The GOP establishment is cooked: Why it's powerless against the ultra-right's onslaught

Stick a fork in the GOP graybeards. The latest fracas over debate rules shows how they've completely lost control

By Sean Illing
Published October 30, 2015 5:55PM (EDT)
  (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast/Susan Walsh/John Locher)
(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast/Susan Walsh/John Locher)

The Republican Party has changed a lot in the last two decades. The birth of Fox News in 1996 and the explosion of right-wing talk radio has dramatically altered the way conservatives acquire and disseminate information.

On the one hand, this has been good for grassroots conservativism. There’s now a vibrant echo chamber within which propaganda and talking points spread like wildfire. The conservative base, as a result, is continually charged with a sense of urgency and persecution mania. Every month, it seems, there’s a new crisis narrative, a new scandal, a new liberal scheme to bring down the Republic.

While the emergent conservative ecosystem has worked wonders for demagogues and political entrepreneurs, it’s been disastrous for the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the establishment wing of the party. They simply can’t control the party any longer, and they’re increasingly hated by their own constituencies.

The religious right and the Tea Party movement, because they’re the most animated, have pulled the party further and further to the right. In the meantime, the rest of the country, including many centrists and independents, are running away from the Republican Party as fast as they can.

All of this is playing out in near tragic fashion in the Republican presidential race. You’ve got two candidates at the top of the polls, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who can’t win a general election and who have no business running for president. But the base loves them and is supporting them almost out of spite, because the establishment keeps telling them to rally behind a Bush or a Romney or some other milquetoast moderate.

The conservative lust for an outsider has benefited not just Trump and Carson but also candidates like Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, who’ve been empowered by a base who wants everything the establishment doesn’t. It’s no accident that candidates, even veteran politicians like Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, are selling themselves as outsiders – that’s what conservatives are demanding right now, and they don’t care about the process or experience or even credentials.

Things appear to be getting worse for the RNC. According to Politico, several of the campaigns are now openly revolting against the RNC because they’re unhappy with the debate process. Alex Isenstadt writes:

Republican presidential campaigns are planning to gather in Washington, D.C., on Sunday evening to plot how to alter their party’s messy debate process – and how to remove power from the hands of the Republican National Committee. Not invited to the meeting: Anyone from the RNC, which many candidates have openly criticized in the hours since Wednesday’s CNBC debate.

The meeting is being organized by the campaigns of Trump, Carson, Jindal and Lindsey Graham. And this makes a lot sense. Trump and Carson would rather not debate at all -- their campaigns have nothing to do with the issues, after all. Jindal is a punchline whose only appeal is to religious nuts in Iowa, so of course he wants to circumnavigate the process. Graham, I assume, just wants a little attention. The point, though, is that this gambit may actually work. Because the RNC has lost its grip on the party, the candidates aren’t obliged to follow its lead. It seems the candidates are beginning to take advantage of this fact.

Bottom line: This isn’t the RNC’s party anymore. They don’t have any leverage. The base gets their marching orders from institutions outside the party and the candidates are, ultimately, responsive to Republican voters, not the RNC.

At the end of the day, the candidates have to give the people what they want, and the people clearly want an outsider, someone not rubber stamped by the establishment. That means the campaigns, so long as they pander to the base, have more power than the RNC does. If they’re able to override the RNC on something as important as the debate process, then you can expect them to cave on more demands in the future.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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