrequently made its way, uncredited, into the editor in chief's widely read monthly column in the magazine.

Lack of self-awareness on this scale matters — and not only because it's good for people who comment on public affairs to grasp how the system works and their own place within it. It also matters because the lack of self-awareness blinds members of the ruling conservative counter-establishment to their complicity in the rise of Donald Trump and the parade of marginally less dangerous anti-establishment bomb-throwers who have accompanied and preceded his rise: Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and many other less prominent cultural populists. These are the Republican counter-establishment's children, no matter how much that counter-establishment's oldest and most prominent magazine would now like to disown the most wayward one of them.

But the unwillingness to accept responsibility goes beyond taking a fair share of the blame for Trump. It extends to governance. As conservative author Rod Dreher reminds us in a thoughtful post on "Trump and the Conservative Intelligentsia," the Republican counter-establishment unanimously supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and actively excommunicated the few on the right who dared to dissent from the party line.

If there was a mea culpa for this, I missed it.

By thinking of themselves as perennially outside the Republican power-structure, members of the counter-establishment conveniently exempt themselves from the need to admit and learn from their own mistakes. It's always someone else's fault. The Iraq War and its outcome may be the most egregious and disgraceful example of such shirking, but it's not the only one.

Taking a stand against Trump is all well and good. But I'd have been more impressed by an honest effort to come clean: Yes, we're the establishment; yes, we've made some massive mistakes and need to change course; but Trump is not the answer.

Instead, we're left with the same old denial of responsibility.

Until that changes, the Republican establishment will remain vulnerable to the anti-establishment furies it unleashed so many years ago and has never ceased to encourage.

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