The Empty Center

This post is mostly about Republicans, but if you see parallels with the Democrats, I won’t argue. I will get to that in the end.

David Weigel, Michael Scherer and Robert Costa report in WaPo that Mitch McConnell has declared war on Steve Bannon.

More than a year ahead of the 2018 congressional contests, a super PAC aligned with McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed plans to attack Bannon personally as it works to protect GOP incumbents facing uphill primary fights. The effort reflects the growing concern of Republican lawmakers over the rise of anti-establishment forces and comes amid escalating frustration over President Trump’s conduct, which has prompted a handful of lawmakers to publicly criticize the president.

Yet the retaliatory crusade does not aim to target Trump, whose popularity remains high among Republican voters. Instead, the McConnell-allied Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) will highlight Bannon’s hard-line populism and attempt to link him to white nationalism to discredit him and the candidates he will support. It will also boost candidates with traditional GOP profiles and excoriate those tied to Bannon, with plans to spend millions and launch a heavy social media presence in some states.

Bannon, of course, has been at war with McConnell for some time. But this points to the impasse the Republican Party has reached. The core of their voting base is made up of hard-line populists and white nationalists. How can Republicans campaign against hard-line populism and white nationalism and keep the base happy?

The fascinating thing going on here is that the Republicans for years have been telling themselves they are a party of Principles and Ideas and Whatnot, while attracting voters with red meat and dog whistles, but the base really doesn’t give a hoo-haw about the principles and ideas and just want the dog whistle stuff. But if the Republicans become nothing but the party of red meat and dog whistles, with no pretense otherwise, it’s unlikely they can survive long as a party. They’ve already demonstrated they don’t know how to govern any more. And this is a reality that’s yet to dawn on some of them.

Ron Dreher — no fan of Trump’s — writes at the American Conservative about Jeff Flake:

Jeff Flake’s conservatism deserves to lose. He’s right about Trump’s character, but as I wrote in response to his book a short while back, all he offers is warmed-over Reaganism. If establishment Republicans like Flake had been paying attention, they would have changed with the times, and headed off somebody like Trump. I don’t mean that they should have surrendered their principles, necessarily, but adjusted them to fit the circumstances. Burke himself said that a state without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation. It’s true of a political party, certainly. Political parties are not churches, after all. The problem with the Republican Party and movement conservatism is that it regarded Reaganism as a kind of religion.

Jeff Flake strikes me as an honorable man. But good riddance to his kind of Republican.

Via Dreher, I learn that Ross Douthat has written something halfway intelligent:

To the extent that there’s a plausible theory behind all of these halfhearted efforts, it’s that resisting Trump too vigorously only strengthens his hold on the party’s base, by vindicating his claim to have all the establishment arrayed against him.

But the problem with this logic is that it offers a permanent excuse for doing nothing, no matter how bad Trump’s reign becomes. (“I’d criticize him for accidentally nuking Manila, but you know, then Fox News would just make it all about me…”) In the end, if you want Republican voters to reject Trumpism, you need to give them clear electoral opportunities to do so — even if you expect defeat, even if it’s all but certain. And an anti-Trump movement that gives high-minded speeches but never mounts candidates confirms Trump’s claim to face establishment opposition while also confirming his judgment of the establishment’s guts and stamina — proving that they’re all low-energy, all “liddle” men, all unwilling to fight him man to man.

If Corker really means what he keeps saying about the danger posed by Trump’s effective incapacity, he should call openly for impeachment or for 25th Amendment proceedings — and other anti-Trump Republicans should join him. If Flake really means what he said in his impassioned speech, and he doesn’t want to waste time and energy on a foredoomed Senate primary campaign, then he should choose a different hopeless-seeming cause and primary Trump in 2020.

I said yesterday that it wouldn’t surprise me if Flake is positioning himself to primary Trump. We’ll see. Meanwhile, after his gutsy speech, Flake went back to Republicanism as usual:

In the dead of Tuesday night, with the applause still ringing in his ears, Flake voted to strip the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau of a rule that allowed Americans to file class-action suits against banks rather than being forced into an arbitration process that generally is as rigged as a North Korean election.

