The Citizens United decision put a political system already de facto corrupted by big money into overdrive. We're only a step away from individual politicians wearing brand labels on their clothing as they perform their legislative tasks on the floor of Congress or state legislators or on city councils.
But the use of "establishment" in the context of the current Republican Presidential race actually means something less expansive. And even more vague. In current pundit-speak, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the two "populist" or "anti-establishment" or "outsider" candidates, while Marco Rubio, Jeb! BUSH and Chris Christie count as the "establishment."
But it's not as though there are substantial and obvious policy differences between the "establishment" Republicans and the "insurgents" or whatever you want to call them. If I put my mind to it, I could probably put together a half-decent argument that Trump and Cruz represent and authoritarian white nationalist position while the others represent some other kind of distinctive authoritarian oligopolist position.
Obviously, individuals matter. In the US federal government, the person holding the Presidency matters far more than it should. But neither does the Presidency carry some magical power of getting things done by Leadership, as our Pod Pundits used to demand of Obama all the time.
But I just don't see any substantial policy split between the "establishment" and the Trump/Cruz whatever. They all support torture. The all oppose prosecuting Americans who commit war crimes. They all support segregationist voter-suppression laws. They are all distinctly hostile to immigrants and Latinos. They all reflexively defend cops who murder black civilians with no good reason. They all advocate war, war and more war. They all want the wealthy to be free of the terrible burden of paying taxes to support their country. They all want to abolish the ACA/Obamacare. They all want to privatize Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid under the guise of "saving" them. They all favor endlessly boosting military spending to enrich military contractors who contribute generously to Republican campaigns. They all want unlimited gun proliferation in the United States. The all back unlimited federal electronic surveillance.
The exceptions to this consensus are few and far between. John McCain, who had personal experience in the field, may genuinely oppose torture. Rand Paul occasionally questions military adventurism, though his Old Right Isolationism is at least as toxically nationalistic as the war worship of his fellow Republicans. And among the five top still-at-least-marginally-credible Presidential candidates, the difference in approach are less a mattering of opposing policies than of who will implement them most quickly and most viciously.
Paul Krugman comments as follows on the policy consensus within the Republican base (A Small Silent Minority 01/19/2016):
... the average of recent polls shows Trump, Cruz, and Carson with the support of roughly two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters, while all the establishment candidates combined draw barely 20 percent. And do we really imagine that any significant fraction of the overwhelmingly dominant blowhard bloc consists of moderate voters who just don’t realize what they would be getting from Trump or Cruz?The 1996 Republican Presidential candidate takes a stab at differentiating the current candidates (Bob Dole Warns of ‘Cataclysmic’ Losses With Ted Cruz, and Says Donald Trump Would Do Better New York Times 01/20/2016):
Also worth bearing in mind are the kinds of things even establishment candidates say these days. Not one has anything positive to say about what looks increasingly like highly successful diplomacy in the Persian Gulf. And Marco Rubio, the establishment’s last best hope, says he bought a gun to defend his family from ISIS.
The point is that this primary doesn’t look like an aberration, in which the GOP majority is losing its way; it looks like an outbreak of honesty, with the GOP majority finally going for candidates saying what it always believed. [my emphasis]
Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, has never been fond of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. But in an interview Wednesday, Mr. Dole said that the party would suffer “cataclysmic” and “wholesale losses” if Mr. Cruz were the nominee, and that Donald J. Trump would fare better.But Mr. Dole, 92, said he thought Mr. Trump could “probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.”But Dole doesn't quite know what this Republican "establishment" is, either! "Mr. Dole is one of the most prominent members of the Republican 'establishment,' a term he described as meaningless. 'Cruz is in the Senate, so maybe he’s part of the establishment. You know, I’ve never really known what the establishment was.'" (my emphasis)
“I question his allegiance to the party,” Mr. Dole said of Mr. Cruz. “I don’t know how often you’ve heard him say the word ‘Republican’ — not very often.” Instead, Mr. Cruz uses the word “conservative,” Mr. Dole said, before offering up a different word for Mr. Cruz: “extremist.”
“I don’t know how he’s going to deal with Congress,” he said. “Nobody likes him.”