Many conservatives simply could not succeed in the new conservative counterestablishment. In any meritocracy, there are going to be a lot of people who lose out and do not get the glittering career they think they are due. Sooner or later those people are going to rise up to challenge the competition itself and to question its idea of excellence. “Resentment, envy, and above all the belief that the ‘system’ is unfair — these are important sentiments among the intellectuals of the Polish right,” Applebaum writes.
At the same time, they resent how spiritually flat conservatism has become. “The principles of competition, even when they encourage talent and create upward mobility, don’t necessarily answer deeper questions about national identity, or satisfy the human desire to belong to a moral community,” Applebaum continues.
In such a situation, you’re almost bound to get a return of blood-and-soil nationalism. The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy.
In office, what the populist nationalists do is this: They replace the idea of excellence with the idea of “patriotism.” Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence. In fact, a person’s very lack of creativity and talent becomes proof of his continued reliability to the cause, as we’ve seen in the continued fealty to King Trump.
There’s something to this, of course. Trump just drove out his most intelligent and effective cabinet member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, because of supposed disloyalty. Trump has been unusually bad at governance. He finally got around this week to appointing an ambassador to South Africa: a South African-born, Palm Beach-based designer of luxury handbags who is also a member of Mar-A-Lago Club. Hey, she speaks Afrikaans and Xhosa! What’s not to like?
It should be pointed out, though, that resentment alone is by no means why we ended up with Trump. It is hard to imagine a Republican A-team more stellar than President George W. Bush’s national security inner circle. These are the best and brightest who led the nation into the disastrous Iraq War. President Bush’s economic team presided over the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, a crash brought about in part because of the president’s own policies:
But the story of how the United States got here is partly one of Bush’s own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.
From his earliest days in office, Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own homes with his conviction that markets do best when left alone. Bush pushed hard to expand home ownership, especially among minority groups, an initiative that dovetailed with both his ambition to expand Republican appeal and the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.
Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Bush chose to oversee them – an old school buddy – pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.
As early as 2006, top advisers to Bush dismissed warnings from people inside and outside the White House that housing prices were inflated and that a foreclosure crisis was looming. And when the economy deteriorated, Bush and his team misdiagnosed the reasons and scope of the downturn. As recently as February, for example, Bush was still calling it a “rough patch.”
The result was a series of piecemeal policy prescriptions that lagged behind the escalating crisis.
“There is no question we did not recognize the severity of the problems,” said Al Hubbard, Bush’s former chief economic adviser, who left the White House in December 2007. “Had we, we would have attacked them.”
You want to talk cronyism? Harriet Miers, which thankfully, the conservative establishment stopped. Michael Brown, with his “heck of a job” on Katrina.
The administration composed of the smartest guys in the Republican room left office with the economy a shambles, the nation still mired in a ruinous war of choice, and the Democrats taking over the White House. Surely a result like that would force some profound policy reconsiderations among Congressional Republicans, right?
It did not.
Recall that it fell to the ogre Donald Trump to be the first major Republican presidential candidate to say out loud that the Iraq War had been a mistake. How does that happen? Thirteen years after the start of that foolish war, all but one of the men who wanted to be the next Republican president could not bring themselves to say the conflict had been a mistake.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party — along with the Clinton Democrats — had ushered in a globalized economy that made some people very rich, but left a great mass of people, especially men, without work as meaningful as what they had before. The GOP dogmatically hailed the genius of the free market, and maybe there was a case to be made for it, despite the pain it caused. But the party did not recognize how much the new economy hurt a certain class of people. As J.D. Vance said during the 2016 Republican primaries, Trump is offering the suffering working class a false solution, but at least he recognizes the pain they’re enduring. Remember GOP A-lister Mitt Romney’s demeaning remarks about the “47 percent”?
Look, you know that I believe that with the exception of the appointment of judges, the Trump administration has been bad news. Our nation is cursed to have a man with his qualities in the White House now. The fact that we do is, in large part, a judgment on the Republican Party’s behavior in the 21st century. Once more, I remind you to re-read this Tucker Carlson essay in Politico from January 2016, a time when almost everybody wrote off Trump’s chances to win the nomination. A subhed, addressed to the GOP leadership, sums up the piece: “He Exists Because You Failed”.
There is no doubt that the Trump administration, and Trumpism itself, is in part a war on excellence. But then, an honest reckoning requires admitting that so was the Republican Party establishment from 2003 until it got its head handed to it by the Orange Man.
The establishment’s failures don’t obviate Trump’s; that’s a mistake a lot of Trump supporters make today. But that goes both ways.