A fi­nal ap­peal

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Gerso

— 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

WASH­ING­TON

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 is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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