Trump’s Heritage Foundation Speech Is a Sign of the Coming All-Out War Within the Right

Both factions of the conservative movement want tax cuts for the rich—but the knives are out between the Bannon and GOP establishment wings.

Theo Anderson October 19, 2017

Trump's speech at Heritage called for—you guessed it—tax cuts for the rich! (Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images)

The Her­itage Foun­da­tion, where Don­ald Trump deliv­ered a brief speech Tues­day night, has been called the birth­place of Paul Ryan, the Repub­li­can leader of the House. It wasn’t meant as a com­pli­ment. Steve Ban­non, a key advis­er to Trump and for­mer chief strate­gist, once said that Ryan was born in a petri dish at Her­itage and dis­missed him as a limp dick motherfucker.”

The rich represented by Heritage are only getting richer, and buying more politicians, while Bannon’s white Christian nationalists are becoming ever bolder.

That kind of intra­party ani­mos­i­ty would be sur­pris­ing if we lived in a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal cul­ture. Ban­non and Ryan are both self-iden­ti­fied con­ser­v­a­tives. Her­itage, a D.C.-based think tank, is one of conservatism’s flag­ship insti­tu­tions. It deserves much cred­it, or blame, for mak­ing the move­ment into a pow­er­ful force in con­tem­po­rary U.S. pol­i­tics. Its pol­i­cy papers shaped the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion’s agen­da in the ear­ly 1980s, and its fer­vor for tax cut­ting and dereg­u­lat­ing helped move Amer­i­can soci­ety in a deci­sive­ly neolib­er­al direction.

Those were sim­pler times. Trump’s appear­ance at Her­itage revealed a right-wing move­ment — and a Repub­li­can Par­ty — at the break­ing point, being pulled apart by two very dif­fer­ent kinds of luna­cy, rep­re­sent­ed by Ban­non and Her­itage, with Trump right in the mid­dle. No won­der he sounds so unhinged so much of the time.

Trump didn’t say any­thing new­ly out­ra­geous in his Her­itage speech. It was the bland­ness of the event that was reveal­ing. Its pri­ma­ry pur­pose was to sell the Trump administration’s tax-cut plan, which Her­itage schol­ars” have helped craft, just as they did dur­ing the Rea­gan era.

Before address­ing the tax cuts, Trump first gave a list of the accom­plish­ments that they” say dwarfs any pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion in U.S. his­to­ry, nat­u­ral­ly. (He didn’t say who they” are.) These include appoint­ing Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court and repeal­ing the Clean Pow­er Act. Trump also list­ed a num­ber of things that we all agree on, accord­ing to him, includ­ing the belief that free­dom is a gift from God, that judges should inter­pret the Con­sti­tu­tion as it’s writ­ten, that chil­dren should hon­or the flag and that strong nations have strong borders.

Once on the sub­ject of tax­es, Trump recit­ed his pre­pared talk­ing points: Tax cuts for work­ing Amer­i­cans means job growth. The tax bur­den on busi­ness­es is crush­ing them. Low­er the rates and you will see things hap­pen like have nev­er hap­pened before.” And then he piv­ot­ed to how we’ll all be lib­er­at­ed to say Mer­ry Christ­mas” this hol­i­day season.

All told, Trump actu­al­ly said lit­tle about the tax cuts them­selves, per­haps because it’s dif­fi­cult to say very much with­out reveal­ing what they actu­al­ly are — a pay­off to the wealthy right-wing phil­an­thropists who bankroll insti­tu­tions like the Her­itage Foundation.

Found­ed in 1973 with seed mon­ey from the beer baron Joe Coors, Her­itage exists large­ly to pro­vide an intel­lec­tu­al gloss to an agen­da of lib­er­at­ing rich peo­ple from tax­es and unshack­ling cor­po­ra­tions from reg­u­la­tions. Charles and David Koch, the oil indus­try moguls, have been among its major sup­port­ers, along with legions of sim­i­lar cor­po­rate tycoons.

