WASHINGTON – Not long ago, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., – the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and a man physically incapable of hyperventilation – questioned Donald Trump’s “stability” and “competence.” Now he has said that chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the “people that help separate our country from chaos.”
In this case, chaos has a name. Corker has essentially described the commander in chief as a danger in need of management. The doctrine of containment, evidently, must begin at home.
Elected Republicans will eventually be judged, not so much for what they have believed, but for what many have tolerated. They have tolerated Trump’s irritable narcissism and rule by ridicule. They have tolerated nepotism, incompetence and malice on a grand scale. They have tolerated Trump’s unique brand of disaster management – divisive, self-serving, conspiratorial (in attributing Puerto Rico’s desperate pleas for help to a Democratic plot) and more concerned with discrediting critics than demonstrating competence. And they have tolerated a string of presidential reactions – including to the Charlottesville protests and murder and to the sincere sideline activism led by African-American athletes – that amount to a racially charged pattern.
“I know his heart’s in the right place,” vouches House Speaker Paul Ryan, at the low point (so far) of Republican self-abasement. This indicates a GOP establishment so shaken, so uncertain of its place, that it is willing to swallow broken glass on presidential demand. A Republican establishment surrendering the last remaining redoubts of its integrity. A Republican establishment that justifies all the contempt that Trump heaps upon it.
Giving up on an occasional economic principle, or making a compromise on social policy, is an uncomfortable but unavoidable part of a public life. Accommodating racial demagoguery is a failure of courage and morality that won’t be forgotten. Many elected Republicans are earning Prufrock’s judgment: In short, they were afraid.
Many, but not all. “If the party can’t be fixed,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, “then I’m not going to be able to support the party, period.” Leaving the party entirely might be the natural instinct of a serious and centered politician. But it also plays into the Breitbart/Steve Bannon strategy of ideological conquest. They hope to return the Republican Party to the nativism, protectionism and isolationism of the 1930s. And if their movement also reflects some of the prevailing racial attitudes of that time, so be it. Wink. Nudge.
This vision may be rancid, but it is clear and powerful – rooted in the fear of rapid economic and social change and propelled by reliable resentments. The 1980s ideology of tax-rate cuts – embodied in the current Republican tax bill – looks pale and weak in comparison. If the GOP struggle comes down to ethno-nationalism vs. supply-side economics, there is little doubt about the outcome. Human beings are wired for tribal loyalties, not for the appreciation of economic principles. Powerful movements, good and bad – from prairie populism, to the original America First, to civil rights – have embodied a conception of the nation and its true identify.
What would a compelling alternative to the Bannon appeal look like? It would be an improvement for mainstream Republicans to even ask the question. Kasich is. So are Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., at great political risk. Republican reconstruction will involve a new policy agenda, focused particularly on mitigating the painful adjustments brought on by globalization and technological change. But Trumpism has succeeded as a political movement in the total absence of serious policy, and it’s unlikely to be defeated by avenging wonks.
At the least, the Republican renovation project will need to show some moral outrage that American politics has been hijacked by blind partisans and those who make a living through inciting division. It will require a healthy nationalism free from nativism; a populism that recognizes the failures of the political class but responds with reform rather than recrimination; the elevation of empiricism and competence as political ideals; an appeal to the healing and bridging role of faith; a touch of Lincoln’s belief in the shared responsibility for failure and the shared calling of forgiveness.
Most of all, this project will require a leader (and, eventually, leaders) who actually believes in something, totally and convincingly. The simple force of contagious principle is often underestimated. Look at interviews with Margaret Thatcher during her political rise. She radiates confidence. She is certain that her ideas will persuade. This charisma of conviction is the single greatest need of the GOP today. And its most glaring absence.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.