Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for George W. Bush (until Trump, my least favorite President), so when he began writing columns and Op Eds, I expected facile, disingenuous justifications of the Rightwing agenda. That expectation was wrong. Gerson has proved to be a thoughtful and fair-minded commentator; I don’t always agree with him, but I’ve come to respect him.
The column is worth reading in its entirety, but I want to share a few of the observations that particularly struck me.
It is one of fate’s cruel jokes that conservatism should be at its modern nadir just as the Republican Party is at its zenith — if conservatism is defined as embracing limited government, displaying a rational, skeptical and moderate temperament and believing in the priority of the moral order.
All these principles are related, and under attack.
Of course, that definition of conservatism does not describe the philosophy of people like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, or the Tea Party and “alt-right” types who have disproportionately appropriated the label. It harkens back to a time when “conservative” was a much more respectable term. Gerson is right, however–that version of conservatism is very much under attack. And the following description bears little or no resemblance to the arrogance and defiant ignorance of those who currently claim the title.
Conservatives believe that finite and fallen creatures are often wrong. We know that many of our attitudes and beliefs are the brain’s justification for pre-rational tendencies and desires. This does not make perception of truth impossible, or truth itself relative, but it should encourage healthy self-examination and a suspicion of all forms of fanaticism. All of us have things to learn, even from our political opponents. The truth is out there, but it is generally broken into pieces and scattered across the human experience. We only reassemble it through listening and civil communication.
Gerson concedes the gulf between his understanding of the conservative temperament and that of its current exponents.
This is not the political force that has recently taken over the Republican Party — with a plurality in the presidential primaries and a narrow victory in November. That has been the result of extreme polarization, not a turn toward enduring values. The movement is authoritarian in theory, apocalyptic in mood, prone to conspiracy theories and personal abuse, and dismissive of ethical standards. The president-elect seems to offer equal chances of constitutional crisis and utter, debilitating incompetence.
As Gerson recognizes, the incoming Administration–and those in charge of the current iteration of the Republican party–are not conservative. They are radical. And very, very dangerous.