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GOP Populists lack an Institutional Strategy
The historically unprecedented FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago further exacerbated existing polarization and solidifies how the right now views institutions, including federal law enforcement, as politicized against them. Now many conservatives view the national security apparatus as the enemy, with Marjorie Taylor Green tweeting “Defund the FBI!,” and even Neocon-light, Sean Hannity, harshly criticizing the FBI. However, more institutional conservatives expressed causation, with Mike Pence calling out conservatives for disrespecting the FBI, and Ben Shapiro tweeting that “If Republicans want Americans to vote against Biden, they have to campaign against him, not against the FBI or the deep state….”
In response, partisan Democrats are shifting to “back the blue” rhetoric in support for law enforcement and even quasi conservative appeals to patriotism. For instance Tara Dublin, a blue check writer who describes herself as a “Loud Democrat,” tweeted that “Innocent people don’t need to be served with FBI search warrants because innocent people have no problem proving they’re innocent…” While both sides are hypocritical about police issues, the left is more blatantly Machiavellian about how they gaslight conservatives about their respect for law enforcement, while conservatives come across as a child protesting “it’s not fair!”
This political realignment with “back the blue” conservatives and “defund the police” liberals switching places, became apparent after Jan 6th, which conservative, Victor David Hanson described as a buffoonish riot. Many of those who stormed the Capitol had delusional fantasies that the “patriots” in the military would rush in to restore Trump to power and that Trump would come to their rescue, with no realistic grasp of the consequences or the fallout. Trump does deserve some blame for the political climate that contributed to Jan 6th, but not in the sense that CNN and MSNBC claim, but rather in how Trump, half-ass, passively aggressively contested the election, rallying up rage but then backing down. Even Trump’s recent promise to help Jan 6th defendants with legal fees and pardons, if elected, is too little too late and sounds like another gimmick. The problem with MAGA is that it became a cult of personality around Trump, with his supporters willing to sacrifice their freedom and lives for a narcissistic billionaire rather than Trump fulfilling his promises to fight for forgotten Americans.
The root of a lot of MAGA’s shortcomings is due to conservativism’s weakness in addressing institutional power, which is epitomized by the private company response to cancel culture, a trope that went from Reaganite conservatives to woke democrats. Despite Trump being a symbolic repudiation of Reaganism, he never actually took action on woke corporations and de-platforming. Even many MAGA politicians, such as Jim Jordan, are still in the pockets of big tech. Another example is the shortcomings of alt-tech and failure to build patronage networks to provide a safety net for the victims of cancel culture.
Conservatives are not just naive about the nature of institutional power but among older conservatives there is still a lot of reverence for institutions. Conservatism at its essence respects the established order and existing institutions, even if these institutions are hostile towards them. The institutions that conservatives generally respect are the business community, law enforcement and the military, but even local law enforcement in red states is under the thumb of the woke Justice Department and small businesses from woke financial institutions. Military leadership is totally in line with the deep state establishment as well. Until recently it was easy for conservatives to get morally blackmailed by the left into an awkward position of supporting institutions such as the military. However, liberals accusing critics of woke General Miley as being unpatriotic had little impact.
The left at their core are institutionalists, regardless of some anarchists being used as useful idiots. Conservatives are more about principle while the left is more Machiavellian and are hedging on a long term strategy of seizing and consolidating power over institutions, even if they have short-term culture war and electoral loses. The Biden administration has been especially aggressive about exercising institutional power such as strengthening the scope of the IRS. Another example is the FBI telling Facebook to censor the Hunter Biden story, and Time Magazine’s open admission about institutions’ role in “saving” the election, even if Republicans’ evidence of outright voter fraud was weak.
While conservatives generally prefer to give tax cuts to corporations, there are signs that the right is starting to take action on woke institutions, and are now more open to exercising power, even if it impedes upon “free markets.” For instance Ron DeSantis taking economic action against Disney and PayPal, and even his blocked anti-woke education legislation. Clearly there is a shift in the GOP towards nationalism and populism, with the slate of America First midterm candidates such as Blake Masters, and nationalist Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban speaking at CPAC. Both Tucker Carlson and congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green have talked about the attacks on Whiteness, such as Green’s statement that White men are pushed to the bottom in corporate America. Even Trump never called out anti-Whiteness explicitly, preferring dog whistles. Both White identity politics and once marginal conspiracy theories are permeating among grass roots conservatives and even Conservative INC organizations like Turning Points USA are adopting “baser” rhetoric on issues of nationalism and identity.
