The conservative movement is cracking up
This Thursday ( November 16), I’ll be in Stratford, Ontario, appearing onstage with Vass Bednar as part of the CBC IDEAS Festival. I’m also doing an afternoon session for middle-schoolers at the Stratford Public Library.
Politics always requires coalitions. In parliamentary democracies, the coalitions are visible, when they come together to form the government. In a dictatorship, the coalitions are hidden to everyone except infighting princelings and courtiers (until a general or minister is executed, exiled or thrown in prison.)
In a two-party system, the coalitions are inside the parties — not quite as explicit as the coalition governments in a multiparty parliament, but not so opaque as the factions in a dictatorship. Sometimes, there are even explicit structures to formalize the coalition, like the Biden Administration’s Unity Task Force, which parceled out key appointments among two important blocs within the party (the finance wing and the Sanders/Warren wing).
Conservative politics are also a coalition, of course. As an outsider, I confess that I am much less conversant with the internal power-struggles in the GOP and the conservative movement, though I’m trying to remedy that. Books like Nathan J Robinson’s Responding to the Right present a great overview of various conservative belief-systems:
And the Know Your Enemy podcast does an amazing job of diving deep into right-wing beliefs, especially when it comes to identifying fracture lines in the conservative establishment. A recent episode on the roots of contemporary right-wing antisemitism in the paleocon/neocon split was hugely informative and fascinating:
Political parties are weak institutions, liable to capture and hospitable to corruption. General elections aren’t foolproof or impervious to fraud, but they’re miles more robust than parties, whose own leadership selection processes and other key decisions can be made in the shadows, according to rules that can be changed on a whim:
Which means that parties are brittle, weak vessels that we rely on to contain the volatile mixture of factions who might actually hate each other, sometimes even more than they hate the other party. Remember the defenestration of GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy? That:
Even outsiders like me know that there’s a deep fracture in the Republican Party, with Trumpists on one side and the “establishment” on the other side. Reading accounts of the 2016 GOP leadership race, I get the distinct impression that Trump’s win was even more shocking to party insiders than it was to the rest of us.
Which makes sense. They thought they had the party under control, knew where its levers were and how to pull them. For us, Trump’s win was a terrible mystery. For GOP power-brokers, it was a different kind of a nightmare, the kind where you discover that controls to the the car you’re driving in high-speed traffic aren’t connected to anything and you’re not really the driver.
But as Trump’s backers — another coalition — fall out among each other, it’s becoming easier for the rest of us to understand what happened. Take FBI informant Peter Thiel’s defection from the Trump camp:
Thiel was the judas goat who led tech’s reactionary billionaires into Trump’s tent, blazing a trail and raising a fortune on the way. Thiel’s support for Trump was superficially surprising. After all, Thiel is gay, and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, openly swore war on queers of all kinds. Today, Thiel has rebuffed Trump’s fundraising efforts and is reportedly on Trump’s shit-list.
But as a Washington Post report — drawing heavily on gossiping anonymous insiders — explains. Thiel has never let homophobia blind him to the money and power he stands to gain by backing bigots:
Thiel bankrolled Blake Masterson’s Senate race, despite Masterson’s promise to roll back marriage equality — and despite the fact that Masterton attended Thiel’s wedding to another man.
According to the post, the Thiel faction’s abandonment of Trump wasn’t driven by culture war issues. Rather, they were fed up with Trump’s chaotic, undisciplined governance strategy, which scuttled many opportunities to increase the wealth and power of America’s oligarchs. Thiel insiders complained that Trump’s “character traits sabotaged the policy changes” and decried Trump’s habit of causing “turmoil and chaos…that would interfere with his agenda” rather than “executing relentlessly.”
For Trump’s base, the cruelty might be the point. But for his backers, the cruelty was the tactic, and the point was money, and the power it brings. When Trump seemed like he might use cruel tactics to achieve power, his backers went along for the ride. But when Trump made it clear that he would trade opportunities for power solely to indulge his cruelty, they bailed.
That’s an important fracture line in the modern American conservative coalition, but it’s not the only one.
Writing in the BIG newsletter, Matt Stoller and Lee Hepner describes the emerging conservative split over antitrust and monopoly:
Antitrust has been the centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s most progressive political project. For the left wing of the Dems, blunting corporate power is seen as the necessary condition for rolling back the entire conservative program, which depends on oligarch-provided cash infusions, media campaigns, and thinktank respectability.
But elements of the right have also latched onto antitrust, for reasons of their own. Take the Catholic traditionalists who see weakening corporate power as a path to restoring a “traditional” household where a single breadwinner can support a family:
There’s another reason to support antitrust, of course — it’s popular. There are large, bipartisan majorities opposed to monopoly and in favor of antitrust action:
Two-thirds of Americans support anti-monopoly laws. 70% of Americans say monopolies are bad for the economy. The Biden administration is doing more on antitrust than any presidency since the Carter years, but 52% of Americans haven’t heard about it:
There’s a big opportunity latent in the facts of antitrust’s popularity, and the Biden antitrust agenda’s obscurity. So far, the Biden administration hasn’t figured out how to seize that opportunity, but some Dems are trying to grab it. Take Montana Senator John Tester, a Democrat in a Trump-voting state, whose campaign has taken aim at the meat-packing monopolies that are screwing the state’s ranchers.
