Tag Archives: Michael Gerson

The “Good Republican” Dilemma

Michael Gerson is one of the many prominent former Republicans who are horrified by what the Grand Old Party has become. In a column earlier this year for the Washington Post he wrote that

A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.

Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.

The column was triggered by the overt racism of Senator Ron Johnson and the reaction–really, the lack of a reaction–by Johnson’s Republican colleagues, who (once again) proved unwilling to “patrol the boundaries of ideological sanity.”

There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.

The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”

Gerson concedes that Trump didn’t somehow create those views out of whole cloth. But  he points out–as many others have–the fact that Trump normalized these sentiments to an unprecedented degree.

Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans…

Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.

In the column, Gerson describes the effect this has had on him, personally; he now considers himself politically homeless. As he says, as an Evangelical Christian, he has difficulty with several aspects of Democratic policy goals. Despite his own discomfort, however,

I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.

Gerson is far from the only former Republican adrift in a political no-man’s-land, confronting a once-typical political party that has embraced anti-intellectualism and abandoned policy prescriptions in favor of waging culture war.

I have many friends with whom I served in a very different GOP, and most of them are struggling with a similar personal dilemma. These aren’t simply people who once voted Republican and have decided to no longer do so–they were what you might call “professional Republicans,” people who spent the greater part of their careers in political activity and public service. They include former office-holders, several of whom were quite prominent, a collection of state and county elected officials, a few former city-county counselors, and a number of high-level Republican lobbyists.

Most no longer consider themselves Republican, and several have publicly announced that fact. Others are convinced that necessary change will only come from within–and although I disagree (I think it’s too late, that the party is too far in the thrall of the know-nothings and bigots) I understand their reluctance to “pull the plug” and pronounce the patient dead.

There are many kinds of homelessness. For good people who are intellectually honest, political homelessness is–at best– purgatory.

What’s worse, however, is that the American political system is deprived of the benefit of principled, reality-based debates over the way forward–debates that require honorable and thoughtful political debaters. The ultimate decisions made by politically homeless former Republicans–create a new party? fight to regain control of the GOP?– will determine whether those discussions can ever resume.

 

Whither The GOP?

Remember when John Edwards ran for President and talked incessantly about “two Americas”? He was talking about divisions between rich and poor, but we now know that–whatever the contribution of economic status to culture war–the real differences that divide us are psychological and tribal.

And the question of the day concerns the tribe that has gone off the rails.

A recent Gallup poll found that sixty-two percent of U.S. adults believe the country needs  a third party. That is an increase from 57% in September. Support for a third party has grown significantly; it was 60% in 2013 and 2015 and 61% in 2017. Furthermore, Republicans’ current level of support for a third party is the highest Gallup has measured for either party–virtually all of the increase is due to the increase among Republican respondents.

Given recent reports of substantial Republican defections in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, that sounds promising–until you dig into the Gallup report.

The survey asked Republicans and Republican-leaning independents what direction they would like to see the party move in the future. A 40% plurality want the party to become more conservative, while 34% want it to stay the same and 24% to become more moderate.

Republican identifiers were twice as likely to say the party should become more conservative than moderate (44% to 21%). And we know that the current use of the term “conservative” is vastly different from its former definition.

Media is currently obsessed with the status and prospects of the GOP. An article in Politico offers advice for a “Reaganesque” revamp.

The thesis is that there are only three possible paths: the one the party is currently on (Splitsville ahead), a full-throated swing to crazy-ville (doubling down on xenophobia and protectionism and recruiting more Marjorie Taylor Greenes), and “imitating Ronald Reagan.” According to the author, Reagan masked the party’s racism with his focus on tax cuts:

The lesson is that while politics based on racism can always get you some votes, it doesn’t quite get you enough. To form a new, stable political coalition, Republicans need a strategy that speaks to people’s hopes and self-interest more than to their fears. Tax cut politics appealed across the board—including to the racists, but not only to them.

To repeat a Reagan-like transformation of the party, Republicans have to offer an alternative vision that is appealing enough to voters to serve as a replacement for the dwindling politics of tax cuts.

The article suggests what some of those policies might be (I’m dubious, but hey…). The problem is, embracing any of them would require dramatically distancing the GOP from Trump–something the polling suggests is highly unlikely. (It’s not just Gallup: a Politico poll fielded after January 6th found Trump’s overall favorability rating at an “abysmal” 34%–but 81% of Republican respondents gave him positive marks.)

Michael Gerson–former speechwriter for George W. Bush– has offered a far more honest–and much less hopeful–analysis.

Gerson acknowledged that the Impeachment vote was a “historic collapse of moral and political leadership. And it was no less tragic for being expected.” And he points to the tribal truth underlying that collapse: Republicans’ widespread belief that the “White, Christian America of its imagination is on the verge of destruction, and that it must be preserved by any means necessary.”

