Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and a prominent Never Trump voice, is out with a new book, “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.” At a time when politicians are held in low regard and a moral retrograde sits in the White House, Wehner makes the counterintuitive argument that we must recognize politics as a noble endeavor. My conversation with him covered a lot of ground; it has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
You make the point that Trump simply lit the fuse but that the antecedents of the nasty, crude and rancorous politics had been underway for years. How did Republicans, who used to value civility, faith and respect, become the ones to most fall prey to this phenomenon?
It’s a question I’ve pondered a fair amount. Before turning to the GOP, it’s worth pointing out that the Republican Party hasn’t cornered the market on nasty politics. Ted Kennedy’s attacks on Robert Bork were an ugly inflection point in the history of the modern Supreme Court nomination process. The attacks in 2012 against Mitt Romney by Harry Reid and a super PAC supporting President Obama were dishonest and disgraceful. So were many of the attacks by Clinton supporters against Ken Starr and especially against women with whom Clinton had affairs. Vicious things were said about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. So it’s not as if the hands of Democrats are clean here. All parties and all political ideologies have a lot to answer for. Because of the nature and stakes of politics, and the built-in flaws in human nature, politics is rarely as high-minded as we might wish.
Having said that, Donald Trump is in a category all his own when it comes to the politics of cruelty, crudity and dehumanization. He’s the face, voice and moral representative — or to be more precise, the immoral representative — of the Republican Party, and some large number of Republicans support him and his tactics that at times seems cult-like. So what happened?
My sense is that on the right there were dark, latent forces that were far more widespread than I imagined. Pre-Trump, they were kept more or less on the fringes of the Republican Party. Trump tapped into them, though — he has an almost preternatural ability to zero in on cultural and ethnic flashpoints, to activate the amygdala region of the brain — and mainstreamed them. One manifestation of that is Trump’s validation of Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler whose show Trump appeared on during the 2016 campaign and was praised by Trump. But there are plenty of others.
Remember the issue that brought Donald Trump to national political prominence — it was a racist conspiracy theory alleging that Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen. I warned Republicans about him in 2011 — don’t play “footsie with peddlers of paranoia” and those who delight in making our public discourse more childish and freakish, I wrote — but I didn’t anticipate that the pathologies were so far-reaching.
What else do you think is going on?
On the right there have been rising feelings of resentment, grievances and rage. A lot of people on the right feel like they have been condescended to by the elite culture, disrespected and mocked for their beliefs, and there’s some merit in that. I did an event at Stanford shortly before the 2016 election with Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who wrote an outstanding book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” She said to me prescient words. “What his rise is about,” she told me, “is lost honor and humiliation. Trump is a kind of anti-depressant to his supporters.”
This is combined with a “Flight 93” mindset — the sense that many are engaged in an existential struggle with the Left and that virtually any tactics, regardless of how ruthless, should be employed in order to prevail. I have friends who in their individual lives are deeply decent, and yet they have admitted to me that they want to figuratively slit the throat of liberals and those on the left, who they are convinced are comprised of malicious people who want to destroy America and destroy them. If that’s your outlook, it can lead you into some pretty dark alleyways.
There’s also fear many Trump supporters have about the rapid rate of social change, most especially in the area of sexual ethics, that has left them bewildered and fearful. In addition to that, we’re in the midst of massive economic changes. All of this has roiled our politics and allowed some ugly impulses to rise to the surface.
It’s true that so-called “social justice warriors” on the left are increasingly illiberal in some of their tendencies. We see that on college campuses, which are increasingly opposed to open inquiry and viewpoint diversity. But in politics it’s most pronounced these days on the right. The nomination, election and passionate enthusiasm for Donald Trump is evidence of that. In the areas we’re talking about, he’s made everything worse.
You note political polarization is a contributing factor to the rotten state of politics. How do we improve political discourse without tackling polarization, which was brought about by many political, social and cultural factors?
It might be helpful here to define polarization. James Q. Wilson, who was one of America’s outstanding social scientists, described it as not simply partisan disagreements alone, but rather an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. “Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked,” according to Wilson, “when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.”
Part of the explanation for the acute state of political polarization is what the journalist Bill Bishop describes as "the big sort." He’s shown how Americans have been sorting themselves into homogeneous communities. It’s referred to as a “way-of-life segregation.” We increasingly live with people who think, vote and pattern our lives like we do, who reinforce our beliefs. On one level that’s understandable, of course; on another, it’s harmful, since people we begin to view those who live differently than we do as aliens, hostile forces, and even existential threats to our way of life.
What I argue in “The Death of Politics” is that we have to rethink our attitudes toward one another and toward the pursuit of truth. It’s not simply recognizing that people who hold different views than we do aren’t by definition stupid, corrupt, wicked or malicious; it’s that we come to a place where we believe we might have something to learn — or at least something to consider — from those whose views and outlooks and life experiences are different than mine. That’s never easy to do, and it’s harder to do in this environment than any time I can recall.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
You bet. I describe in the book the friendship between the British philosopher and poet Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis, the twentieth-century British medievalist, literary critic, author and apologist for the Christian faith. They were members of a literary group called The Inklings, and they exercised enormous influence on each other. But their friendship was not based on seeing the world in exactly the same way. In fact, they engaged in some fairly intense disagreements, including on the relationship between imagination and truth.
In his book “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis described what he called a “First Friend” and a “Second Friend.” The First Friend is your alter ego, the person who sees things as you do. You “join like raindrops on a window” is how Lewis put it.
