When one of the two major political parties your republic offers can no longer draw a line between right and wrong, your republic is experiencing an existential crisis. Whether the statement quoted in the meme featured with this article was actually spoken by Oscar Wilde or not, it represents a deep truth: one that the Republican Party has sadly lost sight of.
I reached voting age in the late 1980s. Though I’ve never voted Republican, and readily admit that I view any election that sees them finishing in second place as a good election, I am none the less troubled to see the party that spent most of my adult offering lectures on family values and accountability abandon all pretence of integrity. GOP leadership seemed more than a little confused about the best response when their party’s 2016 nominee was caught on tape bragging about assaulting women. Waffling between condemnation one minute and silence the next, it was obvious that if family values had ever been more than just a catchy phrase intended to capture votes, it certainly wasn’t a GOP priority anymore.
It now appears that, in addition to sexual assault, the Republican establishment has grown more or less resigned to the racist and often dangerous rhetoric emanating from the mouth of its leader. When President Trump recently described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” expressing instead a strong preference for immigrants from nations like Norway, where the populace generally has a much paler complexion, the best Paul Ryan could do was say the comments were “unhelpful.” As of this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still hasn’t said a word about the president’s racist comments, while at least two other Republican senators have, in the course of just 48 hours, gone from saying they don’t recall what the president actually said to recalling that he didn’t say it.
I have never been one to think public policy is a morally neutral exercise. Tax policy, for example, does have consequences. Minimizing suffering is first and foremost a moral principle, and it should be the primary goal of any legislation.
That said, I recognize that good people can sincerely believe in and advocate for policies that I think are, on balance, poorly conceived. Just because we disagree on a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage or the merits of trickle down economics, it does not follow that those standing on the other side of one or more of these issues necessarily lack a moral center. Indeed, it’s not that difficult to acknowledge their advocacy is an indication of sincere core beliefs, even if they are standing upon often shaky premises. People with good intentions can and do have different ideas about the best means to a given end. But, if in 2018, we can’t all get on board to strongly condemn racism, we have a serious problem.
The GOP began blowing racial dog whistles with regularity during Nixon’s 1968 campaign. The dogs this rhetoric has attracted now make up a considerable part of the Republican base. In fact, they have effectively taken over. Donald Trump and his most diehard supporters aren’t interested in beating around the plausible deniability bush. The days of Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” and Nixon’s call for “law and order” while invoking images of America’s inner cities are history. The party of Lincoln has thrown away the dog whistle. It now openly describes Mexicans as rapists and Africa as a cesspool.
America’s two major parties used to largely agree on the ends, reserving their major debates for the means. Was government assistance or changes to tax policy the best way to tackle poverty, for example. The differences today have become much more fundamental. Even once commonly accepted facts are being called into question daily by a growing segment of GOP leadership.
In addition to the failure to strongly and consistently condemn the president’s racism and misogyny, the constant bashing of the media signals that the Republican Party has largely abandoned any appreciation for the role of a free press in a democratic society. It doesn’t require much reflection or historical analysis to determine what could possibly go wrong in a racially charged environment where the media has been demonized and conspiracy theories are lent legitimacy from the Oval Office.
Of course, not every Republican is comfortable with this turn of events. Yet, for the most part they do not seem so uncomfortable they are willing to abandon the GOP. Most 2016 Republicans remain registered as Republicans today, while the shrinking minority of those in office still expressing concern are not declaring their independence. Senator Jeff Flake, for example, clearly recognizes someone as openly uneasy with Trumpism as he will not likely survive a primary challenge: a tacit acknowledgment the patients have taken over the asylum. But still he remains the junior Republican Senator from Arizona. He could have said that, as a principled conservative, he was going to run for reelection as an independent, even calling for the creation of a new conservative party built upon the bedrock of ideas instead of the quicksand of hatred, ignorance, and disdain for the very constitution that he and other GOP officeholders took an oath to uphold. Instead, he conceded defeat and kept his name on the GOP roles, apparently lacking even sufficient imagination to consider the possibility that conservatism and Republicanism are no longer synonymous.
It’s time for conservative and moderate Republicans unable to abide Trump, Bannon, Miller, and their ilk to stop hoping vainly for the Republican Party to see the light. As an institution the party isn’t truly conservative, and hasn’t been for some time. It no longer stands for smaller government, or even, as its small libertarian wing would have it, the least government possible that can still protect the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It’s about the intentional destruction of the system to its very core. After decades of telling us government doesn’t work, its only agenda under Trump’s banner is to prove it by rendering it as dysfunctional as possible. The growing comfort with authoritarianism now publicly and proudly expressed from top to bottom hints at what many, apparently, hope to replace it with.
Today’s GOP seems to thrive on chaos, and is apparently even incapable of standing up to a foreign power that every federal law enforcement and intelligence agency says attacked us during the election of 2016. Lincoln’s party has been hijacked by people who do not value democratic principles, let alone share the aspirations of those who fought to end slavery, racial discrimination, or achieve equality for women and other minorities.
I stand admittedly and proudly on the left side of the political spectrum.Though my politics is left of center, this is not a call to eliminate more conservative points of view from the public table. I may not have voted for either John McCain or Mitt Romney, but it never even occurred to me that either of them were an existential threat to freedom of speech, or even equal protection under the law. When it came to the former, I felt confident they would tolerate dissent. When it came to the latter, I simply assumed progress would be much slower under their leadership. It would be difficult to make a strong argument that significant long-term reversals were likely in the cards under either a McCain or Romney administration, even with the Supreme Court in play.
That said, no one that is paying attention now, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, can say the same about Trump. His words and deeds are radical departures from American tradition, not cautious conservative responses to changing times and circumstances. If you’re a traditional conservative, Trumpism has no place for you, and it’s never going to. The sooner conservatives grasp this and abandon the party of Trump to start a new right of center party, the better off we will all be.
Both progressives and conservatives must recognize and cherish the market place of ideas the First Amendment protects if our democratic traditions are to remain intact. Traditional liberalism understands the necessity of giving a voice to both those skeptical of change and those calling for it. I know progressives don’t have all the answers. We need conservatives of conscience challenging our ideas, just as conservatives need progressives challenging theirs. If we can’t defend our positions, we shouldn’t hold them. Only ideologues insist upon absolutism and abhor criticism.
We need a new conservative movement in the United States: a new political party that will challenge the Republicans and restore a political system where ideas are welcome and debates are carried out with civility and respect. In nominating Donald Trump, the GOP signalled, once and for all, it had abandoned what little commitment it still held to civil discourse, opting instead for ad hominem attacks and a complete disregard for the facts. Now it is reaping the whirlwind and spreading the destruction that comes with it well beyond its ranks.
If you’re a registered Republican, register as an independent. The longer you lend your name to the Republican Party, the more complicit with authoritarianism and its self-serving moral relativism you become. If you are a Republican holding public office, leave the party and join with other principled leaders of like mind to form a new party that will champion conservative ideas instead of division and chaos. Together we can accomplish great things in spite of our differences, but only if we all share a common commitment to freedom of speech, equality under the law, civility, and a respect for the checks and balances America’s founders wrote into its constitution. Donald Trump and his staunchest supporters do not, and they never will.