This is the new GOP: Angry and afraid

One of the unpleasant surprises of your 50s (among many) is seeing the heroes and mentors of your 20s pass away. I worked for Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame, who became, through his work with prisoners, one of the most important social reformers of the 20th century. I worked for Jack Kemp, who inspired generations of conservatives with his passion for inclusion. I worked against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries but came to admire his truculent commitment to principle.

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.

.. “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.

.. “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.

.. 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.

Free-speech conservatives, this is your call to arms

To all those supposed constitutional conservatives out there, consider this your call to arms: The First Amendment is under direct attack, and this time from a much more powerful foe than misguided college freshmen.

By whom I mean: the ostensible leader of the free world.

Again and again, President Trump has used the weight of his office and the broader federal government to inflict financial damage upon critics, whistleblowers, journalists and peaceful protesters for exercising their rights to free speech.

Trump’s most recent salvo involves former CIA director John Brennan. During his long career in intelligence, Brennan briefed Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Which makes his fierce criticism of Trump, and his characterization of Trump’s Helsinki performance as “treasonous,” all the more biting.

.. Such comments led Trump to revoke Brennan’s security clearance Wednesday. The administration said Brennan no longer needed clearance because it didn’t plan to call on him for consultations. But high-level clearances are valuable for private-sector work as well.

In other words, this was about shutting Brennan’s mouth by going after his wallet.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

A day earlier, Trump’s campaign said it had filed an arbitration action against Omarosa Manigault Newman alleging that the former White House aide broke a 2016 nondisclosure agreement by publishing her recent tell-all book.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

That the party bringing the claim here is technically a campaign, rather than, say, the Justice Department, doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is supposed to protect those critical of their government, including critics of its highest officeholder, from political retribution. And political retribution laundered through an election campaign at the president’s instruction is retribution all the same.

.. Elsewhere — again, in recent days — the president and his minions have called the press the enemy of the people and the opposition party. Previously they have blacklisted reporters and entire news outlets (including The Post) whose questions Trump disliked.

.. When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.

.. Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.

Curiously, Republican politicians and conservative pundits who call themselves staunch defenders of the Constitution have allowed, and at times encouraged, the president to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), John Neely Kennedy (La.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) celebrated Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw a hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” refused to condemn Trump’s calls for the firing of NFL players engaged in peaceful protest. Instead, in September, he attacked the media for giving the “false impression” that Trump spent too much time attacking the NFL.

.. Polls in the past couple of years have shown that pluralities and, quite often, majorities of Republicans say that they, too, consider the media the enemy of the people; believe that the president should have the authority to close news outlets that he believes behave badly; and favor firing NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and stripping citizenship from anyone who burns the flag.

N.Y. Times publisher says he told Trump that attacks on media could lead to violence

The publisher of the New York Times said Sunday that he recently warned President Trump that his attacks on journalists, including labeling them as the “enemy of the people,” are contributing to a rise in threats and could lead to violence.

Trump revealed Sunday that he met at the White House with publisher A.G. Sulzberger and said they discussed “the vast amounts of Fake News.” The president said he explained to Sulzberger why he was increasingly characterizing journalists as the “enemy of the people.”

.. Sulzberger said in a lengthy statement, based on his and Bennet’s notes, that he agreed to the meeting with Trump “to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.”

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.

.. “I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.”

..  I made clear repeatedly that I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.”

.. he has long had a particular fascination with his coverage in the Times, dating to his many years of struggles to win the respect of Manhattan’s elite.

.. At various moments throughout his presidency, Trump has sought to punish journalists for the way they ask him questions, directing White House staff to bar those reporters from covering official events or to revoke their press credentialsThe Washington Post reported this past week.

“These people shouting questions are the worst,” Trump has said, according to an administration official. “Why do we have them in here?”