The Second Friend is not your alter ego but your anti-self. He shares your interests but approaches them at a different angle. “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one,” Lewis wrote. “How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?” He went on to say this:
You go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night, or walking through fine country that neither gives a glance to, each learning the weight of the other’s punches, and often more like mutually respectful enemies than friends. Actually (though it never seems so at the time) you modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and deep affection emerge.
“In an argument,” Barfield said, “we always, both of us, were arguing for the truth, not for victory.”
That’s just a very different approach to dialogue and debate — engaging with others in order to refine our views, to widen the aperture of understanding, to see things we would otherwise be blind to. If each of us — pro- and anti-Trump, those on the right and those on the left and those in between — could move closer toward the spirit of the Lewis-Barfield model of dialogue and debate, we’d all be far better off. It would certainly help us think of our national politics as something other than a fight to the death.
It’s ironic that the people leading “Values Voters” contributed mightily to this problem. How does the evangelical community address the grotesque failure of moral and spiritual leadership?
Evangelicals themselves need to call out leaders in their ranks who have turned into what Pete Buttigieg has called “cheerleaders of the porn star presidency” and who are unwilling to call the president out on any of his moral and ethical offenses, offenses that go far beyond sexual misconduct.
In my estimation a lot of white evangelicals — not all by any means, but far too many — have acted in ways that have discredited the Christian witness by revealing a staggering degree of hypocrisy. Many Americans have seen what they said in the past — during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but not only then — and understandably concluded that this was never really about moral integrity and moral values; it was about power, partisanship and political tribalism.
But calling out people is hardly enough. Ultimately something more fundamental has to happen. The deepest commitments of so-called “values voters” need to change. They have to look within themselves and dedicate or rededicate themselves to moral excellence and moral integrity, to standing for human dignity and against the politics of dehumanization, to say we’re going to support those who embody a Christian ethic rather than the ethic of Thrasymachus. Those who have read Plato will recall that Thrasymachus was the cynical Sophist who insists that justice has no intrinsic meaning but is merely a pretty word for what is in the interest of the stronger party. Life is a competition to get more money and more power; that is what defines success. “Injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice,” he argues.
Evangelicals have to show a watching world a different portrait, one that embodies more of a culture of grace rather than grievance, healing rather than hate, empathy rather than antipathy.
The artist Makoto Fujimura speaks about “culture care” instead of “culture war.” According to Fujimura, “Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we’re all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise.” It’s just a very different set of sensibilities when it comes to cultural engagement.
Can I briefly add a couple of more points on this topic, which as a person of the Christian faith I have strong feelings about?
The first is that I understand the argument of evangelical Christians who believed a vote for Donald Trump in 2016 would further a policy agenda that they believed was better for the nation. I didn’t agree — I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton — but I can see where they’re coming from. To me what has been most discrediting is that so many of Trump’s evangelical supporters have been rhapsodic in their support of him and won’t speak truth to power. They publicly defend Trump and attack Trump’s critics. For them, it’s a zero-sum game. They are acting more like partisan apparatchiks than as people of faith, integrity and moral and intellectual independence.
One final point on this, and for me a source of hope: The younger generation of evangelicals consider what’s been unfolding as something of a freak show, and they are dedicated to creating a far different and better way of engaging the culture, one that puts justice and grace at the center. This weekend I had breakfast with a conservative evangelical in his mid-20s, and I think it’s fair to say he’s horrified by what he’s witnessed from the older generation of white evangelicals who are obsequious Trump supporters. They don’t want to replicate that.
You provide some advice for what ordinary Americans can do about this. What are the most important things that have to happen?
We have to shake off fatalism and corrosive cynicism. At every level — local, state and national; in our role as voters, constituents and citizens — we need to act in ways that promote politics rightly understood and politicians who are champions of justice and human decency. I detail practical things in the book that can be done by us to take on the mantle of citizenship. But I’d say the most important thing we have do is to change our attitude toward politics and rededicate ourselves to what is best about politics. That is what my book is fundamentally about.
I focus on what politics properly understood is and tell stories about Lincoln and the founding generation who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and exercised power with wisdom. I write about how Harriet Beecher Stowe touched the heart of a nation in the fight against slavery and how Martin Luther King, Jr. showed how you could hate injustice while still being civil. I have a chapter on the proper role of faith in politics as well as the dangers; on why moderation, compromise and civility are essential democratic virtues; and why democracy requires that we honor truth and the culture of words.
The one thing I know is that the political system, whatever its failings, is responsive, and citizens who demand more will yield politicians who offer more. We can also be healing agents in our communities and live lives of integrity, kindness and decency. We can listen well and carefully to those we disagree with, and do our part to turn the temperature down rather than up in politics.
Context is important here. There have been far more difficult times in American history than the one we’re in, even if you believe, as I do, that Donald Trump is pernicious in many respects. We’ve seen Americans rise to enormous challenges in the past. There have been moments of grandeur, and there can be again. We have it within our power to write wonderful new chapters in the American story, but it’s up to us. I’ve said time and again that one person acting alone can’t do much, but a lot of people acting together can create a culture, and that culture can elevate our politics and our nation.
I’m weirdly optimistic about politics after seeing the huge turnouts in 2017 and 2018 elections, a big uptick in giving to groups inveighing against Trump’s brand of politics, support for an independent press (sorry, Mr. President, but we’re not “failing” these days) and big, peaceful protests. Is it possible that Trump has sparked a revival of participatory democracy?
He’s certainly done that. As you point out, we saw that in the 2018 midterms. But I think he’s done more than that. Viruses sometimes create their own antibodies, and I have a hunch that the Trump virus is creating civic antibodies; that in response to the Trump assault on American ideals, people will stand for virtue they perhaps took for granted.