Gerson: Trumpism can't be treated as a normal political moment
WASHINGTON — Is it time for anti-Trump conservatives to recognize that they have lost the political and policy battle within the GOP and to accommodate themselves as best they can to an uncomfortable reality?
This is the argument of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Henry Olsen, one of the most thoughtful political analysts on the right. On issues such as trade, immigration, and the Muslim travel ban, he argues, Republican critics of Donald Trump are dramatically "out of step with conservatives." And the possible options are limited. A primary challenge to Trump is "doomed to failure." The creation of a third party is a pipe dream, since "there simply aren't enough dissatisfied conservatives."
This leaves anti-Trump conservatives, in Olsen's view, with one viable choice — to make peace with a Trump-dominated movement. "If they are willing to work with other conservative-movement types on immigration and trade to reach common ground," he contends, "they might find other longtime conservatives are willing to work with them." Olsen's historical model is conservative "fusionism" — a theory associated with conservative thinker Frank Meyer that asserted common political and intellectual ground between social conservatives and libertarians in the middle of the last century.
Olsen's hope for a return to normalcy within the conservative movement — in which even deep disagreements did not lead to complete rupture — is understandable. But his real contribution is probably not what he intended. Olsen sees this as an important but normal political moment, in which the policy views of populists and conservative intellectuals need to be reconciled on issues such as trade and immigration. An intellectual dialectic within the Republican coalition is straining to produce a new, more pro-worker synthesis — which Olsen himself has long advocated. But this begs the question: Is this a normal political moment?
If Trump were merely proposing a border wall and the more aggressive employment of tariffs, we would be engaged in a debate, not facing a schism. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played the tariff chess game. As a Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney endorsed the massive "self-deportation" of undocumented workers without the rise of a #NeverRomney movement.
But it is blind, even obtuse, to place Trumpism in the same category. Trump's policy proposals — the details of which Trump himself seems unconcerned and uninformed about — are symbolic expressions of a certain approach to politics. The stated purpose of Trump's border wall is to keep out a contagion of Mexican rapists and murderers. His argument is not taken from Heritage Foundation policy papers. He makes it by quoting the racist poem "The Snake," which compares migrants to dangerous vermin. Trump proposes to ban migration from some Muslim-majority countries because Muslim refugees, as he sees it, are a Trojan horse threat of terrorism. Trump's policy ideas are incidental to his message of dehumanization.
So how do we split the political difference on this one? Shall we talk about Mexican migrants as rapists on every other day? Shall we provide rhetorical cover for alt-right bigots only on special occasions, such as after a racist protest and murder?
The point applies in other areas. While some Republicans have criticized media bias, Trump has attempted to systematically delegitimize all critical information as "fake news" and referred to the media as "the enemy of the people." While other politicians have pushed back against investigations, Trump has attempted to discredit federal law enforcement as part of a "deep state" plot against him.
We have seen similar damage in the realm of values and norms. In the cultivation of anger and tribalism. In the use of language to inflame and demean. In the destruction of a common factual basis for politics, making policy compromise of the kind Olsen favors impossible.
What would fusion with this type of politics look like? Trump defines loyalty to conservatism as contempt for many of our neighbors. One might as well have proposed a fusion between popular sovereignty and Abraham Lincoln's conception of inherent human rights. They were not a dialectic requiring a synthesis. They were alternatives demanding a choice.
Which raises a fourth option: For elected leaders to remind Americans who they are and affirm our common bonds. For conservative policy experts to define an agenda of working-class uplift, not an agenda of white resentment — which will consign Republicans to moral squalor and (eventually) to electoral irrelevance. For principled conservatives to hear the call of moral duty and stand up for their beliefs until this madness passes. As it will.