While the grass roots energy is on the side of populism, populists have had little clout on influencing policy, as they have zero institutional power nor any serious strategy to address institutional power. Even if conservatives like DeSantis are willing to exercise institutional power, the nature of the modern populist right is to complain and protest rather than to seize power. Movements that don’t have elite support either get co-opted by elites, or overrun with grifters, as we see with “populism inc” becoming a grift, much like conservativism inc. GOP elites are often Reaganites or treat politics as a hobby or charity rather than in it to win it, in the way that liberal donors such as George Soros are.
GOP Populism is still focused primarily on culture war issues, especially outrage porn, encapsulated by Libs of TikTok videos. This anti-intellectual approach is effective in rallying up the base on a visceral level, but offers cheap wins of “owning the libs” rather than strategies that involve taking institutional power. The Right is so heavily invested in certain narratives, such as an insistency that if they just expose one scandal such as Hunter Biden’s laptop, or Biden’s daughter’s diary, or liberal elite hypocrisy in general, then the entire liberal power structure and narrative, will come crashing down like a house of cards. This incredibly naïve understanding of power insists that having the moral high ground on hypocrisy supersedes hierarchy. However, Tucker Carlson is just now getting that hypocrisy is just privilege and power. Tucker Carlson has his flaws, but is overall far superior to anyone else in the MAGA movement, and being from a more elite background, has a better grasp on elite power dynamics.
Many MAGA narratives contradict each other, such as insisting that Democrats are incompetent failures yet also evil masterminds who orchestrated mass voter fraud and are implementing a 1984 techno dystopia. Conservatives also have a slave morality, such as attacking wokeness under the paradigm of liberalism and civil rights, which the left uses to justify their power. Conservatives are at a great disadvantage by voluntarily playing by their enemy’s rules. There is speculation about whether the raid on Mar-a-Lago was a Machiavellian exercise of power, in order to both prevent Trump from running again and to incite the right, or just a paranoid and desperate display of the Democrats’ political vulnerabilities. While liberals are hysterical and paranoid, many of their tactics have also been effective at seizing power. The raid probably harmed the GOP somewhat, especially MAGA candidates in midterms, but also contributed to declining trust in institutions, which undermines the establishment’s soft power.
The new populist GOP also self-sabotages their own interests in how they alienate the wealthy with their rhetoric, yet at the same time are still useful idiots for the elites on economic issues such as tax cuts. Polling shows that conservatives are souring on corporations, and it is clear that Corporate America is diametrically opposed to nationalism, cultural conservatism, and is increasingly anti-White. For instance the recent anti-racism infused layoffs at Twilio. With MAGA Communism trending, the GOP should consider waging all out class warfare against the oligarchs. For instance seizing the wealth of billionaires, a progressive corporate tax, using the regulatory system to crush woke capital, draconian taxes on Silicon Valley patents, and eliminating the tax exempt status for NGOs. Since Democrats rejected UBI, as it threatens the interests of the bureaucratic client state, the GOP has an opportunity to propose their own UBI, tied with dismantling and defunding institutional power. Building up new counter elites and alternative institutions is also crucial.
Trump’s shortcomings as president further showed the ineptitude of this new populism because Trump was dependent upon working with the existing GOP elite and institutions. The number of MAGA legislators have increased, but there were basically none when Trump was elected. While Trump deserved criticism for filling his cabinet with neocon generals and corporate conservatives, he was also stuck with conservative institutionalists because the new populist movement did not have its own infrastructure. This is encapsulated by institutionalist attorney general, Bill Barr, advising Trump not to take harsh action on the BLM riots, Trump’s tax cuts on woke corporations, and his failure to grant pardons to anti-establishment figures like Julian Assange, but instead to rappers and to white color criminals who were GOP donors. Regardless, Trump served a purpose to shake things up politically, and get the power structure to take their masks off.
Trump’s supposed big accomplish was shifting the Supreme Court rightward. The courts are the one domain where conservatives wield significant power, such as the controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, the Supreme Court sided against the populists on their two big issues, cancel culture and immigration. For instance voting to end Trump’s Remain in Mexico border policy because Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh joined Bush appointee, John Roberts, and all liberal justices to strike down the measure. Also both Trump appointees, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, along with John Roberts, voted to block Texas’s measure to ban social media companies from political censorship. Even Obama appointee, Elena Kagan, dissented from other liberals to vote in favor of free speech.
