Michael Gerson

Washington, D.C.

 Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser. 
Books by Michael Gerson:  

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era

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Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)

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Recent Articles

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- Conservative reaction to The New York Times' "1619 Project" -- an attempt to tell the story of slavery and its lasting effect on American political, economic and social structures -- has been both disappointing and instructive.

I am not referring here to thinkers (the term is employed loosely) who consciously embrace a philosophy of white supremacy. Though resurgent and repellant, they do not constitute the mainstream of conservative thinking on race.

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach -- that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to "delegitimize" the American experiment. In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses -- or at least mitigations -- for the moral failures of the founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country's founders precisely because of the moral ideals the founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

One thing we cannot do is excuse the founders according to the standards of their time. In the mid to late 18th century, there was plenty of compelling moral thinking on the issue of slavery.

In 1759, Quaker Anthony Benezet wrote "Observations on the Enslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes," which presented eyewitness accounts of the cruelties of the slave trade. Benezet called slavery "inconsistent with the gospel of Christ, contrary to natural justice and the common feelings of humanity, and productive of infinite calamities to many thousand families, nay to many nations, and consequently offensive to God the father of all mankind."

In 1776, the year independence was declared, Presbyterian pastor Samuel Hopkins wrote "A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans," which he dedicated to the Continental Congress. Hopkins was alert to the incongruity of the American cause, urging his readers to "behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves."

In 1778, another minister, Jacob Green, preached a fast-day sermon referring to slavery as a "most cruel, inhuman, unnatural sin." He also pointed out the discrediting inconsistency of a country that was dedicated to liberty and yet tolerant of slavery: "What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain's attempts to oppress and enslave us, are, at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery…?"

America's founders stand accused by the best, most humane standards of their own time. When Jefferson wrote about natural rights on his mountaintop prison for black people, many of his contemporaries knew he was, on this issue, a total hypocrite.

America's story is not one of initial purity and eventual decay. It is the story of a radical principle -- the principle of human equality -- introduced into a deeply unjust society. That principle was carried forward by oppressed people who understood it better than many of the nation's founders. Denied the blessings of liberty, African Americans became the instruments by which the promise of liberty was broadly achieved. The victims of America's moral blindness became carriers of the American ideal.

This story is not simple to tell. But it is miraculous in its own way. And it is good reason to be proud of America.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- There are alarming consequences for the survival of human beings and the success of the society they inhabit when the brain suffers without treatment. And it has become frighteningly common for Americans to find their way into despair and self-murder.

More than 7% of American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. Nearly 13% of the U.S. population likely took antidepressant medication during the past month, yet suicide rates have risen to the highest since World War II. The odds of dying from suicide or an opioid overdose -- the "diseases of despair" -- are now higher than that of dying from a motor vehicle accident.

These problems are tragically concentrated among the young. More than three million people aged 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode in 2017 -- most accompanied by some form of severe impairment. The highest prevalence of major depressive disorder is among people aged 18-25. Some claim these numbers have risen mainly due to increased reporting. But that can't be true of suicides. The suicide rate for people aged 18-19 increased 56% between 2008 and 2017. The rate of suicide attempts among people aged 22-23 doubled in the same period. The number of emergency room treatments for self-harm has increased, as well as hospital admissions for suicidal thoughts.

America's mental health crisis is very real. Yet explanations for this rising tide of despair feel insufficient. The trend doesn't seem tied to broad economic indicators -- though the death of the blue-collar economy in some places may play a role. Some have tried to blame the anxieties produced by a "gig economy" -- but indicting Uber for human hopelessness seems a stretch.

Ready access to highly addictive opioids certainly is a source of numbed despair in many communities. Ready access to firearms plays a role in many suicides. Digital addiction and social media have transformed -- and distorted -- the social lives of most young people. Digital connection can deliver the poison of cyberbullying intravenously, in a steady drip. The withdrawal from direct, human contact with friends is associated with a variety of mental health issues.

A few things we know. Many Americans have tragically limited access to mental health services. Some health insurance plans don't provide adequate coverage. Some people are forced to drive long distances or wait on long lists. Some are discouraged from seeking help by continuing stigma. (About 20% of Americans have lied to cover up their use of mental health services.) As a result of all these factors, more than one-third of adults with major depressive disorder don't get treated. About 60% of adolescents who have major depressive episodes don't receive care.

We know that jails and prisons are not the best places to provide mental health care -- though likely more than 350,000 people with mental illness are currently behind bars. We should not trust many of these cases to the tender mercies of the penal system.

And we know that the deepest human needs can't be described in purely material or political terms. Though friendship, belonging and shared purpose are intangible, they are as essential to humans as air and bread. Yet nearly half of Americans say they are often lonely. About 20% of millennials report that they have no friends at all. Many of us have lost faith in the institutions that once gathered individuals into common effort and identity. Many of us have grown rusty in the task of social connection.

