I empathize with Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter who is now a columnist for the Washington Post. Closer to home, I’m sympathetic to conservative blogger Paul Ogden. Despite significant policy disagreements with them, I respect these longtime conservatives, because they are two of the few–very few–who have remained intellectually honest during the Trumpification of the GOP.
People like these remind us that there is an intellectually respectable conservative philosophy, and that its basic tenets haven’t changed even if the party that used to espouse them has.
In a recent column for the Post, Gerson confronts the conflict between political philosophy and a desire to exercise power.
Is it time for anti-Trump conservatives to recognize that they have lost the political and policy battle within the GOP and to accommodate themselves as best they can to an uncomfortable reality?
This is the argument of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen, one of the most thoughtful political analysts on the right. On issues such as trade, immigration and the Muslim travel ban, he argues, Republican critics of President Trump are dramatically “out of step with conservative[s].”
As Gerson sees it, this is a call to put aside differences on some policies in order to work together on the implementation of other goals upon which there is broad agreement within the conservative movement. In the abstract, that’s normal political realism; even within a particular faction of the same party, policy differences will exist and need to be negotiated.
As Gerson recognizes, however, these aren’t normal times.
If Trump were merely proposing a border wall and the more aggressive employment of tariffs, we would be engaged in a debate, not facing a schism. Both President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush played the tariff chess game. As a Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney endorsed the massive “self-deportation” of undocumented workers without the rise of a #NeverRomney movement.
But it is blind, even obtuse, to place Trumpism in the same category. Trump’s policy proposals — the details of which Trump himself seems unconcerned and uninformed about — are symbolic expressions of a certain approach to politics. The stated purpose of Trump’s border wall is to keep out a contagion of Mexican rapists and murderers. His argument is not taken from Heritage Foundation policy papers. He makes it by quoting the racist poem “The Snake,” which compares migrants to dangerous vermin. Trump proposes to ban migration from some Muslim-majority countries because Muslim refugees, as he sees it, are a Trojan-horse threat of terrorism. Trump’s policy ideas are incidental to his message of dehumanization.
So how do we split the political difference on this one? Shall we talk about Mexican migrants as rapists on every other day? Shall we provide rhetorical cover for alt-right bigots only on special occasions, such as after a racist rally and murder?
Gerson continues his analysis: Republicans criticize media bias, but Trump is trying to delegitimize criticism as “fake news” and mainstream journalists as “enemies of the people.” Politicians being investigated can be expected to push back, but Trump is trying to discredit all federal law enforcement and he deliberately cultivates citizen distrust of a mythical“deep state.”
We have seen similar damage in the realm of values and norms. In the cultivation of anger and tribalism. In the use of language to inflame and demean. In the destruction of a common factual basis for politics, making policy compromise of the kind Olsen favors impossible.
As Gerson says, these choices are not a dialectic requiring synthesis. They’re alternatives demanding a choice. Instead of capitulating to the party’s white nationalists in hopes of policy victories and partisan dominance, Gerson counsels elected leaders to “remind Americans who they are and affirm our common bonds,” and to work for an
agenda of working-class uplift, not an agenda of white resentment — which will consign Republicans to moral squalor and (eventually) to electoral irrelevance. For principled conservatives to hear the call of moral duty and stand up for their beliefs until this madness passes. As it will.
People join political parties for all sorts of reasons. Both parties are mixtures of policy wonks, rigid ideologues and political theorists along with rank and file folks influenced by their parents, co-workers or friends.
Trumpism confronts the dwindling number of intellectually-honest Republicans with a difficult choice: whether to swallow hard and continue to be obedient soldiers in a debased, white nationalist GOP, or remain true to the conservative philosophy that led them to join the party in the first place, even at the cost of antagonizing old friends.
The call of moral duty is clear.