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Dear Republicans: Welcome to the New Establishment

How the former alt-right fringe became the mainstream of the GOP.
November 27, 2019
Dear Republicans: Welcome to the New Establishment
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 02: (AFP OUT) Donald Trump Jr. wears a lapel pin that says "Deplorable" while attending the 140th annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House April 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump Jr.’s book tour for Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us began on November 7 in Birmingham, Alabama. The tour included spots on Fox & Friends and The View, peaked with a messy and much-discussed event at UCLA, and concluded at the Trump International Hotel in D.C.

The California event, which was hosted by Charlie Kirk’s organization Turning Point USA, drew a lot of attention because it was disrupted—and not by triggered lefty snowflakes but by white supremacist “Christian nationalists” on the far right who think Junior’s brand of illiberalism is too milquetoast.

Among critics of the president—at least judging from Twitter—responses to Junior’s tribulations were mixed. Everyone appreciated the irony of his having been “triggered” by some of his father’s most ardent supporters. Others were glad to see the Trumpist right tearing itself apart. For those less familiar with the dynamics of the right nowadays, there was plenty of confusion about the factions involved (here’s a good account of that, by Jane Coaston at Vox).

I was struck by something else. In the coverage of the UCLA fiasco, reporters referred to Donald Trump Jr. and Turning Point USA as “mainstream conservatives” or at least “more mainstream.” Writing here at The Bulwark, Matthew Sheffield referred to Junior and Turning Point USA as part of a new “conservative establishment.”

This shift in language represents a victory for Don Jr., as well as for the extremists who attacked him. Now that Junior has been upstaged by the neo-fascist far right, he gets to be cast as mainstream. And if Turning Point USA counts as establishment, it means that the extremists aren’t so far out there anymore. It’s a win-win for them all.

To be clear: I’m not blaming the journalists. The Trumpists became the GOP establishment the moment Trump won the nomination, or at least when he won the presidency. But it’s worth remembering that in the early days of the Trump era, anyone who supported Trump was decidedly fringe. His nomination happened in large part because everyone assumed the centripetal power of the establishment would hold. Throughout the 2016 primaries, the more mainstream Republican candidates tiptoed around Trump, believing that inevitably one of them would take the lead.

To remember Trump’s erstwhile status as an outsider, simply revisit Rush Limbaugh’s program from September 7, 2016. He read on the air excerpts from the first prominent quasi-intellectual defense of Trumpism—the notorious essay “The Flight 93 Election.” The essay, written by Michael Anton under a pseudonym, is a window into the bizarro rationalizations that go into defending Trump. But Limbaugh, for his part, was mostly just elated about the target of Anton’s piece. He called the day’s segment “The Shaming of the Never Trumpers.” Trump, as Limbaugh understood him, had nothing whatsoever to do with movement conservatism—with the “conservative intellectuals, the think tankers, the people that rely on fundraising and donations and the magazine types.” For Limbaugh, as for Anton, that was the whole point; he was overjoyed at the thought of tearing down that old guard.

I imagine he hasn’t been disappointed. You don’t have to lionize the old GOP to see that many of the think tanks, magazines, and intellectuals that made up movement conservatism since the Reagan years have slid into irrelevance under Trump, while talk radio and Fox News have grown in influence. Individuals and organizations dedicated to defending Trump and promoting Trumpism have prospered.

To be fair, many Americans—including some Republicans—have worked to stymie the rot emanating from the Trump White House. And it seems fair to say that people like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller have not found general favor with the American public. Nor have the Trump associates (Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone) who are now in prison.

But Bannon, Gorka, and Miller are the very sort of men who support Donald Trump Jr., and the very sort of men whom he supports. And like it or not, they are the face of today’s conservatism and today’s Republican party. Earlier this month, emails were leaked that definitively proved Stephen Miller’s white supremacy, and not a single Republican member of Congress has joined the call for his resignation. As Jeet Heer put it back in August, Stephen Miller’s Republicanism is perfectly mainstream.

And so, while my first thought after the Trump Jr. protest was to question the journalism—Why are they calling these guys mainstream?—it’s the reality that’s off, not the writers.

The UCLA event must have felt a bit uncomfortable for Donald Jr., but things really couldn’t have gone much better for him, to the point where the protest might as well have been coordinated. By drawing attention to the furthest extremes of the party, the execrable Nick Fuentes and his protesting friends made Junior—who just last year was being called “Dad’s Ambassador to the Fringe”—look like a moderate.

On a psychological plane, the tactic resembles an absurd moment from this month’s impeachment hearings, when the GOP counsel noted that Trump’s actions could have been more outlandish. Call it the ‘Hold My Beer’ model of politicking: this action/person/policy is really nothing to worry about because, well, it could have been so much worse.

For the record, I have no idea whether there was any coordination before the UCLA protest, but the use of such “mainstreaming” tactics in far-right circles is well known. In a recent investigative report for Splinter, Hannah Gais delivers a thorough account of some of the networks involved in racist idea-laundering on the right.

And at the same time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that such theatrical maneuvering—a natural corollary to infighting about party boundaries and gatekeeping—happens on the left, too. Indeed, one of the most explicit accounts of such a strategy that I’ve ever read comes from the environmental activist Dave Foreman, co-founder of the radical group Earth First! Writing back in 1982, Foreman, frustrated with the stagnation in mainstream environmentalism, explained how his group sought “to demonstrate that the Sierra Club and its allies were raging moderates, believers in the system, and to refute the . . . contention that they were ‘extremist environmentalists.’” Today’s progressives, thanks to their radical Green New Deal, have changed the conversation about climate change, too: They’ve succeeded in shifting the ideological center of gravity, and thus in transforming public perceptions of establishment Democrats. Whether intentionally or not, Nick Fuentes serves a similar role for Donald Trump Jr., Charlie Kirk, and Turning Point USA.

Except, of course, for the ends being served. The extreme environmentalists and Green New Dealers are fighting for the future of life on this planet. Nick Fuentes and his ilk want a white Christian ethnostate.

That conservatives today aren’t reeling at this difference tells us all we need to know about the successes of the alt-right. And these organizations, this rhetoric, these young people trading in ignorance, irony, and inhumanity—all will be around for years to come, long after Trump Sr. is out of office.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new mainstream GOP.

Laura K. Field

Laura K. Field is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a scholar in residence at American University. Twitter: @lkatfield.