Perhaps it is natural to attribute heroism to past generations and to find a sad smallness in your own. But we are seeing the largest test of political character in my lifetime. And where are the Republican leaders large enough to show the way?
President Trump’s recent remarks to evangelical Christians at the White House capture where Republican politics is heading. “This November 6 election,” Trump said, “is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion.” A direct, unadorned appeal to tribal hostilities. Fighting for Trump, the president argued, is the only way to defend the Christian faith. None of these men and women of God, apparently, gagged on their hors d’oeuvres.
If religious get-out-the-vote efforts are insufficient, according to the president, “that will be the beginning of ending everything that you’ve gotten.” The gates of hell will not prevail against the church, but evidently Nancy Pelosi would.
“It’s not a question of like or dislike, it’s a question that [Democrats] will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence.” Here Trump is preparing his audience for the possibility of bloodshed by predicting it from the other side. Christians, evidently, need to start taking “Onward, Christian Soldiers” more literally.
This is now what passes for GOP discourse — the cultivation of anger, fear, grievances, prejudices and hatreds.
I have sympathy for principled Republicans at a time when principle is swiftly and effectively punished. In Florida’s recent primaries, significantly more Republican voters said they were loyal to Trump than to the GOP. In many places, the only way for an ordinary Republican senator or House member to maintain any political influence is to burn incense to the emperor.
But Republican leaders need to prepare themselves. This compromise is likely to be temporary. Trump is not only making a challenge to the Republican establishment; he is also increasingly impatient with structures of democratic accountability. As Edward Luce argues in “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” “the true populist loses patience with the rules of the democratic game.” He comes to view himself as the embodied voice of the people, and opponents as (in Trump’s words) “un-American” and “treasonous.”
As Robert S. Mueller III continues his inexorable investigation of Trump’s sleazy business and political world — and if Democrats gain the House and begin aggressive oversight — a cornered president may test the limits of executive power in the attempt to avoid justice. If the GOP narrowly retains control of the House, Trump and others will take it as the vindication of his whole approach to politics. The president will doubtlessly go further in targeting his enemies for investigation and other harm. He will doubtlessly attack the independence of the FBI and attempt to make it an instrument of his will. He will doubtlessly continue his vendetta against responsible journalism and increase his pressure on media companies that don’t please him. On a broad front, Trump’s lunacy will become operational.
The separation of powers does not work automatically, like a washing machine. Republicans must pick their own point of principled resistance to a corrosive populism, if they have one at all.
In the preface to his play “A Man for All Seasons,” author Robert Bolt tries to explain the character of Thomas More, who ends up killed for his opposition to the king. “He knew where he began and left off,” Bolt says, “what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. . . . But at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”
Republican leaders may dread it, but they will eventually be forced to identify that final area where they keep themselves — or find there is no one there.