A world where Donald Trump defines the Republican Party has certainly created some strange bedfellows. Such is the case, for example, when Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) becomes one of the loudest voices in favor of impeaching the president. But over the last few years, the trajectory of the GOP has resulted in a group of conservatives that have found some common ground with Democrats.
David Frum was one of the first well-known Republicans to stray from the path being followed by the GOP. On a local level here in Minnesota, former Republican Governor Arne Carlson was an early adaptor as well. During the 2016 election, they were joined by a host of conservatives who became known as Never Trumpers and included people like Bill Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, and David Brooks. While not always as vocal, it became clear that most of the Bush family joined the ranks as well.
Even though none of those people hold any real power in the Republican Party these days, I would suggest that they have become what Adam Gopnik once described as “honest opponents” rather than “toxic enemies.” There are liberals who I’m sure would reject that notion, but it is nevertheless an important distinction to make.
Nowhere is that distinction more clear that in the recent online debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. For Ahmari, conservatives are in the midst of a life-and-death struggle defined by a culture war. Andrew Sullivan captured his views very well.
He wants the state to act boldly “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”…
He wants to shut down the primacy of individual autonomy in a country where different people can coexist with others of radically different politics or faith…
“Civility and decency are secondary values,” Ahmari writes. “They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” Rewind that one more time: Ahmari wants to enforce his moral order on others. He believes pluralism is merely a cloak for libertinism.
And that’s why many on the right, even and especially conservative Christians, support Trump. He may be morally corrupt but he can be relied on to enforce moral order against the destabilizing forces of individualism and secularism.
The union between Trump and conservative Christians is best understood as an attempt by the latter to enforce their moral order against destabilizing change. Fundamental to that position is something that has consistently emerged as a dangerous threat to humanity: a certainty that God is on our side. When that worldview is adopted, differences among people are viewed as a battle between good and evil, in which the latter must be eliminated at all costs.
For those who believe that their God is the one true God, adopting that worldview presents a constant challenge. But the key ingredient that turns it from being a religious belief into a threat is the element of certainty. During his commencement speech at Notre Dame, Barack Obama spoke to that concern directly.
[I]n this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen…
And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles.
That is precisely how one goes about reconciling their faith with politics in a pluralistic society.
The reason someone like Sohrab Ahmari poses a threat to our democratic republic has nothing to do with his Christian faith. Instead, it is rooted in his certainty that God is on his side in a cultural war that has become a matter of survival. That is why he is willing to relegate civility and decency to secondary status and suggest that the culture war requires Christians to enforce their orthodoxy. In that mindset, pluralism becomes the threat.
Frankly, it is impossible to engage someone like that, because the only response they will accept is capitulation. That is why, for the survival of our democratic republic, liberals must engage in an open dialogue with honest opponents like the Never Trumpers described above. It is the only available avenue by which people with differences can coexist.
That doesn’t require capitulation on areas of disagreement, nor does it mean adopting the kind of centrist bipartisanship that some would suggest. What it does mean is rejecting the kind of certainty that has become dogma on the right and adopting the path forward described by Gopnik:
What’s needed against Trump now is…not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.
People have described the current moment as a constitutional crisis or a moral crisis. Both are accurate. The liberal order, which emerged in the 18th century to defeat aristocracies, is grounded in the idea of self-government through engagement in debate and dialogue across our differences as equal human beings. Beyond liberal or conservative policies, that is what is being threatened right now and must be preserved.