In this time of rampant pathology - political, spiritual, intellectual - it is often challenging to try to figure out how other people's minds are working. There are questions along the lines of "What's the matter with Kansas?" And questions of the kind Paul Krugman consistently raises in his mystification about the perpetuation of "zombie ideas" even among professional economists, who have supposedly been educated in the ethic that allows evidence to disconfirm erroneous beliefs.
This past Friday a question arose in my mind after reading an op/ed piece by the conservative columnist Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. Gerson's piece bore the title, "Trump's nomination would rip the heart out of the Republican Party."
With Gerson's distaste for what Trump represents -- e.g. "his angry resentment against invading Hispanics and Muslims [which] add up to a kind of ethnonationalism -- an assertion that the United States is being weakened and adulterated by the other" -- I entirely agree.
And I agree that Trump may well damage the Republican Party.
But the way Gerson presents the threat posed by Trump -- in which Gerson appears entirely sincere -- mystifies me.
What I find mystifying is the way Gerson frames his characterization of Trump's danger to the GOP. His concern is expressed in terms of how Trumpism is inconsistent with "conservatism," which he says "at the very least involves respect for institutions and commitment to reasoned, incremental change." This, without the least hint of irony.
Does Gerson really believe that the Republican Party in which Trump has risen to be the frontrunner embodies "respect for institutions"? What world is he living in?
This is the Republican Party that
- Debased the institution of the Office of Legal Counsel, and the rule of law, with the torture memo
- Has sought to prevent the duly-elected president, from the opposition party, from doing his job
- Used the filibuster in an unprecedented, across-the-board way, using a mere Senate rule to trump the Constitutional principle in which the Senate operates by majority rule
- Threatened to damage the full faith and credit of the United States by using the debt ceiling, in an unprecedented way, to extort concessions
- Voted more than sixty times to repeal a law, on which the successful president ran, which Congress passed, which the Supreme Court upheld
- Treated an American president with a contempt of scorn never before seen
The list could be expanded at great length.
It is hard to see how anyone could do further damage to the Republican Party's "respect for institutions" than has been done by the entire party over the past fifteen years.
Does Gerson really see the Republican Party as somehow still holding on to the ideals of Edmund Burke, as his article suggests?
The other embodiment of the Republican foundation, aside from Burke, that Gerson brings in is Abraham Lincoln. The GOP is the party of Lincoln, Gerson says, who stood for tolerance vs. bigotry and inclusion vs. exclusion. Here he brings in the value Lincoln placed on "human dignity" and "compassion."
Of course, Trump is expressing the opposite of all that. But does Gerson really think that today's Republican Party has any connection at all with those Lincolnian values? Is it not as clear as could be that the main base of the Republican Party lies in precisely those political and cultural precincts that went to war against Lincoln to protect the wealth, power, and bigotries of the slaveholders?
Gerson wants to refute those liberals who say that "Trumpism is the natural outgrowth, or logical conclusion, of conservatism or Republicanism." I don't know if there are any liberals who make that claim. I surely do not.
Trump is not the natural outgrowth of conservatism, but he is the natural outgrowth of the fundamental betrayal of those conservative values that today's Republican Party has been enacting -- under the banner of "conservatism" -- for nearly a generation.
I get it that Trump represents a danger to the GOP. But I find myself asking: Can Mr. Gerson really believe that the those fine values he discusses have anything to do with today's Republican Party, with or without Trump?