The anti-establishment right is a mess of contradictions
President Trump radiates so much moral toxicity, and his administration displays so much malice and ineptitude in policymaking, that his opponents often fall into the habit of making everything about him. Trump's racism. Trump's corruption. Trump's demagoguery. Trump's authoritarianism.
There's truth to all of that. But it might not be the wisest way to wage a political war against the right. Trump's vileness is all there, right on the surface, broadcast without shame or apology to the largest possible audience every single day. People either love it or hate it — and there are already significantly more people in the latter camp. Why not let the president's polarizing personality speak for itself and instead take a different, broader tack against the right-wing party and movement he leads?
Every political coalition is a conglomeration of factions that put aside or suppress their differences for the sake of mutual gain. In the case of the many right-populist parties and movements around the world, those differences are especially sharp and ripe for exploitation by political opponents.
Consider Germany's far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The German establishment treats the upstart party as ideologically beyond the pale because of its nativist and xenophobic position on immigration. But the AfD is actually a conglomeration of two very different factions. One of them is a genuine neo-fascist movement that traffics in outright racism, but the other focuses on economic policy, advocating for lower taxes and cuts to regulations on business. The two factions fight often and bitterly, but they stick together out of electoral self-interest, realizing that they have a greater chance of gaining and holding power if they collaborate in taking aim at the political establishment (even though they disagree in many ways about what that establishment has done wrong).
This broad fissure — between hard-core nationalist anti-liberalism and an amped-up form of neoliberal or libertarian ideology — can be found embedded in nearly every right-wing populist party or movement. It certainly plays a role in the interminable Brexit debate in Great Britain. Many of those clamoring to leave the European Union do so in xenophobic opposition to the free movement of people allowed and encouraged by Brussels. But many others have no objection to high rates of migration and instead bristle at EU regulations that stand in the way of the UK becoming a free-market mecca parked just outside the over-regulated monetary union like an Anglophone Singapore ready to cash in on a craving for unbridled commerce.
The same tensions are present on multiple dimensions in the Trumpified Republican Party. A number of them have been there in the GOP since the time of Ronald Reagan. But they've been pushed to the edge of utter incoherence since Trump's hostile takeover of the party in 2016.
In recent months, members of the religious right have taken a sharply anti-liberal turn, denouncing the aspiration toward liberal fairness and impartiality in government, which they now consider a sucker's game that keeps conservatives perpetually on the defensive. In its place, the religious right increasingly advocates a politics oriented toward the "highest good," which it defines in terms of traditional Christian morals.
As a model, this faction of the right looks longingly toward the explicitly anti-liberal government of Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party in Hungary. A Republican Party that followed Orban's lead would include policies designed to restrain and restrict capitalism, ultimately subordinating the economy to moral concerns. (This would likely include obscenity laws, censorship of pornography, regulations aimed at taming the "creative destruction" of markets, and the enactment of pro-natalist policies.)
Even aside from the singular absurdity of Donald Trump serving as the leader of a theologically inspired moral crusade, the Trump administration has done something close to the opposite — cutting taxes and regulations on the corporate sector and reining in government-imposed oversight and restraint, even when businesses would prefer otherwise. Far from subordinating the economy to a moral vision, this is a libertarian's wet dream of unconstrained profit-seeking.
Another dimension to the religious right's more aggressive agenda is an emphasis on local communities (often low-density rural areas where farming remains an important aspect of daily life) as the proper locus of the yearning for moral regeneration. Yet these hopes for the future revitalization of moral standards and limits are projected onto an administration in which the Secretary of Agriculture recently warned that family farms don't have much of a future, because "in America the big get bigger and the small go out." Once again, a radicalized conservative critique of liberalism sits side-by-side with a radicalized form of economic libertarianism.
Nowhere are such tensions more apparent than in foreign policy, where a sizable number of Republicans pine for a revival of realism and restraint (fewer wars and fewer obligations for American soldiers to police the world), whereas many others appear to favor bombing more people than ever as a way of throwing our weight around, showing the world who's boss, and bullying other nations (allies and enemies alike) into doing our bidding in purely transactional terms. These two visions of America's role in the world stand in stark contrast with one another, and the haphazard, incontinent character of the Trump administration's foreign policy is the result.
Put it all together and we're left with a picture of a political movement in complete ideological disarray, unsure of what it wants to do, and in constant danger of internal conflict. That's something that Democrats can and should be attempting at every opportunity to encourage and exploit.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. And neither can a political party.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.