The right wants in on this. At a Federalist Society black-tie event last week during the National Lawyer’s Convention, Biden’s top antitrust enforcers got a warm welcome. Jonathan Kanter, the DOJ’s top antitrust cop, was praised onstage by Todd Zywicki, whom Stoller and Hepner call “a highly influential law professors,” from George Mason Univeristy, a fortress of pro-corporate law and economics. Zywicki praised the DoJ and FTC’s new antitrust guidelines — which have been endlessly damned in the WSJ and other conservative outlets — as a reasonable and necessary compromise:
Even Lina Khan — the bogeywoman of the WSJ editorial page — got a warm reception at her fireside chat:
And the convention’s hot Saturday ticket was “a debate between two conservatives over whether social media platforms had sufficient monopoly power that the state could regulate them as common carriers”:
This is pretty amazing. And yet…lawmakers haven’t gotten the memo. During markup for last week’s appropriations bill, lawmakers inserted a flurry of anti-antitrust amendments into the must-pass legislation:
These amendments were just wild. Rep Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) introduced an amendment that would give companies carte blanche to stick you with unlimited junk fees, and allow corporations to take away their workers’ rights to change jobs through noncompetes:
Another amendment would block the FTC from enforcing against “unfair methods of competition.” Translation: the FTC couldn’t punish companies like Amazon for using algorithms to hike prices, or for conspiring to raise insulin prices, or its predatory pricing aimed at killing small- and medium-sized grocers.
An amendment from Rep Kat Cammack (R-FL) would kill the FTC’s “click to cancel” rule, which will force companies to let you cancel your subscriptions the same way you sign up for them — instead of making you wait on hold to beg a customer service rep to let you cancel.
Another one: “a provision to let auto dealers cheat customers with undisclosed added fees”:
Dems got in on the action, too. A bipartisan pair, Rep Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Rep Lou Correa (D-FL), unsuccessfully attempted to strip the Department of Transport of its powers to block mergers, which were most recently used to block the merger of Jetblue and Spirit:
And 206 Republicans voted to block the DoT from investigating airline price-gouging. As Stoller and Hepner point out, these reps serve constituents from low-population states that are especially vulnerable to this kind of extraction.
This morning, Jim Jordan hosted a Judiciary Committee meeting where he raked DOJ antitrust boss Jonathan Kanter over the coals, condemning the same merger guidelines that Zywicki praised to the Federalist Society:
Jordan’s prep memo reveals his plan to accuse Kanter of being an incompetent who keeps failing in his expensive bids to hold corporate power to account, and being an all-powerful government goon who’s got a boot on the chest of American industry. Stoller and Hepner invoke the old Yiddish joke: “The food at this restaurant is terrible, and the portions are too small!”
Stoller and Hepner close by wondering what to make of this factional split in the American right. Is it that these members of the GOP Congressional caucus just haven’t gotten the memo? Or is this a peek at what corporate lobbyists home to accomplish after the 2024 elections?
They suggest that both Democrats and Republican primary contesters in that race could do well by embracing antitrust, “Establishment Republicans want you to pay more for groceries, healthcare, and travel, and are perfectly fine letting monopoly corporations make decisions about your daily life.”
I don’t know if Republicans will take them up on it. The party’s most important donors are pathologically loss-averse and unwilling to budge on even the smallest compromise. Even a faint whiff of state action against unlimited corporate power can provoke a blitz of frenzied scare-ads. In New York state, a proposal to ban noncompetes has triggered a seven-figure ad-buy from the state’s Business Council:
It’s hard to overstate how unhinged these ads are. Writing for The American Prospect, Terri Gerstein describes one: “a hammer smashes first an alarm clock, then a light bulb, with shards of glass flying everywhere. An ominous voice predicts imminent doom. Then, for good measure, a second alarm clock is shattered”:
Banning noncompetes is good for workers, but it’s also unambiguously good for business and the economy. They “reduce new firm entry, innovation by startups, and the ability of new firms to grow.” 44% of small business owners report having been blocked from starting a new company because of a noncompete; 35% have been blocked from hiring the right person for a vacancy due to a noncompete. :
As Gerstein writes, it’s not unusual for the business lobby to lobby against things that are good for business — and lobby hard. The Chamber of Commerce has gone Hulk-mode on simple proposals to adapt workplaces for rising temperatures, acting as though permitting “rest, shade, water, and gradual acclimatization” on the jobsite will bring business to a halt. But actual businesses who’ve implemented these measures describe them as an easy lift that increases productivity.
The Chamber lobbies against things its members support — like paid sick days. The Chamber complains endlessly about the “patchwork” of state sick leave rules — but scuttles any attempt to harmonize these rules nationally, even though members who’ve implemented them call them “no big deal”:
The Chamber’s fight against American businesses is another one of those fracture lines in the conservative coalition. Working with far right dark money groups, they’ve worked in statehouses nationwide to roll back child labor laws:
They also fight tooth-and-nail against minimum wage rises, despite 80% of their members supporting them:
The spectacle of Republicans in disarray is fascinating to watch and even a little exciting, giving me hope for real progressive gains. Of course, it would help if the Democratic coalition wasn’t such a mess.
If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: