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Another Salvo in the ‘Burn It Down’ Wars
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Another Salvo in the ‘Burn It Down’ Wars

Also, what’s left of the Free Exercise Clause in a pandemic?

Late last week, I experienced something new at The Dispatch. Virtually every single commenter disagreed with my newsletter. At the time of writing, there are now 601 comments in response to “Dump Trump, but Don’t Burn Down the GOP,” and I think approximately 600 are negative, including a number of quite eloquent posts reminding me of how much I write in favor of greater courage and integrity in public officials. Aren’t I being inconsistent?

In addition, my friend Charlie Sykes penned his own thoughtful response to me over at The Bulwark, and he brought some pretty compelling receipts—reminding me that when I made a similar argument in favor of voting for “good Republicans” in 2018, I highlighted my own local Senate candidate, Marsha Blackburn. What did she do after she won her race—after I called her a “a scandal-free, faithful conservative representative”? Well, she smeared a combat-wounded American soldier because he testified truthfully against Trump.  Here’s a sample:

And that’s but a small part of what Politico called her “multimonth, multimedia crusade against Vindman.” It was inexcusable. It betrayed a corruption of character that makes her unworthy of future support.

She was also an outlier among her Republican colleagues, and I think that’s important to note. The GOP senators are not all the same. Therefore, I don’t think they should be treated the same. 

Moreover, the Republicans in the Senate aren’t close to being the chief problem with the GOP specifically or the conservative movement more broadly. Indeed, there is an important way in which retaining key GOP senators would actually rebuke those who are most responsible for this Trumpist moment. 

Let me back up and explain, leaning strongly on my colleague Jonah Goldberg’s thesis that one of the chief problems with our political culture is that our parties are much too weak. Trump’s nomination and election is Exhibit A of this phenomenon. Not only did Trump win the nomination in spite of nearly unified opposition from GOP officeholders, there’s a good argument to be made that he won the nomination in part because of the party’s opposition.

The real power in Republican politics wasn’t ultimately the Republican party or its elected officeholders. The real power flowed through a conservative media-entertainment complex that included parts of prime-time Fox News, Breitbart, and (eventually) most of the top voices in talk radio. It perpetuated a culture that punishes any efforts at compromise, fosters a feeling of omnipresent existential threat, and demands constant belligerence as a precondition for its vocal support. 

Moreover, the desire of this community and culture is to completely remake the GOP in its image, from the ground up. While Trump is the champion for now, the clear understanding is that he can’t be champion forever, but he can still be a model for the future. Angry. Pugilistic. Populist.

Also, to be perfectly clear—just as it’s highly unlikely that a GOP Senate majority can survive a Trump defeat—it is virtually impossible to truly “burn it all down.” The likely result of an intentional act of voting against a person simply because an (R) is by his or her name isn’t a destroyed GOP, but one that’s likely diminished back into its most strident, most Trumpist base. Ask yourself, has the House GOP moderated its Trumpism at all as a result of its historic midterm defeat?

It has not, in large part because those members who were most likely to challenge Trump were among the earliest casualties of the first backlash against Trump. To build a better GOP, one has to start with someone and something, and if talk radio and prime-time cable news rules over the ruins, the prospects for the party are grim indeed.

So, what would rebuke a movement that seeks to continue Trump’s power and to permanently remake the party in Trump’s image? Defeating Trump while preserving those Republicans who are not like Trump. That sends a clear message that Trump is a dead end, but there is still a market for conservative ideas and more reasonable personalities—the very ideas and personalities the Trumpist GOP sought to banish from the party. 

In our Advisory Opinions podcast, my fantastic co-host, Sarah Isgur, asked me to play out a hypothetical where Trump loses Texas (unlikely, but possible), while Sen. John Cornyn still wins. My reaction was that her hypothetical was essentially the perfect scenario. A Trump loss in the state that’s the necessary cornerstone of conservative power in the United States would signal—as loudly as any electoral defeat could—that Trumpism is a dead end. At the same time, a Cornyn victory would still say that better Republicans can still win.

This outcome rebukes the worst offenders in the GOP’s decline while it preserves the better angels of the GOP’s nature—and gives them a strong argument to the GOP voting public that the cable hosts and radio talkers have led the party astray. 

Let me add a quick note about courage—a number of readers accused me of a disappointing climbdown by celebrating Mitt Romney while also being excessively forgiving of what I believe to be the failures of his peers. I highlighted his unique stand (and lockstep Democratic support for Clinton) for a simple purpose—to remind folks that those of us who supported impeachment and conviction were making a big ask. We were demanding that Republican senators demonstrate completely unprecedented political courage and defy their unified, angry constituents.

If you read my writings, you’ll note that I often call both for courage and for grace. We can ask for extraordinary effort while also caring deeply whether individuals are trying, in good faith, to navigate difficult times. I also recognize that I’m not the final arbiter of political wisdom and that my own read on these difficult times can be flawed. I’m sympathetic to senators who truly believe it would have been worse for the country if they pursued a different course. 

But that’s the key phrase—good faith. Yes, I think many Republican senators have acted in good faith when caught between Trump and a base that demands unyielding, unwavering support. And while it’s obviously self-interested for them to believe they’re a better alternative to the Trumpist primary challenger who might oust them, in many cases I think they’re exactly right. 

At the same time, it’s hard to see actions like Blackburn’s repeated smears of a combat-wounded veteran as anything other than bad faith. That’s not navigating Trumpism, it’s emphatically joining Trumpism. There’s a difference. 

Finally, I certainly respect those who disagree with me. In complicated times, there should be a multiplicity of opinions and ideas as to how to respond. George Will, Bill Kristol, and Charlie Sykes make compelling cases for conservatives to strike a harder blow against Trump’s GOP. Ultimately, we want to get to very similar places—where America’s two-party system features a vibrant and ethical conservative party that’s committed to the principles of America’s classical liberal founding. 

I’ve written a bit about what that party might look like, but the journey back from Trumpism is likely to be long and hard. It’s hardly surprising that good folks don’t (yet) agree on the best path. 

One other thing … 

On Friday afternoon the Supreme Court reached a religious liberty decision that’s alarming in the short to medium-term, but likely (hopefully) largely irrelevant over the long term. In Cavalry Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, the chief justice joined the four Democratic-appointed justices to deny a church’s request for injunctive relief against Nevada’s coronavirus restrictions on worship services. 

As I’ve explained before, states have extraordinary police power to combat a public health crisis. But even that power should have limits, and the First Amendment isn’t suspended during a pandemic. At the very least, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment should prevent the state from treating churches worse from other, similarly situated public gatherings. 

Yet that’s exactly what Nevada did. According to the state’s guidelines (as described by Justice Brett Kavanaugh), “a church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.” 

In any normal circumstance, this is the easiest of cases. Absent a pandemic, Nevada loses 9-0. As precedent it likely won’t have any real influence once we emerge from the present crisis. But we haven’t emerged yet, and the court’s decision leaves one to wonder if it will apply any meaningful scrutiny of pandemic-related restrictions on free association. 

In a previous challenge to California’s coronavirus restrictions on worship, Justice Roberts wrote that the “precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts ‘[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the states “to guard and protect.’”

He said “principally,” but this vote implies that he meant “almost exclusively,” and that grants the First Amendment far too little purchase on American life in this pandemic. I could explain more, but I’ll leave you with Justice Gorsuch’s dissent – in full. I wouldn’t change a word:

This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.

One last thing … 

In the spirit of “give the people what they want,” I’ve heard your cry. Two days from the NBA restart you’ve said, “More Bol Bol!” You call, I answer. Enjoy:

Photograph by Al Drago/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.