There’s no arena in which we dichotomize and vilify our neighbors more than in our politics. You adore Trump, or you’re a socialist. You support all Democrats, or you’re a red hat fascist.
Some of you surmise from my opposition to President Trump that I must be a Democrat. A leftist. Commie. ‘Murica hater. Pick your label — the conclusion is that if I don’t blindly favor Trump I must, ipso facto, love all things Democrat. These assumptions are wrong.
On the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, I penned an open letter to my fellow Republicans, shortly after John McCain — my pick for president — conceded to Barack Obama.
A Republican for 15 years, I worried for the party’s future. Republicans needed to embrace women and minorities, and craft policies on immigration and social programs that appealed to moderates, if Republicans wanted to survive in the 21st century.
But, the Tea Party promised Ronald Reagan and gave us Jerry Falwell Jr. Traditional conservatism was cast aside as a reactionary surge of white-nationalism swept Donald Trump into the White House. I became an independent somewhere around Jerry Falwell Jr (and voted for Obama in 2012).
I bring this up not to defend my position, but because the future of conservatism, and of the nation itself, depends on the actions in the next few months of principled Republicans.
If you’ve read much of my writing, you know I seldom agree with policies that pass today for conservative. But, even if I disagree with them at times, I know our nation needs conservatives in the tradition of Reagan and Bush (41 or 43) just as it needs liberals and progressives.
Our political system is designed to govern somewhere in the middle, with policy refined by the friction of competing viewpoints. Principled strife is the motive force of representative government, and principled Republicans are needed every bit as much as principled Democrats.
But, in the era of Trump, principled Republicans face a quandary. Are their values consistent with a party remade in Trump’s white-nationalist, zero tolerance, travel ban, ally-isolating, deficit-spending, tariff-wielding image? Or, is red hat republicanism so contrary to their core principles, they must now follow the example of men like commentator George Will and Sen. Jeff Flake, and leave?
Max Boot, former writer and editor of such liberal rags as Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal — and now former Republican — highlighted this predicament in his July 4 column in The Washington Post as a choice that “confronts any Republican with a glimmer of conscience.”
“You used to belong to a conservative party with a white-nationalist fringe,” Boot wrote in The Post. “Now it’s a white-nationalist party with a conservative fringe.”
He echoed Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who tweeted June 19 he was leaving “the Republican Party which was founded in 1854 to oppose slavery and stand for the dignity of human life,” because it has become “fully the party of Trump.”
Will left in 2016, but more recently, on June 22, recommended principled Republicans “vote against the GOP this November” to restore the republic’s delicate balance of powers.
Congressional Republicans, Will argued, have been cowards in their failure to check the president’s power.
“[Paul] Ryan and many other Republicans have become the president’s poodles,” Will wrote in The Post, “not because James Madison’s system has failed but because today’s abject careerists have failed to be worthy of it.”
Flake, who’s not seeking re-election, outlined the stakes in a May 23 commencement speech to Harvard Law students, when he said the presidency “has been debased, by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works.”
“It will be the work of your generation to make sure that this degradation of democracy does not continue,” Flake told the young jurists, “to see to it that our current flirtation with lawlessness and authoritarianism does not become a heritable trait to be passed down from this presidency.”
This fight transcends the old dichotomy of Republican vs. Democrat. For Republicans better defined by Lincoln and Reagan than by Trump, the stakes are far greater than the mid-terms or the 2020 presidential race.
To the principled Republicans who quietly slid from “never Trump” to party-line allegiance: I do not envy your position. It will take courage to stand up against the man who hijacked your party, and to divorce conservatism from its recent marriage to white nationalism. But, your courage is what the nation needs.
In the words of Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,” Paine wrote, “but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Dark times are ahead. If our republic is to survive, we all — regardless of party — must stand by it, and put the era of Trump firmly into our regrettable past.