What exactly does it mean to be anti-establishment at this point?
Believe it or not, those words used to mean, well, being opposed to the establishment. It meant opposing the inept, do-nothing, faux-conservative Republican old guard that has incompetently charted the direction of the GOP for far too long. It meant forcefully weeding out the Boehners, the McConnells, and the McCains of the party who, if there were any justice in the world, would have been term-limited and sent home to enjoy their retirements about a decade or two ago. The 2010 and 2014 midterm elections were thrilling times to be anti-establishment, as conservatives bore witness to the rise of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, Justin Amash, Dave Brat, and many others who would do their part to hopefully usher in a new era of Republican politics.
And then along came Donald Trump, who rooted his campaign message in taking advantage of that anti-establishment fervor and, in turn, completely hijacked the message. The liberty and limited government credos of the anti-establishment wing of the party was transformed into the Trumpian brand of populist nationalism. And unfortunately, most of those who have been fighting for fundamental change in the direction of the Republican Party have been happy to divert their course towards Trump’s new product for disaffected Republicans.
2016 has given rise to its own batch of anti-establishment candidates besides Trump. Candidates like Paul Nehlen in Wisconsin, who ran to unseat Speaker Paul Ryan and Dr. Kelli Ward in Arizona, who is still hoping to retire Senator John McCain. Nehlen, a bonafide neo-protectionist Trump cultist, was resoundingly defeated in last night’s congressional primary in Wisconsin. This is a man who is as conservative as a fake field goal, and it’s tough to muster up any sympathy for him as he’s swept into the dust bin of political history. Ward, on the other hand, can boast legitimate conservative credentials from her time in the Arizona State Senate. Her past voting record seems to suggest that she would be a welcome conservative alternative to McCain.
And yet if I were an Arizona resident, I would not cast a vote for Dr. Ward. Granted, I would never cast a vote for Senator McCain either. I would find a different candidate or leave that race blank.
Ward, like so many other anti-establishment figures during this election cycle, long ago chose to hitch her wagon to Trump’s new brand of party dissatisfaction. She has celebrated Trump’s rise as a “populist wave….a nationalist wave” that she claims to be on as well. Whatever conservative credibility she may have previously touted, she has thrown off in order to kneel at the altar of the party’s new authoritarian demigod.
The rise of Trump has mutated the anti-establishment message into a grotesque shell of what it once was. Those like Ward who have gone along for the ride have proven that their message was never rooted in principle, but was simply anti-establishment for the sake of being anti-establishment. Rather ironically, the Republican National Convention served as the wedding between Trumpian anti-establishmentism and Republican leadership, as they became one to form a new Trumpstablishment.
As my Twitter bio still proudly proclaims, I was anti-establishment before it was cool. With any luck, a new wave of anti-establishment Republicans will rise up and give the term meaning again. Those willing to stand up to inept leadership without selling out to a vulgar, orange-faced king.