Mental health is different from many other policy issues. It involves both a public debate and personal responsibility to friends and acquaintances -- a duty of active, empathic, invasive concern.

Isolation is the growth medium for severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Without hearing some other, kinder voice, the echoes of self-condemnation can grow louder and louder. Without outside intervention, a downward spiral can be rapid, uninterrupted and deadly. People who struggle with depression need others in their lives who are alert to the signs of suffering and violate polite boundaries. They need someone who is willing to say: "You may not want to hear this, but I care about you and I'm worried about you. Please tell me how you are hurting and allow me to help."

This voice can come from a health care professional. It can come from family members, or from friends and colleagues, or from a support group in which the confession of need is expected and welcomed. On mental health issues, progress will be measured by increased focus and resources -- but also by the loving welcome of our deepest selves.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

WRITETHRU: 7th graf, 3rd sentence: "losing all women by double" sted "losing women by double" ; penultimate graf, 7th sentence: "against one visitor's charges of bedbug" sted "against charges of bedbug"

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- The outcome of the 2016 presidential election reinforced a certain lesson. No, not that the universe is a cold, empty, meaningless void, and that hope and justice are pretty lies told by self-deceived fools.

I mean the other lesson: Don't underestimate Donald Trump.

All good lessons, however, are eventually overlearned, especially by once-burned political commentators. In this case, our reticence disguises just how weak Trump really is. While it is absurd at this point to predict anything about the 2020 presidential election, no sane candidate would prefer to be playing Trump's hand.

The most recent national election -- the 2018 midterms -- showed strong Democratic enthusiasm and collapsing Republican support in many suburban areas. Take Northern Virginia's 10th Congressional District, which Republican Barbara Comstock won in 2016 by nearly 6 percentage points. In 2018, Comstock lost her seat to a Democrat by 12 points -- a massive swing during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Trump placed the blame on Comstock -- who had sided with Trump 98 percent of the time in House votes -- for being insufficiently enthusiastic about his person. It was a remarkable display of gracelessness and delusion.

The question arises: What has Trump done in the interval between the midterms and today to change the minds of suburban voters who helped win the House for Democrats in Virginia's 10th district and elsewhere? The answer occurs: nothing. Nothing at all.

Trump's current poll numbers are poor -- in some cases historically poor. Unlike every other recent president, he has never reached a job approval rating of 50% according to Gallup. A recent Quinnipiac poll puts his approval at 38%. A recent poll in Virginia by Roanoke College had Trump's job approval at 27% -- an 11-point drop since February.

There is evidence that his signature political approach -- his mix of rancor and racism -- is alienating women in large numbers. Overall, Trump won white women by 2 points in 2016. Recent polls have him losing all women by double digits in matchup polls against all the main Democratic contenders. According to 2016 exit polls, Trump won white, working-class women by 27 points. Two recent polls have him up by only 7.

External conditions may be turning against Trump. There are signs of weaker economic growth, increasing fears of recession and an apparently endless trade war with China that (according to a recent economic analysis) will cost the average American family $460 over the course of a year. The Quinnipiac poll finds, for the first time, that more Americans think Trump is hurting the economy than helping it. He is already pre-blaming American companies and the Federal Reserve in case economic conditions turn south -- indicating the shape of his worst fears.

And internally, the president's precarious emotional balance seems further unbalanced by adversity. His normal chaos has become whirling, flailing, frothing chaos. He "hereby ordered" American companies to cease doing business in China -- transcending the debate between conservative and progressive economics with a dose of fascist economics. He promised pardons to aides who broke the law in building the southern border wall. He used his high office to attack Omarosa and Debra Messing. He claimed "Fox isn't working for us anymore!" (Truth rating: Pants on Fire!) He suggested one of his properties as the next location for the G-7 summit, then defended it against one visitor's charges of bedbug infestation. He denied a well-reported news story revealing that he proposed to blow up hurricanes with nuclear weapons. And he tweeted out the almost-certainly classified photo of a failed Iranian missile launch. Says one strongly Republican friend: "I'm trying to imagine what would be happening on the right today if [Barack] Obama were president and had tweeted out a classified photo of an Iranian missile site clearly taken from his intelligence briefing with a stupid comment about it. People would be calling for his impeachment. And yet Trump does it and everyone has an excuse to offer."

To win reelection, Trump will need to take and get credit for a strong economy, control his self-destructive tendencies on Twitter and in press availabilities, and draw a very liberal Democratic opponent. The first condition is very much up in the air. The third is in the hands of Democrats. Recent events, however, show that the second condition will almost certainly not be met. Trump seems incapable of carrying forward any political strategy that requires something more than immediate obedience to his rampant impulses.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

About
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser.
Books
  • City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
  • Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)
Reviews
"Mike Gerson is a gifted writer and an original thinker, not to mention a dogged reporter, and he provides unique insights on politics, religion, the future of the conservative movement and other important topics. He brings a new and different perspective to our op-ed page." -- Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor, The Washington Post
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