WASHINGTON – Sixteen years ago I awaited the arrival of Election Day, anxious but hopeful. I was a part of a presidential campaign that had challenged the stereotype of Republicanism with a series of policy proposals on education, addiction treatment and other elements of social welfare. Suspend, for a moment, your views on the efficacy of No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiative. Accept that we viewed the coming election – if we won – as the mandate for a certain model of governance.
I was deeply and personally invested in the outcome of the 2000 election. I believed that the reform of Republican ideology would serve the whole country, the common good. When I walked into the West Wing for the first time, and entered the Roosevelt Room just as the picture above the fireplace was being switched from Franklin to Teddy, I felt the continuity and burden of a noble experiment in self-government.
In his first inaugural address (a document I helped produce), President George W. Bush expressed the goal of his administration this way: “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.”
We were not, of course, unique in this idealism. This was the commitment of Barack Obama’s administration when it entered the White House. And Bill Clinton’s administration. And nearly all that preceded them.
I own to being even more emotionally entangled in the result of the 2016 election – not because of any change in policy or ideology, but because of Donald Trump’s proposed shift in the very purpose of the presidency. His political theory, such as it is, is “us” vs. “them.” The “them” may be Republican elites, or liberal elites, or migrants or Mexicans or Muslims. Trump would be elected on the promise of fighting, rounding up, jailing or humbling any number of personal and political opponents. Take away this appeal, and there is nothing left but grasping, pathetic vanity.
The undercurrents of economic anxiety and cultural disorientation that Trump exploits are real, deserving both attention and sympathy. But Trump has organized these resentments with an unprecedented message: America is weak and broken, a hell of crime, terrorism and expanding misery, beset from within and without, and now in need of a strong hand – his strong hand – to turn things around.
The single most frightening, anti-democratic phrase of modern presidential history came in Trump’s convention speech: “I alone can fix it.” A Trump victory would be a mandate for an authoritarian politics. Trump’s ambitions would be bounded by strong legislative and legal institutions and by his own risible ignorance of real leadership. But a Trump administration would be a concession to the idea that America needs a little more China, a little more Russia, a little more “so let it be written, so let it be done,” in its executive branch.
I never imagined that Republican leaders – many of whom I know and have respected – would fall in line with such dangerous delusions, on the theory that anything is better than Hillary Clinton. Most options are better than Clinton. But not all. And not this. The GOP has largely accommodated itself to a candidate with no respect for, or knowledge of, the constitutional order. Every constitutional conservative should be revolted. Those who are complicit have adopted a particularly dangerous form of power-loving hypocrisy.
But now, with polls tightening, it may not only be Republicans who abandon central tenets of their democratic faith. It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including the disabled and refugees fleeing from oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness.”
In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time. And this would not merely replace the presidential portrait above the fireplace. It would deface it.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.