There’s a school of thought (one that I subscribe to) that believes that most people who run for public office do so out of a genuine desire to help their fellow citizens. They come in with earnest principles and an honest platform, but if they end up in Washington, and stick around too long, they begin to view politics as a career, and no longer a public service.
The allure of special interests and the growing hunger to stay in power changes people. It corrupts them. They compromise their principles, and though not every politician falls into this trap, plenty of them do.
The public at large is aware of this, which accounts for much of the “anti-establishment” resentment that presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have benefited from.
In fact, Trump struck a chord early on with many Republicans by declaring that his personal wealth and his resistance to outside donors (the latter of which was never really true), would preclude him from being corrupted by outside forces. In a way, the point made sense. Not a lot of sense, being that Trump has built his brand off of doing whatever it takes to expand his net worth — not be content with it, but Trump presented the narrative with enough conviction that it worked.
Voters on the political right have been particularly sensitive to the notion of Washington robbing their representatives of their principles. They elect candidates who promise to shrink government, defend the constitution, and protect individual rights…then they watch those leaders (even when in the majority) preside over government expansion and the additional loss of freedoms.
From this frustration arose anti-establishment movements like the Tea Party, and the embrace of outsider politicians like Ted Cruz, who promised to pull “RINOs” and “squishy Republicans” back into line in Washington. Influential conservatives on television and radio hailed (and even campaigned for) these efforts, demanding ideological purity within the Republican Party. They cheered on the government shutdown of 2013. They celebrated the removal of Eric Cantor. They pressured John Boehner into stepping down from his Speakership. And they did all of these things in the name of principled conservatism, a message on which they had the Republican base largely behind them.
It’s been less than seven months since Boehner retired, and the political landscape within the establishment GOP has certainly changed since then. But instead of a principled conservative now leading the party, it’s being led by the presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, a big-government, constitutionally disinterested, unprincipled autocrat who recently responded to the questioning of his conservative beliefs with, “…at this point, who cares?”
How did this happen? How did a man who personifies so much of what the Republican base disdained for so long wind up as their standard bearer?
As it turns out, there’s a force in American politics that is even more effective at corrupting and killing conservative principles than Washington DC. It’s called the conservative media.
Some of the nation’s loudest and most influential conservative voices over the past several years haven’t belonged to politicians. They’ve belonged to media personalities. That observation might not reflect well on the leadership of the Republican Party, but it’s the reality. And among those media conservatives are some who’ve built a large, loyal following of like-minded listeners who’ve come to trust them.
It was people like Rush Limbaugh who cheered on the government shutdown in the name of debt control. It was people like Sean Hannity who ad nauseam labeled those who opposed it as RINOs and fake conservatives. It was people like Laura Ingraham who called for the heads of Republican leaders deemed not conservative enough to represent the party. Whether or not you agreed with the methods and strategies they supported, you would have had a hard time questioning the principles behind them.
So when these people (and several others), suddenly shelved those ideals to promote, normalize, and run interference for the candidacy of Donald Trump (a man far more liberal and dishonest than any of the Republican politicians they’ve bastardized over the years), their collective efforts managed to convince a lot of otherwise conservative-leaning folks that the evolution from principle to personality was a righteous one.
The motivations of these ringleaders vary. Some of them have longstanding personal friendships with Trump. In other cases, ratings are the goal; Trump’s a proven ratings juggernaut. I wouldn’t even rule out the presumption of political favors and appointments with a few select people. Regardless, their advocacy has been compelling enough to convince a lot of their fans that Trump is indeed a conservative, regardless of his past and the contrary things he regularly says.
This disingenuous validation of Trump’s philosophical credentials, along with the candidate’s populist appeal, has contributed to what columnist Charles Krauthammer recently called an “ideological earthquake.” The aftershocks from that earthquake have led to a rhetorical sea-change that has been nothing short of mind-numbing.
Suddenly, it’s the anti-Trump conservatives that are “RINOs.” It’s the grassroots conservatives that are the “establishment types.” Former right-wing heroes like Newt Gingrich have jumped onto the Trump Train, and are railing against “Washington elites” (which in Gingrich’s case displays a stunning lake of self-awareness). Even Tea Party champion, Sarah Palin, is now using her media clout to campaign on behalf of Trump (and his fiscally liberal platform) against the Republican Party’s leading voice on entitlement reform, Paul Ryan.
We have witnessed a breathtaking exodus of conservative thought over the past year, in large part because of the self-serving decisions of conservative-media figureheads to pervert it. To listen to them continue to accuse “establishment” Republican politicians of compromising their principles is now laughable, considering that they’ve now done arguably more to derail the conservative movement.
They have become the corrupt politicians that they have excoriated for years — once true believers in the cause, but now motivated by self-interest to preach one belief system while demonstrating another. If only there were media term-limits; I kid.
It should be noted that other, less known media conservatives have stepped up to grab onto the loose reins of this driver-less stagecoach. Several appear to be admirable, principled people who ironically never believed (nor called for) a purity test for the Republican Party in the first place. I’ll likely profile some of them in a future column.
Hopefully, they’ll earn themselves a larger platform, and one day stage their own anti-establishment take-over of the old guard.