Most of the conservative court rulings are more in line with Reaganism, economic and social conservativism, including pro-life, EPA deregulation, corporate personhood, and gun rights, but with liberal immigration policy. This shows the lingering influences from Reagan and Bush era conservativism in the GOP, especially on an institutional level, as conservative judges are overall less populist than elected officials. There are parallels to Reaganites being disappointed that Reagan appointed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who represented older Rockefeller Republicans, much like Kavanaugh represents Reaganism rather than MAGA. Reagan was actually good for freedom of association, in opposing the Rumford act as California governor and dismantling civil rights bureaucracies as President, which Bush Sr. later reinstated. However, those who still claim the Reagan mantel, such as Dan Crenshaw and Ben Shapiro, epitomize the cringiest caricature of “true conservativism.” For instance America as an idea, a historically revisionist embrace of MLK’s views on race, Reaganomics, and an interventionist foreign policy.
Just prior to the raid, there was talk of Trump plotting a revenge tour with Axios reporting that “Former President Trump’s top allies are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his “America First” ideology,” and that “Trump allies are working on plans that would potentially strip layers at the Justice Department — including the FBI, and reaching into national security, intelligence, the State Department and the Pentagon, sources close to the former president say.” The main justification that the left and establishment have for calling Victor Orban anti-democratic and autocratic, is because he restricted foreign NGOs, but also because he purged bureaucrats from previous administrations, a common tactic in democracies, but that has intensified with polarization.
This is the most polarized that American has been since the Civil War with Biden’s recent speech blasting the MAGA philosophy as 'semi-fascism and stating that "Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic." Even if establishment hacks are gaslighting in how they use the “sanctity of Democracy,” as code for institutional power, much of the right are shifting away from democracy and towards autocracy. For instance fairly normie conservative, Jesse Kelley, openly denouncing liberal democracy in favor of the voter restrictions that the Founding Fathers put in place. Overall both sides are losing interest in democracy and we also see the rise in Lawfare which is bad for democracy.
The current political climate is extremely accelerationist with the Biden administration’s attempts to crack down on the right, the woke culture war leading to a backlash of White identity politics, and the economic crisis, which will further fuel polarization and discontent. However, the right is foolish in how invested they are in an inevitable backlash against the woke left which may not pan out as the right envisions. There are signs that the right is moving in the right direction in how they view institutional power, but still lack any coherent strategy or ideological framework. The right may wait too long to get their act together and the left and establishment will be able to consolidate power. Even Maga Communism has its limitations as nationalizing big tech might give the state more power over regulating online speech.
The dissident right was singled out for de-platforming for supporting Trump, yet were brushed aside by MAGA in 2017, later to have a lot of their ideas co-opted by conservatives after the 2020 election. Now it has gotten to the point where normie Trump supporters feel targeted in the same way that the Alt-Right was several years ago, and there is a high probability that Trump will be prosecuted. For dissidents, it is better to let normie conservatives take the heat and not to be overly engaged in activism. I am sympathetic to a passive accelerationism, in the vein of Curtin Yarvin, to just sit back and watch this shitstorm unfold.
This may be difficult as today’s partisan politics are different than when it was irrelevant whether it was Bush vs. Gore or Kerry, or Obama vs. McCain or Romney. Now the narrative is that Democrats are the establishment party and the GOP is the opposition party. Counting on populist conservatism as a vehicle for dissidents has had a track record of disappointment, amounting to voting to give the middle finger to the system, but with no real change. Dissidents are trapped on the GOP plantation, which detracts from more important endeavors, such as building alternative institutions. I am fine with voting for American First GOP candidates or tepidly aligning with MAGA, but the key is not to be overly invested in red tribe politics.
As for the upcoming midterm elections, the GOP will probably win back the House, but only by a narrow margin, and the Senate seems to be a tossup. Despite Biden’s declining approval ratings, the discontent with the economy, the woke culture war alienating many moderates, and some recent polls showing a shift in the GOP’s favor, don’t expect a red wave. The GOP is also fairly unpopular and Republicans underestimate the impact of media propaganda on low information swing voters. Also the repeal of Roe v. Wade probably harmed the GOP somewhat among moderate swing voters.