The Republican Party Deserves a Better Civil War

Bannon, McConnell. Photo: Photo-Illustration: Getty Images; Library of Congress

The Republican Establishment deserves an insurrection. They promised their voters more affordable health care, then tried to make it more expensive; vowed to take on crony capitalism, then gave their favorite firms the right to fleece their clients; touted a middle-class tax cut, then drafted a giant giveaway to the one percent; pledged to reduce the debt and mitigate the opioid crisis — then voted to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit for corporate tax cuts on the same day that they refused to commit a single dollar in new funds to that “public health emergency.”

Mitch McConnell’s crew is a pack of gout-ridden French nobleman circa 1788. Their nightmares should gleam with guillotines.

But Steve Bannon’s rebels deserve a counterrevolution. They promise to wrest control of the GOP agenda away from a family of libertarian billionaires … and then hand it over to a slightly more xenophobic family of libertarian billionaires. They decry the Republican Party for selling out the working class, then assail it for failing to take health insurance away from 20 million people. They sing paeans to the Constitution and individual liberty, while proclaiming unconditional loyalty to the president as the first principle of their politics.

These deplorables look at a party that all but encourages wage theft, financial fraud, and workplace injuries, and then think: The Republican Party’s greatest crime against working people is its lack of enthusiasm for deporting undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

When you contemplate the GOP’s civil war for long enough, it starts to feel like the only side worth rooting for is the supervolcano under Yellowstone.

Take the Establishment’s counteroffensive. After Bannon hopped onto the Roy Moore bandwagon in Alabama; intimidated the Trump-averse Senate Republicans Jeff Flake and Bob Corker into retirement; and recruited a motley crew of oddball reactionaries to primary a (seemingly random) slew of conservative incumbents, McConnell’s forces finally settled on a strategy for restoring order: Paint any candidate that Bannon supports as complicit in white nationalism. As the Washington Post reports:

[T]he McConnell-allied Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) will highlight Bannon’s hard-line populism and attempt to link him to white nationalism to discredit him and the candidates he will support. It will also boost candidates with traditional GOP profiles and excoriate those tied to Bannon, with plans to spend millions and launch a heavy social media presence in some states.

This could have been a perfectly admirable line of attack, maybe even enough to win a progressive to McConnell’s side. Sure, the Senate Majority Leader is the embodiment of all that’s corrupt and nihilistic in conservative politics. But Stalin was no great shakes, either — and it was still worth taking his side in a fight against Nazis.

Alas, this spirit of solidarity is difficult to maintain: The Senate Leadership Fund might decry white nationalism on the airwaves, but the actual Senate leadership has endorsed the candidacy of a Bannon-backed theocrat who believes Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress — and is imploring congressional Republicans not to say a critical word about the Bannon-aligned candidate in the Oval Office.

The former White House adviser’s appeals to economic “populism” ring similarly hollow. Bannon has called for higher taxes on the rich, New Deal–style public-works projects, and tighter regulation of Silicon Valley giants. In his attacks on the Republican Establishment, Bannon occasionally points to the real villains. Asked by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer about the prospect of a Pence presidency, Bannon replied, “I’m concerned he’d be a President that the Kochs would own.”

That is a rational concern. And yet, Bannon’s website and insurgency is bankrolled by the family of libertarian billionaire Robert Mercer — a man so populist, he (reportedly) told a colleague that the life of a person on food stamps is worth less than that of a house cat. What’s more, Bannon’s heterodox economic views show up nowhere in the campaigns of his chosen candidates, many of whom are running as more enthusiastic proponents of gutting the welfare state and slashing taxes than Mitch McConnell is.

Thus, the whole Bannon-McConnell feud can look like a fight between servants of an extractive elite pretending they aren’t racist, and racists pretending that they aren’t servants of an extractive elite.

And yet: If volcanic winter is off the table, then you probably have to pull for McConnell. While the two sides have few genuine disagreements on health care, tax cuts, or the acceptability of stoking white racism for political gain, there are still two substantive issues in play: First, whether Congress should comport itself as a co-equal branch of government or as the president’s loyal foot soldiers — and second, whether 800,000 American-raised undocumented immigrants should be stripped of legal status.

These aren’t idle questions. And on both, the GOP Establishment’s position is preferable to Bannon’s. Paul Ryan is reportedly committed to putting legal status for DACA recipients into December’s omnibus spending bill. Bannon’s candidates are united in their opposition to such “amnesty.” And while GOP leaders conduct themselves as Donald Trump’s sycophants 95 percent of the time, they have occasionally asserted their independence — as when McConnell’s caucus prevented the president from replacing his Attorney General (and thus, killing the Mueller probe) over their recess. When that probe produced its first indictments on Monday, several Establishment Republican lawmakers reiterated their support for the special counsel’s investigation. Bannon, meanwhile, implored the president to defund Mueller’s efforts — and then carried on trying to drum Bob Corker out of public life for having the temerity to inform the public that Trump’s military advisers are terrified of his belligerent incompetence.

Best then, for McConnell to reconsolidate his power. The GOP Establishment needs to be overthrown — but for the moment, there are no moderate rebels for its enemies to arm.

The Republican Party Deserves a Better Civil War