We saw the Indiana iteration of that belief last Thursday. Today’s GOP is the White  grievance party–nothing more.

As Gerson recognizes, this isn’t political philosophy. It’s a warped religious belief. “There can be no compromise in a culture war. There can be no splitting of differences at Armageddon.”

Can the GOP really have a productive debate between people who believe in democracy and those who have lost patience for it? Between those who view politics as a method to secure rough justice in a fallen world, and those who view it as a holy crusade against scheming infidels? Between those who try to serve conservative political ideals and those who engage (in Sasse’s immortal words) in “the weird worship of one dude”?

The greatest need in our politics is a conservatism that opposes authoritarianism. The greatest question: Can such a movement emerge within the framework of the Republican Party?

Gerson says he’s skeptical. Me too.

 

 

Deserving Of Contempt

Today, America will inaugurate an actual President. I have hopes for a resurrection of governing.

Biden’s success will rest to a considerable extent on what happens to today’s totally dysfunctional and arguably treasonous GOP, where signs of schism are growing.

Among those signs are two columns written by longtime Republican conservatives–Michael Gerson and George Will. It bears emphasizing that both of these examples were published on January 4th–before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Both are representative of the pre-Trump GOP. In other words, sane. (Although in Will’s case, also irritating and supercilious.)

Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for George W. Bush; he is a committed Christian Evangelical. His column in the Washington Post focused on the leaked telephone call between Trump and Georgia’s Secretary of State–the Republican officeholder who oversaw Georgia’s election. As Gerson says, the great virtue of that recording is that it “clarifies the goals of all concerned.”

And those goals, as he points out, were not to expose abuses in the electoral system. 

Trump intended to pressure the elected official of an American political subdivision to falsify the state’s electoral outcome–to “squeeze out” 11,780 additional votes in his favor– in order to overturn his loss in Georgia.

His cynical, delusional justifications are beside the point. He would say anything — invent any lie, allege any conspiracy, defame any opponent, spread any discredited rumor — to perpetuate his power.

Gerson then turned to Trump’s Congressional enablers.

This, in turn, illuminates the motives of his congressional enablers. In light of Trump’s clarifying call, the term “enablers” now seems too weak. When Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and their GOP colleagues try to disrupt and overturn a free and fair election, they are no longer just allies of a subversive; they become instruments of subversion. They not only help a liar; they become liars. They not only empower conspiracy theories; they join a conspiracy against American democracy. They not only excuse institutional arson; they set fire to the Constitution and dance around the flame.

In the remainder of the column, Gerson excoriated this attack on the constitutional order and pointed out that Republican “populism” ( a nicer word for the GOP’s current Nazification)  is diametrically opposed to actual conservatism and other former Republican beliefs: in law and order, in the U.S. constitutional system, in individual liberty and federalism, in judicial restraint. Worse still,

Anti-constitutional Republicans are teaching, in essence, that partisan and ideological victory is more important than democratic self-government. They may try to dress up their betrayal as fighting against socialism, or against the “deep state,” or against multiculturalism, or against antifa, or against secularists, or for white pride, or for a Christian America. But what they are really saying to their supporters is this: Your anger is more important than our republic. 

Gerson writes that these anti-constitutional Republicans are shredding the work of America’s founders, and deserve nothing but contempt.

For his part, George Will writes that Josh Hawley’s announced intent to challenge certification of the Electoral vote is evidence that Hawley’s conscience “compels him to stroke this erogenous zone of the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominating electorate.”

Hawley’s stance quickly elicited panicky emulation from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, another 2024 aspirant. Cruz led 10 other senators and senators-elect in a statement that presents their pandering to what terrifies them (their Trumpkin voters) as a judicious determination to assess the “unprecedented allegations” of voting improprieties, “allegations” exceeding “any in our lifetimes.”..

Never mind. Hawley — has there ever been such a high ratio of ambition to accomplishment? — and Cruz have already nimbly begun to monetize their high-mindedness through fundraising appeals.

Will then enumerates what rational Americans all know–that allegations of election fraud are themselves fraudulent. He concludes that the Hawley-Cruz cohort is in violation their oaths of office; despite swearing to defend the Constitution from enemies “foreign and domestic” they have become the most dangerous of those domestic enemies.

Over the past couple of decades, the Republican Party has slowly but steadily lost membership– it has barely managed to retain power through gerrymandering and vote suppression. Public defections of more high-profile Republicans began with Trump’s election and have continued. But the transformation of those who remain in the GOP–their metamorphosis into Trumpers–has also accelerated.

Sane people–including conservatives like Gerson and Will–can only hope that the abomination that is today’s GOP goes the way of the Whigs. It needs to be replaced by an adult, responsible center-right party that understands the importance of negotiation and compromise.

