We Lost the Battle for the Republican Party’s Soul Long Ago

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, commissioned an internal party study to examine why the party had won the popular vote only once since 1988.

The results of that so-called autopsy were fairly obvious: The party needed to appeal to more people of color, reach out to younger voters, become more welcoming to women. Those conclusions were presented as not only a political necessity but also a moral mandate if the Republican Party were to be a governing party in a rapidly changing America.

Then Donald Trump emerged and the party threw all those conclusions out the window with an almost audible sigh of relief: Thank God we can win without pretending we really care about this stuff. That reaction was sadly predictable.

I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Trump didn’t hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Donald Trump up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today’s Republican Party.

I saw the warning signs but ignored them and chose to believe what I wanted to believe: The party wasn’t just a white grievance party; there was still a big tent; the others guys were worse. Many of us in the party saw this dark side and told ourselves it was a recessive gene. We were wrong. It turned out to be the dominant gene.

What is most telling is that the Republican Party actively embraced, supported, defended and now enthusiastically identifies with a man who eagerly exploits the nation’s racial tensions. In our system, political parties should serve a circuit breaker function. The Republican Party never pulled the switch.

Racism is the original sin of the modern Republican Party. While many Republicans today like to mourn the absence of an intellectual voice like William Buckley, it is often overlooked that Mr. Buckley began his career as a racist defending segregation.

In the Richard Nixon White House, Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips wrote a re-election campaign memo headed “Dividing the Democrats” in which they outlined what would come to be known as the Southern Strategy. It assumes there is little Republicans can do to attract Black Americans and details a two-pronged strategy: Utilize Black support of Democrats to alienate white voters while trying to decrease that support by sowing dissension within the Democratic Party.

That strategy has worked so well that it was copied by the Russians in their 2016 efforts to help elect Mr. Trump.

In the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, on which I worked, we acknowledged the failures of Republicans to attract significant nonwhite support. When Mr. Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative,” some on the right attacked him, calling it an admission that conservatism had not been compassionate. That was true; it had not been. Many of us believed we could steer the party to that “kinder, gentler” place his father described. We were wrong.

Reading Mr. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention now is like stumbling across a document from a lost civilization, with its calls for humility, service and compassion. That message couldn’t attract 20 percent in a Republican presidential primary today. If there really was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, we lost.

There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.

How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced. I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought they were actually beating the market.

Mr. Trump has served a useful purpose by exposing the deep flaws of a major American political party. Like a heavy truck driven over a bridge on the edge of failure, he has made it impossible to ignore the long-developing fault lines of the Republican Party. A party rooted in decency and values does not embrace the anger that Mr. Trump peddles as patriotism.

This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics. The closest parallel is the demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, when the dissonance between what the party said it stood for and what citizens actually experienced was so great that it was unsustainable.

This election should signal a day of reckoning for the party and all who claim it as a political identity. Will it? I’ve given up hope that there are any lines of decency or normalcy that once crossed would move Republican leaders to act as if they took their oath of office more seriously than their allegiance to party. Only fear will motivate the party to change — the cold fear only defeat can bring.

That defeat is looming. Will it bring desperately needed change to the Republican Party? I’d like to say I’m hopeful. But that would be a lie and there have been too many lies for too long.

God Save America from Fearful Christians

Shrinking in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world.

Back when I was in the religious liberty litigation business, I’d sometimes give my clients—especially my college student clients—a little talk that went something like this: “Your lawsuit is likely going to get more media attention than anything that your group does for the next 10 years, but that gets the importance of this moment exactly backward. Winning your religious freedom and maintaining your presence on campus is far less important than what you’ll do with that liberty. Your witness will ultimately define you on this campus, not your rights.”

I’ve thought often about those talks in recent years. The reason is simple—Christian liberty is largely secure, yet Christian fear is harming the Christian witness and damaging the culture of the nation we love.

A moment’s historical reflection should demonstrate that few political and legal movements have been more successful in the last 40 years than Christian conservatism. Through a combination of activism and litigation, Christian conservatives have not only achieved veto power over the electoral fortunes of one of America’s two great political parties, they’ve erected a veritable thicket of laws that protect religious expression in public (and even private) spheres.

Court decision after court decision has held that churches and religious organizations enjoy enormous autonomy (greater autonomy than secular organizations) in hiring and firing employees, and that autonomy is nearly absolute when it comes to hiring and firing ministerial employees. They enjoy rights of equal access with secular organizations to public facilities and (in some cases) taxpayer funding. Employees of private companies enjoy broad federal, state, and local protections against religious discrimination. Many of these freedoms aren’t protected by fragile 5-4 Supreme Court majorities. Instead, they rest on precedents decided by 7-2 and even 9-0 margins. 

At the federal level, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act secures religious Americans extraordinary protection against infringements on religious liberty through federal law. A total of 21 states have enacted similar provisions.

Decades of patient pro-life activism (protected by many of the court precedents referred to above) have resulted in hundreds of pro-life laws in states across the nation—including 288 laws passed between 2011 and 2015 alone—and are drivers in the extraordinary drop in the American abortion rate. The abortion rate is now lower than it was before Roe was decided, when abortion was actually illegal in multiple American jurisdictions.

Yes, I know there are challenges. I know that threats to religious conscience exist, especially for Christian institutions that engage in heavily regulated professions like foster care, adoption services, and health care. But it’s hard to think of a single developed country in the entire world that more robustly protects religious freedom than the United States of America.

