Before the bizarre 2016 presidential election, Alt-Right hero Steve Bannon wrote, “The Tea Party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things.”
Bannon and his Alt-Right compatriots were ready and willing, but not quite able, to crush conventions, to eliminate the establishment, and to relegate long-established rules to a bygone era. One must destroy the status quo in order to build Utopia.
They just needed a bellicose bull to obliterate the china shop. And along came Donald Trump.
Bannon portrayed the defenders of the status quo—particularly within “the Republican establishment”—as “a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules.” So Bannon and millions of like-minded Americans set about to demolish the status quo, which, they felt, had put them at a grave disadvantage within free-market capitalism. Traditional conservatism was about to be assimilated in one of history’s largest hostile takeovers. And Donald Trump would be the new CEO of America Unfettered.
Against all odds, it worked—the hostile takeover, that is. But did it set things right? Would it bring about the end of what Bannon saw as “a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules”? Would it level the playing field? Would it—as its emerging leader repeatedly promised to do—drain the swamp?
We’re three years into the Alt-Right’s experiment in government reformation. How’s it going?
Where are the “Republican establishment’s” crony capitalists? Before we can identify where the crony capitalists are, first we need to identify who they are—or were. Bannon did not identify them, at least not in that quote. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan likely was one of those Bannon had in mind, and he’s gone, out of the government. Early on, Ryan was fairly popular within the Tea Party as a replacement for the establishment-favorite John Boehner. But before long, Ryan and the Tea Party were at odds, primarily because Ryan was not sufficiently ideologically pure; he was willing to make deals. So, Ryan’s gone. Score one for the Alt-Right crowd.
What about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? He’s been in the U.S. Senate since 1985, practically a lifer. And when a prominent Tea Party favorite, Matt Bevin, challenged McConnell, the longtime senator leveraged his powerful office and pulled no punches in crushing the upstart. McConnell retains his post atop the U.S. Senate. However, he has capitulated to Trump and the Alt-Right crowd. Score two.
The same can be said for Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Roy Blunt, John Thune, Bill Cassidy, and on and on. Most of the Republican senators who held office when Steve Bannon labeled them “crony capitalists”—and long before—are still there, but virtually all of them have—by all appearances—abandoned traditional conservatism and adopted a version of Trumpist populism. Score three.
But have the Republican conversions to Trumpism served to drain the swamp? Is the U.S. capital a cleaner, fairer political environment? Is crony capitalism dead? Has the average American benefitted from Trumpism?
We are on the backside of an impeachment investigation that revealed unprecedented levels of corruption, starting at the top—the president who, as a candidate, pledged to “Drain the swamp!”
In three years of this revolutionary experiment in a new breed of government, we’ve witnessed the following:
- An almost brand-new president firing the director of the F.B.I., James Comey, primarily because the director would not pledge loyalty to the president. (The director was right to refuse; his loyalties must be to the U.S. Constitution and to the U.S. citizens, not to the president.)
- An almost brand-new president then bragging to Russian diplomats that he’d taken care of a “problem” in U.S.-Russia relations by firing the “nut job” Comey.
- A U.S. president directing his White House Counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections. (McGahn refused, which led to his departure).
- A U.S. president trying to cover up his son’s involvement in a meeting with a Russian lawyer—in Trump Tower—the purpose of which was to get dirt on a political opponent.
- A U.S. president using Twitter to try to influence witnesses in the Mueller investigation.
- A U.S. president repeatedly boasting that the completed Mueller report “completely exonerated” him of any wrongdoing—when the report plainly said it did not exonerate him.
- A U.S. president withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally-appropriated military aid for an ally under attack from Russian military forces, with release of those funds contingent upon the ally’s president announcing an investigation (the investigation was not necessary, just the announcement) into a political opponent.
- A U.S. president sending his personal attorney to run a back-channel investigation into a political opponent in a foreign nation (Ukraine).
- That personal attorney apparently being guilty of the very crime he and his boss, the president, were trying to pin on their political opponent.
- A U.S. president firing a long-tenured ambassador (Marie Yovanovitch, in Ukraine), ostensibly because “she wouldn’t hang my picture in the embassy.” (Not true; she did.) The real reason for her firing was that she was blocking corrupt dealings by partners of the president’s personal attorney.
- A U.S. president using Twitter to try to intimidate witnesses in his own impeachment investigation.
The list could go on and on, including underhanded dealings by current and former Trump Cabinet members, such as Ryan Zinke, and many others.
The point is that this reckless attempt to dismantle so many established norms—and even parts of the Constitution (think “Your phony emoluments clause”)—was ill-advised at best. For decades to come, this nation will pay for flirting with rule breakers at the helm of our government.
Sebastian Thrun was correct in stating, “You can’t change the world without a certain amount of healthy willingness to break the rules.” But not all changes are for the better. In an ideal world we would not need rules. But we live in an often corrupt world where rules are necessary. Our government should be run by people who not only make rules but who abide by them.
Attempting to replace a cadre of self-seeking politicians who tended to skirt the rules with an aspiring oligarch who fancies himself above all rules was going from bad to worse. We must learn from this catastrophe. Dump Trump; topple Trumpism.