Another interesting read is by Damon Linker, “The Center-Right’s Empty Idealism.”  He is discussing the recent anti-Trump speeches by McCain and G.W. Bush.

At an event in New York three days later, Bush defended the same idealized construal of the country, its history, and its role in the world, while adding more specifics. For Bush, the United States stands for freedom and democracy, which are the “inborn hope of our humanity,” and is called upon to defend them against their enemies abroad. Doing so involves supporting the liberal international order against tyrannical and totalitarian threats, as well as favoring free trade, the dynamism that results from relatively open immigration, and policies that empower the job-creating juggernaut of the private sector.

If it weren’t for the Trump administration’s promotion of a far more culturally populist and nationalist ideology, there would be nothing at all noteworthy about McCain and Bush’s statements. On the contrary, they would be seen as expressions of the purest political boilerplate — a recitation of chapters and verses from the hymnal of American civil religion that one might have expected to hear from any president or presidential candidate from either party at any point since Ronald Reagan was elected (and maybe earlier). They stand out today, and move many of us a bit more than they once did, only because President Trump and many of his senior advisers don’t speak this language and don’t entirely share the moral and political vision it expresses.

It’s precisely the familiarity of the language and political vision that should strike us as strange. McCain and Bush recited the same civic poetry we’ve heard for decades, the same poetry that lost out to Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries. Yet here we are, nearly a year into the Trump administration, and two of the most prominent figures in the Republican establishment have decided to respond by saying … precisely the same thing yet again.

James Hohmann writes at WaPo that most Republicans are rallying around Trump by saying critiques such as Flake’s are about Trump’s personality and not policy. Hohmann tries to argue that there are real policy differences. “Flake’s decision to not seek another term was as much about his refusal to abandon his core principles as his concern over Trump’s fitness for office,” Hohmann writes. But what core principles would those be? Flake’s votes in the Senate show that he agrees with Trump 90 percent of the time.  Maybe going forward he will clarify his position vis a  vis Trumpism, but it’s not clear to me now, other than maybe thinking that Trump is vulgar and doesn’t know how to play the We Are the Party of Principles and Ideas game.

Back to Ron Dreher:

Donald Trump is not the answer. But you know what else isn’t the answer? The same old GOP script. I find myself tonight thinking about the reader who posted a comment last night saying that he’s having to work 12-hour days, and on weekends too, just to make ends meet. I happen to know the guy. He’s a middle-aged political and religious conservative, a churchgoing family man. And he’s being ground down by what he rightly calls “the destruction of the middle class.” I don’t know if he voted for Trump or not, but the Republican Party offers him nothing, and he knows that. Doesn’t mean he’s voting Democratic — that party is also a hot mess — but I can well imagine that the respectable rhetoric of a Sen. Flake falls on deaf ears in his house.

The parallels with Democrats — the Old Guard of both parties is clinging to the past, although in different ways. And they are both clinging to a mythical center that may not exist any more. And the Old Guard of both parties offers nothing to beaten down working class people, and the Old Guard of both parties is in denial about that.

The Republican Old Guard still thinks it is the party of Reagan, Main Street, tough foreign policy and world leadership. Listening to Jeff Flake, I am reminded of the great line from Nixon’s “Checkers” speech — “I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.” Respectable Republican cloth coat — that was a line that resonated with people in 1952. Republicans were not ostentatious people. They were people who wore sensible shoes and cloth coats and loved their little daughters and their dogs. How would the cloth coat line go over today? It seems a quaint and alien thing now.

Of course, in 1952 Joe McCarthy was out there, too, whipping up hysteria. Behind the curtains of civility and rows of genteel men in grey flannel suits, Richard Hofstader’s pseudo conservatives were fighting against the center of their day. (I still say that if you want to understand the roots of today’s political insanity, read Hofstader.)

Both parties are in a perilous place. The political center, whether center-right or center-left, is empty. The center-left is compromised by clientelism and overpaid technocrats producing bullet-point plans of well-intentioned tweaks. The center-right, though, is just a sad ghost that wants to believe it has principles but can’t quite remember where it put them.