For the GOP, a time for re­sis­tance

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Gerson

— In his res­ig­na­tion speech fol­low­ing Great Bri­tain’s vote to di­vorce from the Euro­pean Union, Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron claimed sev­eral achieve­ments by his gov­ern­ment: re­form­ing wel­fare and ed­u­ca­tion; in­creas­ing devel­op­ment as­sis­tance to “the poor­est peo­ple in the world”; and “en­abling those who love each other to get mar­ried, what­ever their sex­u­al­ity.” He also men­tioned “build­ing a big­ger and stronger so­ci­ety” — a ref­er­ence to his “Big So­ci­ety” ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work, which sought to em­power lo­cal peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties as an al­ter­na­tive both to cen­tral­ized bu­reau­cra­cies and to lib­er­tar­ian in­dif­fer­ence.

What is re­mark­able about Cameron’s def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess is how ut­terly dis­con­nected it is from the deep, vis­ceral pop­ulist trends that have come to dom­i­nate his party and now his coun­try. Cameron had at­tempted to de­fine a post-Thatcherite con­ser­va­tive vi­sion “in­te­grat­ing the free mar­ket with a the­ory of so­cial sol­i­dar­ity.” But this was swept away, not so much by an al­ter­na­tive ar­gu­ment — the eco­nomic case against the Brexit is over­whelm­ing — but by pow­er­ful, ethno-na­tion­al­ist in­stincts. In ret­ro­spect, Cameron’s pro­ject of ide­o­log­i­cal ren­o­va­tion was hope­less, even poignant — try­ing to or­ga­nize an out­door tea dur­ing a hur­ri­cane.

This is the most fright­en­ing as­pect for Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives of the Bri­tish vote. Since 1955, with the found­ing of Na­tional Re­view, con­ser­va­tives have at­tempted to make ide­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ments — in­volv­ing re­spect for free mar­kets and civil so­ci­ety — that they hoped would win in­flu­ence in Amer­ica’s cen­ter-right party. But now that en­tire pro­ject seems threat­ened. The type of pop­ulism that Don­ald Trump has un­leashed is not a set of ar­gu­ments, but a set of ten­den­cies and prej­u­dices. In large por­tions of the Repub­li­can Party, ide­ol­ogy has been re­placed by iden­tity.

We are fa­mil­iar with iden­tity pol­i­tics on the left, which can re­duce pub­lic life to the or­ga­nized ap­pease­ment of re­sent­ments. An iden­tity pol­i­tics of the right as­serts that the real Amer­ica — or the real Eng­land — is be­ing di­luted and cor­rupted by out­siders. It el­e­vates a form of na­tion­al­ism, not based on ab­stract ideals, but on blood and soil.

This is one rea­son ide­o­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tives find it so frus­trat­ing to ar­gue with Trump sup­port­ers. They are not look­ing for in­no­va­tive pol­icy, or re­li­able in­for­ma­tion, or even log­i­cal con­sis­tency. So it does not mat­ter to them when Trump is ex­posed as shal­low, de­cep­tive or in­co­her­ent. They trust his in­stincts in de­fend­ing Amer­i­can na­tional iden­tity as they have known it.


Tr a n s - A t l a n t i c elites have con­sis­tently un­der­es­ti­mated the in­ten­sity of pub­lic re­ac­tion against mi­gra­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and glob­al­iza­tion. When given the chance to vote, a sig­nif­i­cant and highly com­mit­ted por­tion of the elec­torate wants to re­pu­di­ate lead­ers, ex­perts and author­ity fig­ures — ev­ery­one who has been com­plicit in the last few decades of dis­ori­ent­ing eco­nomic and so­cial change.

In Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, pop­ulism cuts across the par­ties. But in only one party has the estab­lish­ment been (ap­par­ently) beaten. The range of re­ac­tions has been re­veal­ing. Some, par­tic­u­larly in the Repub­li­can for­eign pol­icy estab­lish­ment, are find­ing more ide­o­log­i­cal over­lap with Hil­lary Clin­ton and her team than they have with Repub­li­can pop­ulists. By the mea­sure of who would more re­spon­si­bly and com­pe­tently de­fend the coun­try and en­gage the world, the con­test is not close. On the in­ter­na­tional stage, Trump’s silli­ness and im­pul­sive­ness take on a more sin­is­ter as­pect. De­ter­mined out­reach by the Clin­ton cam­paign to Repub­li­can in­ter­na­tion­al­ists may have a con­sid­er­able yield.

Other prin­ci­pled con­ser­va­tives, such as my col­league Ge­orge Will, have cho­sen to part ways with a party that, in the choice of its pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, is no longer rec­og­niz­ably con­ser­va­tive.

Still other con­ser­va­tive lead­ers, trav­el­ing with a lighter load of prin­ci­ple, have cho­sen to make their ac­com­mo­da­tion in a re­mark­ably cyn­i­cal fash­ion. Com­men­ta­tors such as Rush Lim­baugh and Sean Han­nity spent decades on ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity pa­trol, call­ing out de­vi­a­tions from the pure Rea­gan­ite faith. Now their busi­ness model is to pro­vide ali­bis for the least con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee (pre­sump­tive, still pre­sump­tive) in his­tory, who at­tacks free trade, op­poses en­ti­tle­ment re­form and seems to rel­ish the prospect of ex­panded ex­ec­u­tive power.

The al­ter­na­tive to all these op­tions is re­sis­tance — on the beaches, on the land­ing grounds, in the rules com­mit­tee. Re­sis­tance at the con­ven­tion, to deny Trump the nom­i­na­tion. If that fails, re­sis­tance in sup­port­ing a con­ser­va­tive third-party can­di­date who will carry the torch of sane Re­pub­li­can­ism — if such a rare beast is fi­nally sighted.

Re­sis­tance to re­cover na­tion­al­ism from the na­tivists. Re­sis­tance to op­pose the de­valu­ing of po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ment, to fight the end of rea­son. Re­sis­tance to honor the im­por­tance of char­ac­ter in our com­mon life. In the Repub­li­can Party to­day, re­sis­tance is the ev­i­dence of prin­ci­ple.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­

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