Yet in spite of this liberty and power, all too many Christians are afraid.  Once again a time of social upheaval is elevating illiberal voices, and those illiberal voices have disproportionate power in America’s leading cultural, educational, and corporate institutions. Right alongside an extraordinarily welcome wave of reflection and anguish about the reality and legacy of American racism is a disturbing wave of intolerance for dissent from the most radical and divisive anti-racist ideologies.

In a searing newsletter published Friday, progressive journalist Matt Taibibi penned a cri de coeur against the illiberal left:

On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.

The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.

They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!

Writing in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan asked “Is there still room for debate?”:

In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.

None of this is particularly new. “Woke” culture has spawned years of cancellations, terminations, and boycotts. It has also created a sense of pervasive fear in Christian communities. I’ve heard from friends even in deep-red communities such as Franklin, Tennessee, who are afraid to share their thoughts on social media for fear of corporate reprisal.

Sullivan is correct that intolerance is very real, but he’s wrong that present conditions are “very reminiscent of totalitarian states.” There is a substantial difference between state censorship—enforced at gunpoint—and the professional and social intolerance that dominates illiberal institutions. The East German Stasi would leave your body in a ditch. That’s a different universe of oppression compared to the harms woke America inflicts on its victims today..

Yet excessive fear reigns. My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears. Comment after comment will begin with the notation that the authors feels they can’t identify themselves:

“I am a full professor in the humanities at a major private university. Everyone on this blog would likely recognize my name if I published it here.”

“From a reader I know personally, and who correctly says she cannot identify herself: ‘Very few of us have practical freedom of speech anymore. Sure, the constitution lets us say it, but what good is that if it gets us mobbed?’”

I get correspondence like this all the time. And expressions of fear like this aren’t all that new. I’ll never forget the professor who spoke to me in whispers about his faith lest anyone overhear and threaten his tenure bid. I remember an extraordinary case in Georgia where the university Christian community remained largely silent as a fellow believer faced racism, rape threats, and death threats for defending religious freedom on campus.

As a matter of law, Christians are free. As a matter of fact, in many contexts across the country, Christians are afraid—and many of the people who are most in the grips of fear are those individuals who have thoughtful and reasonable things to say.

Rod points out that millions of Americans, repulsed by “wishy-washy” religiosity are seeking purpose in the “strong gods” on the illiberal left and right. It’s riots vs. crackdowns. It’s left-wing intolerance versus right-wing aggression. The reality hearkens back to the lines from W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” that I wrote about two weeks ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation. Millions turned to Donald Trump to fight for them, forgetting that a church that is supposed to be a source of salt and light should not empower malice and lies. The result, in Gen. James Mattis’s words, is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.” Christians put in power—and sustained in power—precisely the wrong man for this perilous moment.

Others, in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.

How do you respond to those “strong gods”? By showing them to be weak. Speak in the face of fear, but speak in the way that God desires. He has given His people a mission statement: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Each element is transformative. Each element is necessary. Any Christian movement that lacks justice, kindness, and humility is flawed. 

America is at an important crossroads. There is a stirring in the American heart—men and women who were once hardened against the words and testimonies of their black fellow citizens are starting, at last, to listen. But extreme voices seek to hijack the debate, to take advantage of the moment to continue ripping this nation to shreds.

Are Christians prepared to be the instruments of justice, mercy, and humility that this nation so desperately needs? Not if they remain afraid. Not if in their timidity they continue to empower our worst voices or refuse to speak the truth with grace and conviction. Christians have immense liberty in this nation, but our witness ultimately defines us, not our rights, and presently the Christian witness is all too often a witness of fear.

A shameless plug … 

My new book, Divided We Fall, is available for pre-order, and I just got my first review, from Publisher’s Weekly, and it’s good! The reviewer called the book an “incisive examination of contemporary political polarization” and said this “well-informed and often moving account provides an antidote to the ills of political partisanship.” I’m grateful! And I’d also be grateful if you pre-ordered the book, either at the Amazon link above or at Barnes & Noble (which needs your support.)

One last thing … 

This new song, from Kristene DiMarco, has truly touched my heart. I hope it blesses you—in a time of uncertainty and fear, let Jesus rise:

Photograph by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

If We Had a Real Leader

Imagining Covid under a normal president.

This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.

If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.

In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.

If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.

Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.

In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.

If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.

After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.

Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.

But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.

All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”

Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.

One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.

No, Not Sanders, Not Ever

He is not a liberal, he’s the end of liberalism.

A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.

Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.

We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.

And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.

To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.

I say all this not to cancel Sanders for past misjudgments. I say all this because the intellectual suppositions that led him to embrace these views still guide his thinking today. I’ve just watched populism destroy traditional conservatism in the G.O.P. I’m here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is not a liberal Democrat. He’s what replaces liberal Democrats.

Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to

  • John Stuart Mill,
  • John Locke,
  • the Social Gospel movement and
  • the New Deal.

This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.

This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.

Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.

He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.

Liberalism celebrates certain values:

  • reasonableness,
  • conversation,
  • compassion,
  • tolerance,
  • intellectual humility and
  • optimism.

Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different:

  • rage,
  • bitter and relentless polarization, a
  • demand for ideological purity among your friends and
  • incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.

A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.

These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.

There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.

Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing. Those countries do have generous welfare states, but they can afford them because they understand how free market capitalism works, with fewer regulations on business creation and free trade.

There is a specter haunting the world — corrosive populisms of right and left. These populisms grow out of real problems but are the wrong answers to them. For the past century, liberal Democrats from F.D.R. to Barack Obama knew how to beat back threats from the populist left. They knew how to defend the legitimacy of our system, even while reforming it.

Judging by the last few debates, none of the current candidates remember those arguments or know how to rebut a populist to their left.

I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.