So it’s no acci­dent that the Blue­print for Reform” pub­lished by Her­itage pri­or to the 2016 elec­tion rec­om­mend­ed gut­ting the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) — a direc­tive the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is now car­ry­ing out.

With the defang­ing of the EPA, the cor­po­rate donor class has seen a big pay­off on the reg­u­la­tion side. Now they expect one on the tax side, which is exact­ly what they’ll get if any­thing like Trump’s out­line of a tax bill pass­es. An analy­sis by the non­par­ti­san Tax Pol­i­cy Cen­ter found that half of the ben­e­fits in the first year would go to the top one per­cent of tax­pay­ers. Their after-tax income would increase by about 9 per­cent. The aver­age tax cut for the top one tenth of one per­cent would be near­ly $750,000. The plan is, above all, a thank you gift to the super rich.

Which brings us back to Ban­non. Using the levers of gov­ern­ment to enrich the wealthy isn’t exact­ly his thing. His own spe­cial brand of luna­cy is a clash-of-civ­i­liza­tions fan­ta­sy that sees the foun­da­tions of the West” as under assault by the forces of glob­al­ism, sec­u­lar­ism and non-Chris­t­ian religions.

We’re at the very begin­ning stages of a very bru­tal and bloody con­flict,” Ban­non said in a speech at the Vat­i­can in 2014. If the peo­ple in this room, the peo­ple in the church, do not bind togeth­er and real­ly form what I feel is an aspect of the church mil­i­tant — to real­ly be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new bar­bar­i­ty that’s start­ing — that will com­plete­ly erad­i­cate every­thing that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Per­haps to his cred­it, Ban­non sees Her­itage and the GOP estab­lish­ment for what they are — pup­pets of their donors, focused main­ly on redis­trib­ut­ing wealth upward. Peo­ple, that is, who think push­ing back against hap­py hol­i­days” is a mean­ing­ful act of cul­tur­al war. Ban­non, mean­while, sees war in terms of a lit­er­al, globe-encom­pass­ing bat­tle for the sur­vival of West­ern, Chris­t­ian civilization.

Trump’s bland and mean­der­ing speech on Tues­day showed just how dif­fi­cult it is for the GOP to bal­ance these com­pet­ing luna­cies. Both fac­tions are increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful. The rich rep­re­sent­ed by Her­itage are only get­ting rich­er, and buy­ing more politi­cians, while Bannon’s white Chris­t­ian nation­al­ists are becom­ing ever bolder.

Yet the poli­cies that cater to these con­stituen­cies are unpop­u­lar with the broad­er pub­lic, which rejects both tax cuts for the wealthy and explic­it racism. So the GOP is left with Trump’s strat­e­gy, on dis­play in his Her­itage speech, of ped­dling a toned down ver­sion of the clash-of-civ­i­liza­tions fan­ta­sy while sell­ing regres­sive tax pol­i­cy as an eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus package.

Prob­a­bly the most hon­est thing said at the Her­itage event fol­lowed Trump’s speech, when the open­ing lines of the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want” began blar­ing as the pres­i­dent exit­ed — a choice as sur­re­al as appropriate.

Nei­ther dom­i­nant fac­tion of the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment is get­ting what it wants from the GOP right now. Ban­non is plan­ning his own war against the par­ty in the com­ing pri­ma­ry sea­son, field­ing fringe can­di­dates like Roy Moore, the ex-judge in Alaba­ma with a fetish for plac­ing the Ten Com­mand­ments in pub­lic places. And big donors are threat­en­ing to close their wal­lets if major tax cuts are not enact­ed, the GOP hav­ing already failed them on Oba­macare repeal.

A Repub­li­can crack­up may not be immi­nent, at least not yet. But the fault lines are deep­en­ing and the con­tra­dic­tions are height­en­ing, while the luna­cy con­tin­ues to spread.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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