The most striking feature of the Republican debate last week was the candidates’ hostility to CNBC. In the course of not answering a question about the debt ceiling, Ted Cruz won cheers by saying no one trusted the media. The same audience booed Carl Quintanilla when he followed up on a question about Ben Carson’s involvement with the sketchy supplement company Mannatech, causing Carson to remark smugly, “they know.” The candidates were so upset about CNBC’s perceived hostility that they met Sunday to demand more control over future debates. Nearly all of them were mad at cosmic imp and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. The RNC had organized the debates so far, but according to one anonymous campaign manager, “Major question is if the RNC should be involved at all.” It would appear that the conservative Republican candidates of 2016 have lost faith in an institution.
That’s weird, since belief in the value of institutions is regarded as a defining feature of conservatism. The old church, the august university, the established business, the Whigs—these are the power centers of Edmund Burke-style conservative philosophy. Institutions are what conservatism turns to instead of government. They provide the traditions that guide us in place of moral legislation, the safety net that catches us in place of welfare, the hierarchies that vet our leaders in place of populist fads.
That’s the idea, anyway. Among the present crop of Republican candidates, however, institutions are the enemy. The two current front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have built their campaigns around their identities as outsiders—people who have had almost no professional contact with the institutions of politics or government. They are almost certainly reviled by the establishment wing of their party, and self-described conservative voters love them for it.
If those voters do not hate the RNC, exactly, it’s probably because they don’t think about it. Certainly, they have rejected its authority wherever it manifests. At around 10%, Marco Rubio polls highest among Republican candidates who have ever held elected office. The other senators and governors have yet to crack double digits, and the most prominently establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, seems snakebit. Based on polls from this election cycle and broad rhetorical trends from the last two, at least half of Republican voters regard institutional bona fides as a flaw, not a strength.
It’s an odd feature for people who identify as conservative to share. And it’s not just historically unusual; it’s also troubling right now, since those conservatives heartily reject the value of not just government, but also any institution that might plausibly replace it. The overarching message from the vibrant Republican campaigns of 2016 is that government is the problem, but the media is the problem, too, and so is big business, and even the Catholic church.
That’s spooky, because such institutions are supposed to be what conservatives turn to instead of government. You can’t just reject governmental solutions to America’s problems and put nothing in their place. Once you’ve declared that government doesn’t work, the media lies, the political parties are out of touch, and the Pope is an asshole, your position veers dangerously close to nihilism.
I think that nihilism explains the striking of Republican discourse during this campaign. Trump’s platform, as summarized by John Harwood in his infamous “comic book” question, boils down to the insistence that he is smart and all existing leaders are dumb. Carson’s plan is to tax everybody at 10%, or maybe 15%, but anyway to eliminate loopholes and deductions until 100 years of federal policy have been replaced with something he understands. Cruz’s plan is the same, but with the Laffer Curve.
None of these ideas comes with an explanation of how it would work. That’s the kind of gotcha question that candidates and voters resent alike. I submit that they hate such calls for supporting evidence because they’re not looking to fix any existing institution. They are gleefully agreeing to tear it all down.
That’s not conservative. I’m not sure it’s even reactionary. What we have here, in the half of the Republican Party that is not completely moribund, is a rejection of all values but negation, all sentiments but anger, all verities but that America has been ruined.
I suppose it makes sense that this nihilistic “conservatism” should emerge from the
Tea Party Boomer conservative movement, since that generation learned early to suspect institutions. It would be hard to give them Vietnam and Watergate and ask them to trust completely the powers that be. But it’s alarming to watch society’s elders declare that nothing old is any good. Disaffected though they may be, the Tea Party base lived through the richest, cushiest decades in American history. It is not conservative to pine for the past and have no appreciation for where it came from.