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, Nov. 20, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

WRITETHRU: In 4th graf, 3rd sentence, fixes spelling of Nuremberg; and in same graf, 4th sentence, changes opening to: "The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said ..."

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- One of the worst things about our awful political moment is its historical forgetfulness. Many Europeans seem to have forgotten where chauvinistic nationalism and the demonization of minorities can lead. Many Americans seem to have forgotten that a foreign policy of America First allowed international malignancies to grow that made war inevitable and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. And many in Western countries seem to have forgotten the difficult, desperate project of building a moral and legal structure around the principle of human dignity in the aftermath of World War II.

Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the U.S. are both atrocities and reminders. They ring with distant but unmistakable echoes of the nightmarish events of the 1930s and 1940s: the racial purity laws, the economic indignities, the despairing suicides, the liquidation of the disabled, the digging up of Jewish graves in cemeteries, the deportations, the ghettos, the shootings in batch after batch, the pits of corpses, the emptied orphanages, the terrified walk to the gas chamber.

It is worth trying to recall how shocking these events were to the conscience of the world. The institutions of the modern state -- bureaucracy, propaganda, military power -- had been harnessed to the purposes of sadism and mass murder. This indicted a highly sophisticated and educated European society -- along with the very idea of sophistication and education as brakes on evil. It indicted other nations who did little, even after the crimes became obvious. It indicted many German Christians who were indifferent or complicit. For some, it even indicted God, who seemed uncaring on a distant throne.

But the response was ultimately an idealistic one. The Allies would institute a new order of justice and human rights. The Tokyo tribunals and the Nuremberg trials were both legal and moral enterprises. The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said he would not seek convictions for "mere technical or incidental transgression of international conventions. We charge guilt ... that involves moral as well as legal wrong. ... It is their abnormal and inhuman conduct which brings them to this bar."

The moral response to World War II-era crimes found expression in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which speaks of "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights." There were many influences on this document, from President Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms to the Declaration of Independence. But the theory was simple: The Axis powers not only lost, they were wrong. Their vision of nation, race and culture would be replaced by an assertion of universal human rights and dignity.

It was, however, more of an assertion than an argument. French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was involved in the debates surrounding the Universal Declaration, said, "We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the 'why' the dispute begins."

Some of the challenge to this vision of inherent dignity has come from arguments associated with academic liberalism. It has become common to deny that human beings have natures that can be separated from their cultural circumstances. And without a human nature, it is hard to define a set of human rights. Without some standard from outside the culture -- some statement by God or reason that every human life is sacred -- we are left only with the current consensus of our culture. And we are left with no good reason to tell our children why they should hold to that consensus rather than abandon it.

But the most urgent, comprehensive attack on the universality of human rights now comes from the nativist right. In places such as Hungary, Romania, Germany, Poland and the United States, politicians are attempting to define nationality based on the dehumanization of cultural outsiders -- Muslims, migrants and refugees. This type of politics is dangerous wherever it is practiced. In the United States, it also requires the renunciation of responsibilities rooted in the post-war acceptance of human dignity as the basis of global order and peace.

This is the cost of historical amnesia -- the cost of electing an American president who is both ignorant of and indifferent toward the lessons of the last century, or any century. A president who always turns, by feral instinct, to an organizing message of bigotry and exclusion. A president who is throwing away an inheritance he does not value and unleashing forces that can easily move beyond control.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- Republicans who are thinking about opposing President Trump in the 2020 primaries are facing the hardest of political choices.

Toppling a sitting president of your own party is a maneuver with the highest degree of difficulty. The most relevant historical model is probably Eugene McCarthy's race against Lyndon Johnson in 1968, which helped convince a politically wounded president to withdraw. But McCarthy had a clear policy handhold -- opposition to an increasingly unpopular war -- and appealed to a discontented element of his party.

What are the handholds for a challenger to Trump? Economic conservatives are generally happy with the 2017 tax cut. Social conservatives are generally satisfied with Trump's judicial nominees (and should be). Foreign policy conservatives are generally not pleased with Trump's sabotage of alliances, his compulsive personal diplomacy and his abdication of leadership in promoting American values. But the Republican foreign policy establishment was almost uniformly opposed to Trump the last time around, and it mattered not at all.

So why undertake this difficult, perhaps thankless political task?

First, no political moment is permanent. After a particularly damaging new administration scandal (not unlikely) or a severe economic downturn, a hopeless quest might suddenly seem like remarkable political foresight. Or not. But no alternative to Trump can benefit from changing circumstances if he or she doesn't run in the first place. Fortune favors the slightly irrational.

Second, the Robert Mueller report and a string of congressional investigations could destabilize Trump's personality in escalating and disturbing ways. The president could move against important institutions, or against the separation of powers, in a manner that causes a serious portion of the Republican electorate to reconsider its blind support. I am not holding my breath, but who could judge this impossible?

Third, even in the absence of a policy handhold, there are elements within the GOP that seem open to a counter-Trump message. In one recent poll, 16 percent of Republicans prefer for Trump to be a one-term president. On the evidence of the midterm, this discontent skews young and female. Many of these voters, presumably, are less focused on Trump's tax policy, and more on his racism and misogyny. It is at least a place to start.

