Does it feel like the Republican Party is at war with itself when Jeff Flake accuses Donald Trump of debasing politics? Or when “liddle” Senator Corker—now brandishing the nickname once given to Marco Rubio by the Donald—says that the White House resembles an adult daycare institution? It really is hard to go back in history and find cases where such denunciations got flung around between people in the same party.
One thing is for sure, though: If we take a recent Washington Post poll seriously, the nation feels equally divided among itself, believing themselves to be more divided than when the Vietnam War was at its height. This is rather telling and makes those jibes at a divisive President that much more important. The conclusion that The Washington Post came to, based on this poll, should worry anyone concerned with the country’s civic fabric: The poll in question, they say “reveals a starkly pessimistic view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.”
Clearly, divisiveness and the use of words like “war” against the Republican Establishment, used by Steve Bannon and his ilk (more on that later), are not the sort of terms you like to hear in a country whose modern existence was framed by the result of a violent civil war. But, thankfully, some see reason for remaining cautiously optimistic, yet still on guard. Nathan Robinson, editor of the recently founded magazine, Current Affairs, suggests we’re seeing more smoke and fire than there really is in the Republican Party internal “war.” Where some see conflict Robinson sees mostly ideological agreement and unity.
Let me just start by saying that, before reading the article, I had listened to Senator Flake explain his recent anti-Trump speech in the Senate on NPR. I found his tone to be so muted in comparison to his speech, it was difficult to understand how he had ever come to sound so heated. The NPR interviewer did something, then, that any good journalist should in such a case: He skewered Flake, demanding he call out those who are facilitating a tyrannical and hot-headed Trump. The journalist asked for a specific example, in this case inquiring upon his one-time colleague, Mike Pence. Sure enough Flake was quick to backpedal. Now any reasonably thinking person knows full well that, of course, Pence facilitates and engages in the President’s bad, rough and tumble behavior. Consider that pathetic trip to the Indiana football game that we, the taxpayers, helped pay for, in which he and his wife walked out as soon as some players took a knee during the anthem, as they had been expected to. When asked, Pence quickly conceded that, yes, the President had put him up to it (he appears, in this instance, like a grey-haired little boy). Pence is a sack of potatoes that Trump tosses around however he pleases. Rumor has it that, behind closed doors, Trump belittles Pence on his far-right views about abortion and gay marriage, also demonstrating the lack of ideological commitment to the ideas he publicly espouses. That wouldn’t be shocking if confirmed, seeing as it fits Trump’s bully-in-chief method of “governance.”
Back to the article in question: Robinson’s argument goes far beyond my frustration over Flake’s flagging criticism and backpedaling (after all, you can only expect so much from a man who voted with Trump over 90 percent of the time). Robinson moves beyond Flake and Corker, though, paying a great deal of attention to Steve Bannon, who seems a suitable subject if you want to talk about a conspiratorial psyche waging war on perceived enemies. Bannon, of late, has been throwing his support behind “anti-establishment” Republicans in primaries—most famously Roy Moore—and using the expression “the establishment” ad nauseum, a blanket smear of sorts.
Robinson highlights one “so-called establishment Republican,” Peter Wehner, who has actually pushed back against Bannon’s war and his attempt to drag the party into a full-throated defense of Trumpism. “Presumably,” Robinson writes, “the difference between Bannon and Wehner can be boiled down to the difference between Breitbart and, say, The Weekly Standard. But the main difference” here is “that Breitbart’s headlines are in all-caps.” And, he points out, The Weekly Standard has recently warned that though Trump “seems unprincipled and not very conservative,” as President, he has ruled as a “small government Republican” whose main interest, despite all the focus on racism and unhinged tweets, is actually tearing down regulations. There’s really no evidence that Bannon wants “to change the world in ways that differ much from what traditional conservatives want,” namely pushing for “tax cuts for the rich, gutting environmental protections, further bloating the military.”
Robinson is very astute in terms of watching how conservatives have moved the goal posts of American political discourse over the last number of years. Here he shines: “So much of the narrative around a divide between the ‘sensible, moderate’ GOP of old and the ‘radical fringe’ insurgent faction seems designed to get us to forget just how radical the ‘moderates’ have always been.” He continues with this: “Wehner is disdainful of Breitbart-ism for pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘anti-truths.’ But Wehner’s Republicans have also spent the last decade pushing conspiracy theories about voter fraud in order to kick black people off the voter rolls, and Wehner was head speechwriter for the Bush Administration, for God’s sake, which was responsible for the deadliest of untruths in recent American history,” namely the war in Iraq.
It’s all the more reason that, when handed a budget and tax cuts like the one now before Congress, for example, we should not expect Senators Flake or Corker, or others like them, to actually do the right thing: confront the incredible injustice of lifting taxes on the middle class and lowering them for corporations and for the wealthiest of Americans. Instead, expect to hear a lot of “supply-side” economics, now more an ideology than a real theory, having been discredited since Reagan’s presidency. Cutting taxes is at the core of Republican principles. It not only favors the wealthiest members of society, it makes it more difficult for government to get things done because its coffers inevitably shrink. And that’s something Flake, Corker, and Trump can agree on (and pop open some Bud Lights together in celebration of, the way congressional Republicans did when their first attempt to kill Obamacare passed the House). So, in fact, all the talk about a war against the Republican establishment is just that—talk, a cover-up of the fact that “in terms of preserving the powers of the American ruling class, both sides are firmly in agreement.”
Indeed, the growing cynicism about government that The Washington Post found only helps Republicans, while hurting Democrats. No matter how much he speaks of the need for patriotism or unity, Donald Trump’s true goal is division, and rendering government as deficient as possible. If government is viewed as incompetent, the liberal project is doomed. Any unity between conservatives grows from their disparaging government. Which, after all, Ronald Reagan, 37 years ago, called “the problem,” and not the “solution.”
Robinson does a fine job at disabusing readers of a perceived war within the right, and of compelling them not to be distracted by it. “It’s important,” he writes, “to always evaluate political conflicts by their potential real-world consequences for people, not by the different kind of rhetoric employed by each side.” To which I would caution: There is still something of import to the style and inflection with which we make our arguments in favor of one policy over another. It is important to maintain a certain level of civility in our discourse, despite the uncivility of the views one might be advocating. On that, Flake was right, even if too gutless to really carry through with his denunciations. The language and disposition of “war” doesn’t improve the state of our civic discourse. It makes everybody retreat to their corner, gin up some absolutist faith, and strategize about how best to destroy the humanity of their opponents in the eyes of the public. There’s a principle that liberals must hold to: We cannot destroy the channels of discussion and deliberation by throwing bombs, or heating up our rhetoric to the point where only our own side can understand it. In addition, progressives can and must air their own differences in public and debate strategy and ideas openly. But how, then, can, and should, we go about fighting both Trump’s policies as well as his bullying? To that, we may not yet have found the proper answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop looking.