We are trapped in a terrible loop. The arrogance, insularity, and solidarity of the elites empowers charlatans and fools. The elites then use the provocations of the populists as an excuse to avoid thinking about (or even admitting) their own errors. It is only getting worse.
An example can be seen in George W. Bush’s recent speech, which was widely read as critical of President Trump. Reihan Salam has already taken the speech apart, but one element sticks out. Bush talked about “the return of isolationist sentiments.”
Let’s start with a rule of thumb: As long as American special forces troops are being killed conducting operations in Niger, isolationism is low on the list of immediate threats. Donald Trump has many vices, but he doesn’t have Ron Paul’s vices.
It would have been true to say that Trump has been dangerously imprudent in his discussion of the mutual responsibilities of the U.S. and our allies—but that is a different (less apocalyptic and ideological) discussion. That discussion might have led to questions about whether Bush himself was prudent in ordering the Iraq invasion and competent in the management of the subsequent occupation. It might have led to a discussion of whether President Obama (with whom Bush has been chumming around lately) was prudent in the way that he withdrew from Iraq.
But Bush refuses to learn from his mistakes. Indeed, he seems not to understand that he made any mistakes beyond the tactical. The malady is widespread among his party’s elites. This week, the Senate GOP will kill effective immigration enforcement unless they can get an increase in low-skill immigration. They will get their low-skill immigration increase one way or another—legally if they can, illegally if they must. It should go without saying that increasing immigration is hideously unpopular, and increasing low-skill immigration is likely even more unpopular, but the Republican elites want what they want.
This clinging to unpopular policies is causing discontent to take bizarre forms. The socialization process of America’s politicians is broken. Our country is coming apart along lines of education and economic class. Our young conservative politicians, ambitious and studious “organization kids,” were raised in classrooms and Chamber of Commerce luncheons. They have the politics of the business lobbies married to the sensibilities of the been-to-grad-school credentialed professions. They know that the way to win is to stand up for the principles of lower taxes on the job creators, entitlement cuts for wage-earners, and expanded low-skill immigration. They know to be inclusive and polite about all the groups in America except for low-status Republican voters. They go out into the wider America and are shocked when somebody like Trump eats their lunch.
Worst of all is that these are the best people we have. They hit the books. They care about the Constitution (by their lights). They are genuinely trying to do the right thing. They are also insular, smug, and ideologically intoxicated. And still they are the best we have—as people.
Look what Steve Bannon has to put up with in order to challenge incumbent senators. There are kooks like Roy Moore and other bizarre choices, such as Erik Prince of the Blackwater mercenary outfit. Someone on social media suggested running Pennywise the Clown to primary Susan Collins in Maine. If that were possible, it would probably happen.
In a sane and more socially integrated America, such odd insurgents would be taken as a sign that our political elites are missing something and should be trying to change responsibly. That’s not happening. The response of the Republican elites is to take these challenges as an excuse not to change. You see, they were going to do some rethinking—but then Donald Trump or Roy Moore or some idiot on Twitter said something mean about John McCain or George Bush or whomever, and now it is our moral responsibility to stop thinking and close ranks for the sake of basic decency.
The second response of the Republican elites is to look for the next pretty face that will distract the electorate from their discontent with the conventional GOP’s errors of the last sixteen years. It was Marco Rubio for a while, and then it was Ben Sasse. This public relations-centered approach is best demonstrated by a somewhat famous photo from the 2016 presidential campaign. It has Marco Rubio, South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Congressman Trey Gowdy. The picture of this (relatively) young, diverse, and conservative group produced cries of what-might-have-been if only Trump hadn’t mucked everything up.
But the problem isn’t with the personalities or resumes of the candidates, as such. Those are all fine. The problem is that what conventional Republicans are offering is unpopular. Our Republican elites offer Baskin-Robbins Bushism. You can have any skin tone, ethnicity, or gender you want, as long as it is all Bushism. The problem is that the voters don’t want Bushism in any vessel, and they really don’t want the post-Bush GOP’s obsession with cutting taxes almost exclusively on high earners.
On the day he announced he was not running for reelection, Senator Jeff Flake said that he hopes the Trumpist “fever will break.” Flake is misunderstanding the malady. The fever—the success of strange candidates like Trump and Moore—is only a symptom. The infection is a Republican elite, exemplified by Jeff Flake himself, that is obdurately committed to an economic agenda the public doesn’t want.
The public will not suddenly wake up and support tax cuts for high earners and Social Security cuts for themselves. The public will not suddenly wake up and support a massive increase in low-skill immigration. Either the Republican Party will embrace a reasonable and responsible populism, or the patient will die.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.