Michael Gerson’s Party? It Dead

I’m not going to burden you with a treatise on Edmund Burke on a Friday afternoon. If people want to call him the “father of conservatism,” I’m willing to let that ride. I do get annoyed, however, when folks insist that the words “conservative” and “conservatism” used to have a nobler meaning and that they’ve been hijacked. We’ve been living with the “Conservative Movement” for too long now for me to buy that garbage. I don’t see any distinction between a conservative and a “Movement Conservative.”

Not anymore, and not for a long, long time.

When I use the word “conservative” I am referring to people who are part of the Conservative Movement, and I’d trace that movement to the reaction to FDR’s New Deal.

I’m aware that this is an argument about semantics and that it could open an endless debate about what defines conservatism or Movement Conservatism. For me, however, I cannot agree with Michael Gerson that there is some big distinction between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

The worst does not mean the nomination of Ted Cruz, in spite of justified fears of political disaster. Cruz is an ideologue with a message perfectly tuned for a relatively small minority of the electorate. Uniquely in American politics, the senator from Texas has made his reputation by being roundly hated by his colleagues — apparently a prerequisite for a certain kind of anti-establishment conservative, but unpromising for an image makeover at his convention.

Cruz’s nomination would represent the victory of the hard right — religious right and tea party factions — within the Republican coalition. After he loses, the ideological struggles within the GOP would go on.

Gerson thinks Cruz would lose badly, and it seems that he feels that Cruz would deserve to lose. But he doesn’t think Cruz’s brand of anti-establishment conservatism is out of bounds. He anticipates that this brand will have a persistent future on the right and within the Republican Party, and he doesn’t seem to have any problem with that. He’d struggle against this faction, certainly, but he wouldn’t refuse to be part of an organization that they dominate.

But Trump is another matter:

…Trump’s nomination would not be the temporary victory of one of the GOP’s ideological factions. It would involve the replacement of the humane ideal at the center of the party and its history. If Trump were the nominee, the GOP would cease to be.

You must be wondering where the humane ideal resides in Ted Cruz’s campaign. Gerson tries to explain:

Whatever your view of Republican politicians, the aspiration, the self-conception, of the party was set by Abraham Lincoln: human dignity, honored by human freedom and undergirded by certain moral commitments, including compassion and tolerance. Lincoln described the “promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

So far, I’m still failing to see how this applies to Ted Cruz, or really any of the likely alternatives to Ted Cruz.

All of [Trump’s] angry resentment against invading Hispanics and Muslims adds up to a kind of ethno-nationalism — an assertion that the United States is being weakened and adulterated by the other. This is consistent with European, right-wing, anti-immigrant populism. It is not consistent with conservatism, which, at the very least, involves respect for institutions and commitment to reasoned, incremental change.

Here is the allusion to Edmund Burke. Conservatism is supposed to revere institutions, although the American version makes an exception for the throne. But what institutions has Movement Conservatism respected?

Not Congress or the federal government. Not the Supreme Court. The Office of the Presidency is respected only when it is in the hands of a conservative. It would be ludicrous to assert that Ted Cruz has shown any respect for any American institution, or even for the norms of any American institution.

Go down the list: The IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Interior, the ATF…

What characterizes the conservative attitude to our institutions isn’t respect but paranoia.

And the same is true for multilateral organizations like the United Nations, NATO, and even (at times) our armed forces.

The only institutions that conservatives have fairly consistently respected are religious institutions, and, even then, only the institutions of certain religions.

This is why I simply cannot agree with the following:

Liberals who claim that Trumpism is the natural outgrowth, or logical conclusion, of conservatism or Republicanism are simply wrong. Edmund Burke is not the grandfather of Nigel Farage. Lincoln is not even the distant relative of Trump.

The only thing I agree with here is that Trump isn’t the logical conclusion. Cruz is. Rubio is. Christie is. Paul Ryan is. Mitch McConnell is.

None of these folks are “conservative” in any kind of Lincolnesque or Burkean way. Neither were George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. And that’s why I find Gerson’s cri de coeur so hard to fathom.

Ultimately, these political matters are quite personal. I have spent 25 years in the company of compassionate conservatives, reform conservatives, Sam’s Club conservatives or whatever they want to call themselves, trying to advance an agenda of social justice in America’s center-right party. We have shared a belief that sound public policy — promoting opportunity, along with the skills and values necessary to grasp it — can improve the lives of our fellow citizens and thus make politics an honorable adventure.

The nomination of Trump would reduce Republican politics — at the presidential level — to an enterprise of squalid prejudice. And many Republicans could not follow, precisely because they are Republicans. By seizing the GOP, Trump would break it to pieces.

If that’s how Gerson insists on seeing the situation, his party has already been broken to pieces. Trump really has nothing to do with it.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.