America needs differing perspectives on policy–it doesn’t need existential battles between a political party and a racist cult. 

 

REALLY Telling It Like It Is

In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, I’ve seen a number of heartfelt and pointed columns, posts and speeches. I’ve also seen responses by “the usual suspects,” insisting that the problem isn’t the obscene number and easy availability of guns–no, it’s mental health, or immigration (!), or (stupidest of all)  video games.

The “gun nuts”–a term I reserve for people who abandon any and all sanity in defense of unlimited gun ownership–have posted angry responses to Facebook messages advocating gun control measures.

My recent favorite was the idiot who claimed that guns aren’t the problem–evil people are the problem, and laws won’t stop people from being evil. I really do know better than to respond to such people, but I couldn’t help myself: I pointed out that, by his “logic,” America must have more evil people than all those countries where mass shootings don’t take place.

But in one sense, he has a point about “evil people.”

The shooting in El Paso was just the latest in a series of white nationalist terrorist attacks, encouraged by a despicable, racist President (who, among other things, has run 2,200 FB ads since last May using the word “invasion” to describe immigration). Trump’s bigotry is enabled by Republicans who are either equally racist or moral cowards unwilling to speak up.

I should note that there are exceptions. Two recent, powerful indictments of the white nationalist in the Oval Office are from two prominent conservatives who were (and perhaps still are) Republicans.

Conservative Jennifer Rubin has written that there is no excuse for supporting this President. She points to Trump’s vicious attacks on immigrants, his channeling of “replacement” conspiracy theories, his dehumanization of immigrants and his demonization of the media–and notes how often his words have been quoted by perpetrators of horrific racist acts.

 Michael Gerson’s column in the Washington Post is a must-read.

Gerson begins by saying he’d intended to ignore Trump’s latest outrages; he planned instead to write about “the self-destructive squabbling” of Democratic presidential candidates.

But I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency. Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children. According to one source, Mary was “stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.”

God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history. It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.

Trump supporters characterize his racist tweets and white-nationalist-encouraging rallies as “telling it like it is.” But it is Gerson who tells it like it really is.

Racism is the fire that left our country horribly disfigured. It is the beast we try to keep locked in the basement. When the president of the United States plays with that fire or takes that beast out for a walk, it is not just another political event, not just a normal day in campaign 2020. It is a cause for shame. It is the violation of martyrs’ graves. It is obscene graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial.

It is impossible for people of good will to deny the truth of his essay, or his closing words.

Trump’s continued offenses mean that a large portion of his political base is energized by racist tropes and the language of white grievance. And it means — whatever their intent — that those who play down, or excuse, or try to walk past these offenses are enablers.

Some political choices are not just stupid or crude. They represent the return of our country’s cruelest, most dangerous passion. Such racism indicts Trump. Treating racism as a typical or minor matter indicts us.

Click through and read the entire column. Then do whatever it takes to help get out the vote in 2020.

 

 

The Problem With Selective “Liberty”

Michael Gerson has a way with words.

His descriptions of Donald Trump are dead-on; in a recent column in the Washington Post, for example, he considered Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a Somali refugee, using the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and an out-of-context quotation.

It is cruel because Trump essentially delivered his political rant while standing on desecrated graves. The images he employed not only included burning buildings but burning human beings, drafted into a sad and sordid political ploy. Is nothing sacred to Trump? When said aloud, the question sounds like an absurdity. Trump has never given the slightest indication of propriety, respect or reverence. His narcissism leaves no room to honor other people or to honor other gods. Both the living and the dead matter only as servants to the cause of Trump himself.

In the remainder of the column, Gerson documents what we all know–Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot. (Not that his hatred of Islam is exclusive–like all White Nationalists, he also manages to find room for racism and anti-Semitism.)

Gerson goes through the ugly characterizations, the anti-Muslim rants.

Trump has a long history of animus — raw animus — against one of the Abrahamic faiths. He has said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims.” And: “There is a Muslim problem in the world.” And: “The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguisetheir massive Muslim problem.” And: “Islam hates us.”

The Koran, in Trump’s scholarly opinion, “teaches some very negative vibe.” He has claimed: “You have people coming out of mosques with hatred and death in their eyes.” He once called for a “total and complete shutdownof Muslims entering the United States.” He has variously and publicly considered the closing of mosques, warrantless searches and the creation of a national database to track Muslims. In Trump’s view, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.”

Then Gerson gets to the point: liberty is all or nothing, and Trump’s version of liberty as  “freedom only for the faiths he prefers” threatens every religion. When government has the power to “award” liberty to some and deny it to others, the people who are favored aren’t free; they simply have been granted privileges that the government may choose at some future point to withdraw. That isn’t genuine liberty.

As Gerson writes,

Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.

As a wise person once told me, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.