The Great Conservative Crack-Up Over Paul Ryan

Scott Greer Contributor
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It looks like [crscore]Paul Ryan[/crscore] is finally coming around to the idea to being the next Speaker of the House — to the joy of Republican leaders.

But Ryan’s official entrance into the race is not going to go down well with one important element of the American Right: talk radio. (RELATED: Paul Ryan Officially Announces Run For Speaker Of The House)

Rush Limbaugh greeted the news Thursday that the Wisconsin congressman received the support of the House Freedom Caucus with the declaration that it was fulfilling a dream scenario for the Republican donor class. (RELATED: Rush: ‘Ryan As Speaker Of The House’ Is Donor Class’ Dream Scenario)

Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and other popular conservative radio hosts have also voiced their opposition to the idea of a Ryan speakership.

The primary reason for the pitchfork opposition is due to Ryan’s very vocal support for legalizing illegal immigrants. There’s also secondary criticisms of the congressman’s advocacy for Trade Promotion Authority, TARP, and his involvement in punishing dissenting House conservatives. (RELATED: House Speaker Paul Ryan Would Only Escalate The GOP’s Civil War)

However, talk radio’s hostility towards Ryan has brought angry befuddlement from conservatives residing in the Beltway. Some have gleefully pointed out how the same radio hosts once championed Ryan when he served as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick. Other movement conservatives have been incensed at the idea that the wonky representative may not be sufficiently conservative.

What’s clear in this dispute between talk radio and the conservative establishment over Paul Ryan is that it reflects the larger battle that’s going on right now within the American Right.

The telling sign is how both sides are accusing each other of not living up to conservative principles, which is a strong indication that the struggle here is not just about Ryan, but about what defines conservatism.

For many years, conservatism, as it was conceived in the 1950s by Bill Buckley and his compatriots, was presented as an intellectual fusion that was strongly opposed to communism and supportive of traditional values and capitalist enterprise.

When the Soviet Union fell, the necessity of a fervent anti-communism fell with it. Since the early 1990s, conservatism has sought to replace that tenet with the less-exciting idea of low taxes as the unifying issue keeping all the factions together.

With the death of Buckley and the lack of a substitute mortal enemy like the U.S.S.R., conservatism started to become less unified by a coherent doctrine.

The Tea Party, for instance, was defined by its lack of a clear ideology, except for a steadfast opposition to the policies of Barack Obama. And that same deficiency is also typical of the general conservative movement as a whole.

That’s why both sides of the Ryan fight can accuse each other of being fake conservatives. What exactly defines conservatism and who gets to decide what it means?

There’s no central organization or leading figure to make these judgments.

A great example of this ideological confusion comes from Ryan’s former colleague Eric Cantor. In an interview with BBC this week, Cantor slammed supporters of Donald Trump (a specter hanging over the Speaker dispute) as not real conservatives and said that they were really “populist radicals.”

The former House majority leader even offered a definition of conservatism. “Real conservatives are conservatives who believe in progress through incremental progress and a temperament that is befitting of a conservative. Not a revolutionary.”

That sounds more like the platform of a social democrat than it does of anything Bill Buckley wrote. It’s also definitely not the philosophy of a significant majority of Republican voters who swarm to the cries of taking back the country.

It’s little wonder then that a serious divide is starting to emerge over what path conservatism should take — and it’s not a fight between incremental change and revolution. It’s a fight over basic principles.

On one side is the conservative establishment. They believe the Right should ditch nearly all social issues, focus primarily on fiscal matters, obsess over outreach, and do everything possible to support business interest.

On the other side is a faction that’s best described as populist-nationalists. Immigration is starting to become the core issue for this group, along with the belief that America is in serious decline, that elites are completely out of touch with the heartland and business interests aren’t synonymous with national interests. They’re willing to accept, and even encourage unorthodox positions among conservatives, such as higher taxes on billionaires.

The conservative establishment counts its members as most of the think tanks, foundations and publications that have been the bedrock of the conservative movement for ages.

The populist-nationalists includes talk radio, Breitbart News and a few prominent conservative columnists like Ann Coulter.

The establishment, being the heir to the quintessential conservative institutions of the past, wants to purge the populists from their midst. The problem is the populists have connected with a large swath of the base that has lost complete interest in the orthodox movement position.

The establishment has declared total war on Donald Trump and is starting to pour millions into attack ads and has published hundreds of hit pieces on the insurgent billionaire. In spite of these efforts, Trump remains at the top of the polls and doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.

That’s because the base has embraced The Donald, and so has talk radio.

While many of the Beltway conservatives would like to eliminate these dissenting personalities, they have to realize what talk radio did for the movement. Despite having millions of dollars in funds and connections with congressmen and other important personalities, the establishment is limited in its ability to get its message outside of Washington.

For years, talk radio has served the necessary function of riling up the voters and getting them on board with conservative talking points. Without this service, the establishment becomes an isolated elite with a severely reduced base of support. The danger for that side in engaging in a bloody civil war with the populists is that it would cost them a valuable hotline to Middle America.

In other words, it would be a movement without followers.

If Ryan becomes Speaker of the House, it’s probable that this conflict will escalate and it could result in a permanent split on the Right.

That’ll be bad news for the Republican Party, but if there’s no longer a core issue than can unite these warring factions, it’s inevitable that the great conservative crack-up will commence unabated.

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