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, Jan. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

WRITETHRU: Following breaking news, changing 7th graf to: "McCarthy has taken the welcome step of removing King from his committee assignments. Censure by the House is the next logical move, if Republicans are serious about scrubbing the stain King has left on their party."

By MICHAEL GERSON

EDITORS -- Note quoted language in penultimate sentence of penultimate graf.

WASHINGTON -- What happens when immense bigotry gets lodged in a small mind? Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is what happens.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, King asked, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization -- how did that language become offensive?" It is a question that could only be posed by a bigot. And because it was a rhetorical question, King was assuming that all the rest of us -- all right-thinking people -- are bigots as well. Shouldn't the tie between whiteness and civilization be obvious?

As a reminder, white nationalism and supremacy -- the ideology shared by Jefferson Davis, Bull Connor and, evidently, Steve King -- became offensive because of centuries of stolen labor, murder and cruel abuse; because of a bloody war that one side conducted on behalf of slavery; because of repeating waves of anti-immigrant prejudice, alarmism and discrimination; because of routine lynchings and the stinging viciousness of segregation; because of the assumption that robbed, exploited and oppressed people somehow deserve social challenges resulting from robbery, exploitation and oppression.

For King, this was not a slip of the tongue, but the development of a theme. "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies," King has argued. Those babies eventually grow up to be, in King's words, migrant kids with "calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." This is threatening because "diversity is not our strength." In fact, it is "cultural suicide by demographic transformation." And King blames all of this on a conspiracy led by one, Semitic force: George Soros, whose money "floats in in such a way you can't see the flow."

King has pioneered a politics of resentment for demographic change and animus for outsiders. He feeds ethnic stereotypes and conspiracy theories. He issues apocalyptic warnings: "Europe is waking up. ... Will America ... in time?" And his local supporters dismiss criticism of King as "a personality thing."

Many elected Republicans in Washington have been forthright in their criticism of King after his latest offense. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called King's remarks "reckless" and "wrong." Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said King's argument was "abhorrent and racist." To Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, it was "offensive and racist." To Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., it was "an embrace of racism."

McCarthy has taken the welcome step of removing King from his committee assignments. Censure by the House is the next logical move, if Republicans are serious about scrubbing the stain King has left on their party.

In their criticism of King, you get the sense that Republicans are actually relieved to be in the position of attacking racism for a change, instead of being forced to defend it from the president. They seem to be signaling that they are not really the bigots that they appear to be. Republicans seem desperate to explain that they are normal and moral, in spite of all the evidence. Attacking King reveals some sense of shame at what they have become.

Yet, in the end, Republican critics of King manage to look worse rather than better. If racism is the problem, then President Trump is a worse offender. And their relative silence on Trump is a sign of hypocrisy and weakness.

Take the last days before the 2018 midterm elections. Trump closed his campaign for Republicans with a hysterical warning that brown people were invading the country. He initially suggested they should be shot. He added that he "wouldn't be surprised" if Soros was funding the migrant caravan. This is clearly what he regards as his strongest political argument -- the racist promotion of animus against outsiders, tied to pernicious conspiracy theories.

Trump feeds ethnic stereotypes of migrants as "rapists" and "murderers." He makes apocalyptic warnings that Democratic control would "turn America into Venezuela" and "totally open borders." And his supporters dismiss criticism against him as a personality thing.

Add to this Trump's attribution of Kenyan citizenship to Barack Obama. And his sympathy for the "very fine people" attending a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. And his attacks on African-American athletes and other figures. And his pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for racial profiling, terror raids and cruel punishment of inmates. And his attempts at a Muslim ban. And his contempt for "shithole countries." And ... a list far longer than I can include.

By any standard, Trump says things that are reckless, wrong, abhorrent, offensive and racist. And until Republicans can state this reality with the same clarity and intensity that they now criticize King, they will be cowards in a time crying for bravery.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- So far: President Trump has announced a crisis that isn't actually a crisis, requiring a wall that is not really a wall, funded by Mexican pesos that are really American tax dollars, to keep out murderous migrants who are (as a whole) less violent than native-born Americans, leading to congressional negotiations that involve no actual negotiations, resulting in a government shutdown undertaken on the advice of radio personalities, defended in an Oval Office address that consisted of alarmism, prejudice, falsehood and other material caught in the P-trap of Stephen Miller's mind.

One conservative claimed that Trump finally looked "presidential." Actually, we are seeing the federal government -- Trump supporters and opponents -- trying to explain and respond to an impulsive, emotive, selfish, irresponsible and fundamentally irrational force at its center. It is like the immune system responding to a virus it has never seen before and cannot defend against. Trump walks in and out of meetings, repeating scraps of his stump speech, unpredictable to his staff, unconcerned about the pressure on his allies, contemptuous toward congressional opponents and with no apparent end game except their total surrender.

This is a case study in failed and erratic leadership. The shutdown happened because Trump -- under pressure from partisan media -- reneged on a commitment to sign the spending bill the Senate had passed and the House was ready to pass. Then, in an Oval Office meeting with the Democratic leaders, he said he would gladly own a shutdown, presumably because he figured it would look good on TV. Trump apparently did this without talking to congressional Republicans or his own staff. Then congressional Republicans and his own staff were forced to defend Trump's impulse as a strategy. But this has proved difficult, because Republicans have no leverage. So now the whole GOP is left pretending there is an emergency at the border, and that a multi-year construction project is somehow the best way to deal with an emergency.

