Michael Gerson is one of the many prominent former Republicans who are horrified by what the Grand Old Party has become. In a column earlier this year for the Washington Post he wrote that
A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.
Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.
The column was triggered by the overt racism of Senator Ron Johnson and the reaction–really, the lack of a reaction–by Johnson’s Republican colleagues, who (once again) proved unwilling to “patrol the boundaries of ideological sanity.”
There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.
The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”
Gerson concedes that Trump didn’t somehow create those views out of whole cloth. But he points out–as many others have–the fact that Trump normalized these sentiments to an unprecedented degree.
Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans…
Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.
In the column, Gerson describes the effect this has had on him, personally; he now considers himself politically homeless. As he says, as an Evangelical Christian, he has difficulty with several aspects of Democratic policy goals. Despite his own discomfort, however,
I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.
Gerson is far from the only former Republican adrift in a political no-man’s-land, confronting a once-typical political party that has embraced anti-intellectualism and abandoned policy prescriptions in favor of waging culture war.
I have many friends with whom I served in a very different GOP, and most of them are struggling with a similar personal dilemma. These aren’t simply people who once voted Republican and have decided to no longer do so–they were what you might call “professional Republicans,” people who spent the greater part of their careers in political activity and public service. They include former office-holders, several of whom were quite prominent, a collection of state and county elected officials, a few former city-county counselors, and a number of high-level Republican lobbyists.
Most no longer consider themselves Republican, and several have publicly announced that fact. Others are convinced that necessary change will only come from within–and although I disagree (I think it’s too late, that the party is too far in the thrall of the know-nothings and bigots) I understand their reluctance to “pull the plug” and pronounce the patient dead.
There are many kinds of homelessness. For good people who are intellectually honest, political homelessness is–at best– purgatory.
What’s worse, however, is that the American political system is deprived of the benefit of principled, reality-based debates over the way forward–debates that require honorable and thoughtful political debaters. The ultimate decisions made by politically homeless former Republicans–create a new party? fight to regain control of the GOP?– will determine whether those discussions can ever resume.