At this stage of the 2020 campaign, the Republican case against Trump is not mainly about policy or ideology (though it could be eventually). It is not primarily about his ignorance and refusal to learn and improve at his job (though that is concerning). The main Republican argument against Trump is this: He is a person of horrible character who corrupts everyone around him, undermines essential social standards and is branding his party with an image of bigotry that will last a generation.

The problem with Democrats making this argument about Trump's character is simple. To abandon the president in favor of a Democrat, Republican voters are forced, not just to value public character, but to value public character above conservative economic policy and above the appointment of conservative judges. And -- thought it pains me to say it -- not many Republicans place that much weight on matters of character. They will take Trump plus Justice Brett Kavanaugh over any Democratic of unimpeachable integrity. If, however, any of the serious Republican prospects -- Nikki Haley, Jeff Flake, Bob Coker, Mitt Romney or John Kasich -- run against Trump, Republican primary voters will face the challenge: Why not conservative policy (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) public character?

This is the main reason that some Republican on that list (or some talented candidate still unknown) must run. There needs to be an alternative focus of intellectual energy and moral leadership in America's party of the right. This is what a presidential campaign -- successful or not -- can accomplish. To those who say it is useless to protest the direction of the GOP, a campaign embodies the reply: "Well, I protest anyway." To those who say that traditional conservatism is a lost cause, it represents the answer: "Not to me." To those who claim that the effort can't succeed, it says: "Let's deserve success first, then see where honorable effort leads us."

At some point, there must be a limit to political calculation. History has an honor roll of those who show seemingly futile courage. Someone on the American right must contend that racism and sexism violate the promise at the heart of America. Someone must be offended when national ideals are debased by cruelty and corruption. Someone must be willing to defy good political sense in a great political cause.

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

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- Those of us who participated in the 2000 presidential election are getting political PTSD from the current gubernatorial and senatorial recounts in Florida. President George W. Bush was eventually declared winner in the Sunshine State (and thus the election) by 537 votes out of about 6 million cast. But for 35 long days of counting and challenging and pleading, it was mainly the lawyers in charge.

During this period, Bush did a lot of brush clearing on his Crawford, Texas, ranch. The bloody scratches on his arms indicated how his frustration was being unleashed against unlucky cedar trees. I worked on some victory remarks and had a concession speech ready just in case. But eventually, I went to movies during the day. I was too distracted to pay much attention, though I remember seeing the film version of Charlie's Angels, because, well, Lucy Liu.

Nearly two decades later, the Florida electorate is still balanced on a political knife's edge. Yet one measure passed in the midterm by a lopsided margin, and may have a larger, more lasting influence than any contested race. Voters approved Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution by a majority of nearly 65 percent. This returned voting rights to more than a million people who have committed felonies (other than murder or sex offenses) and served their time. It was the largest expansion of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and women's suffrage.

The U.S. Constitution specifically allows for the suspension of voting rights for those guilty of "participation in rebellion, or other crime." But after passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments -- mandating equal political rights for African-American men -- restricting voting rights became a priority for the forces of Jim Crow. In legal systems that routinely arrested and convicted black people on thin or false charges, bans on voting by felons were effective tools to ensure white supremacy.

Not many states now retain lifelong voting bans. The more frequent debate today concerns whether people on probation and parole should be allowed to vote. But these types of limitations (before Florida's change) still prevented voting by one in 40 adults in America, and one in 13 African-Americans. Amendment 4 solved about a quarter of this problem.

The arguments against felony voting bans are ultimately simple. How can you tell a man or woman leaving prison that they have paid their debt to society, that they should resume responsibility for their lives, and yet deny them the most basic right of a self-governing citizen? The denial of voting rights is a way to mark a returning citizen with an invisible scar or brand of stigma and suspicion. It says that we share some geography, but not really a community. And this type of distrust, or half trust, is an invitation to recidivism. Rather than helping ex-prisoners avoid violence, gain jobs and remake their lives, this expression of skepticism worsens the odds they strive against.

Right out of college, I worked at an organization named Prison Fellowship Ministries, which did outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. My boss was Charles Colson, who had been incarcerated for crimes related to the Watergate scandal. He wrote: "I served time in a federal prison. And while I paid my debt to society in less than a year, it took me 30 years to have my voting rights restored. Maybe I'm not a good example, having been part of a national political scandal. But what about a young person, say, in his early 20s, who is convicted of three minor drug offenses? Once he serves his time, grows up and straightens out his life, should he be denied the right to vote again? I know politics is a bare-knuckled game, but demonizing an entire class of Americans for electoral gain is wrong."

Republicans have often opposed measures to expand the franchise, for fear it would hurt them politically. My considered response? Tough. There are two ways to respond to the hostility of minority voters toward the GOP. First, try to restrict the franchise through stealthy means. This strikes me as a wall of sand against the waves. It is undemocratic, unethical and eventually discrediting. Or second, compete for minority voters in a fairly constituted electorate. Republicans who find this impossible are practicing politics without inspiration, imagination and faith.

Beyond the political calculation is a moral question: When we talk about second chances in this country, do we really mean it? The voters of Florida have given their answer -- not in a squeaker, but a landslide.

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

(c) 2018, 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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