This is the Republican legislator's lot in the Trump era -- trying to provide (BEG ITAL)ex post facto(END ITAL) justifications for absurd presidential choices. The border "crisis" did not break because of some tragedy caused by a porous southern border. It did not result from some serious determination of national security priorities. The whole GOP strategy and all the arguments they are using are really backfill for an intemperate choice made by a president in response to media coverage. It is a dynamic we've seen again and again. Trump announced a summit with Kim Jong Un because, well, for the hell of it. Then the whole government had to backfill a policy and process to fit his wrongheaded announcement. Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria on the spur of the moment, perhaps to assert himself against the influence of his now-departed Defense Secretary James Mattis. Then the whole defense and national security establishment has to scramble to backfill the details of coherent policy (which they still haven't really done).

On the issue of border security, it has fallen to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to provide justification for the irrational. And this has turned a serious public servant into a font of deception and bad faith. She warns darkly about a terrorist threat crossing our southern border, though both the size and details of that threat are too "sensitive" to release. "I am sure all Americans," she explains, "would agree that one terrorist reaching our borders is one too many."

So, we know that the number of terrorists intercepted at the southern border is equal to or greater than one. What we don't know is how this terrorist threat compares to other dangers and vulnerabilities that require funding as well. I have talked to many counterterrorism experts about domestic radicalization, and foreign intelligence gathering, and drones and special operations, and financial investigation and disruption. I have never met an expert who mentioned the construction of a physical barrier with Mexico as an urgent priority in the fight against global terrorism. Some benefit in this area may be a highly attenuated byproduct of a wall. But if the goal is fighting terrorism, the first dollar would not go to a wall. Or probably the billionth dollar. The argument is deceptive to its core.

But security arguments would certainly be at the core of Trump's justification for declaring a national emergency and building the wall with American troops -- if he makes that choice. Then the ignorance, arrogance and stubbornness of one man would turn a budget crisis into a constitutional crisis -- and turn Republican defenders into abettors of creeping authoritarianism. All to justify a fool's impulse.

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

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

(Advance for Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Gerson clients only)

By MICHAEL GERSON

WASHINGTON -- In the carnage of American civic culture, some of the damage is obvious: the dehumanization of political opponents, the devaluation of truth, the rise of conspiracy thinking. But other less evident shifts are no less troubling. One concerns the use of the word "authenticity."

Most recently, we have seen the defense of vulgarity as authenticity. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., explained her use of the MF-word against President Trump as the expression of her "very passionate" nature. The same argument is more familiar from Trump defenders, who explain away his endless vulgarity and malice as quirks of an oversized personality. Isn't it refreshing when politicians speak what is really on their mind?

In this view, humans are most genuine when we are least guarded, least scripted and least self-controlled. By this definition, we are most authentic while hitting our finger with a hammer, or after our third martinis, or maybe on a Twitter rampage.

Without intending it, Tlaib and Trump have wandered into an important moral debate. And not a new one. In any ethical system derived from Aristotle, human beings fulfill their nature by exercising their reason and habituating certain virtues, such as courage, temperance, honor, equanimity, truthfulness, justice and friendship. Authenticity -- at least authenticity defined as congruence with your unformed self -- is not on the list. In fact, this view of ethics requires a kind of virtuous hypocrisy -- modeling ourselves on a moral example, until, through action and habit, we come to embody that ideal. Ethical development is, in a certain way, theatrical. We play the role of someone we admire until we become someone worthy of admiration.

But there is a rival tradition. In any ethical tradition derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authenticity is at the apex of the virtues. This view starts from the premise that man is born free but is everywhere in social chains. Being true to yourself, and expressing yourself freely, is seen as the chief requirement of a meaningful and happy life. In this system, the worst sin is hypocrisy -- being untrue to the real you.

This approach to ethics is also theatrical, but in a different way. In Rousseau's view, we are performers as ourselves, and life is a kind of transgressive art form. Being true to ourselves means being true to our eccentricities. Especially to our eccentricities.

At the root of the Aristotelian approach is the premise that the human person is originally in need of formation. At the root of the other approach is the premise that the human person is only in need of liberation. This has marked a long-standing difference between right and left, with conservatism often on the side of character building and progressivism often on the side of personal expression. But with Trump, something remarkable has happened. The right is increasingly on Rousseau's side as well.

This view of ethics is a perfect philosophic fit for the president's narcissism. The soundtrack of his whole life has been Frank Sinatra crooning, "I did it my way." And social media is the perfect platform for Rousseau's view of authenticity and for Trump's brand of performance art. After 2,500 years of debate and reflection, the highest human ideal turns out to be ... reality television.

Here is the skunk at the orgy. If the unfiltered expression of self is the highest virtue, then the moral content of that expression becomes a secondary matter. Trump may be speaking lies, nonsense or racism, but he remains authentic. This form of ethics can act as a shield from responsibility. Most of us -- not just Trump supporters -- have learned to discount the content of Trump's self-expression. We figure that is just his shtick. Just Trump being Trump. This way, Trump is seen as an authentic communicator, even when he lies -- because the author of those lies is somehow true to himself.

I'm afraid I don't see many Aristotelians responding: That is not the way a president should act. That is not the way a man should act. That is not the way a human being should act. This form of authenticity is just the refusal to master the self. It is really moral laziness, and cruelty, and deception, and decadence. And the repetition of these failures should not numb us. It should serve to reinforce our conviction that Trump is a man of bad character, unworthy of respect, unworthy of trust and unworthy of high office.

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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