I’m going to go ahead and admit to a sad reality, right up front. I want what the best available polling tells me that I’m highly unlikely to get. I want Donald Trump out of the presidency and the GOP still in control of the Senate. In other words, in the furious argument over the future of the Republican party and political conservatism, consider me squarely in the camp that seeks to dump Trump but not to seek vengeance on the rest of the GOP.
A rage, fury, and a “burn it all down” mentality is one of the maladies that brought us to the present moment. Repeating that same impulse, but with an entire party in the crosshairs, will only compound our political dysfunction.
Besides, it’s not necessary for those who seek to send a message that Donald Trump is an unfit president. And it’s counterproductive for those of us who still believe that the conservative elements of the Republican party provide the best prospects for securing the liberty, prosperity, and security of the American republic.
Moreover, “burn it all down” lacks a quality that’s increasingly essential in American culture and politics. It’s completely devoid of grace. It ignores the monumental pressures that Donald Trump has placed on the entire GOP and the lack of good options that so many GOP officeholders faced. In short, most of them are not the chief offenders or culprits who led the United States to its present national predicament.
Let’s back up for a moment. Months ago – back when The Dispatch was a baby publication and many of you had not yet joined – I dedicated one of my Sunday newsletters to the question, “How should Christians vote?” In that newsletter, I articulated the two-part test I apply to candidates:
First, they must possess a personal character that is worthy of the office they seek. Second, they must broadly share my political values. If a candidate fails either prong of that test, he or she doesn’t receive my vote.
Since that time, and in response to truly stunning examples of mismanagement and grotesque governmental mistakes, I’ve had to emphasize that competence is a character trait. Competence (much less excellence) requires “a degree of self-discipline, commitment to personal improvement, and openness to critical information that are the hallmarks of developing true expertise.”
Incompetent, low-character public officials will not get my vote. Period. Politicians who advance policy positions that I believe are harmful to the country will not get my vote. Call me simple, but I still believe the best way to ensure that terrible people don’t ascend to high office is to stop voting for them.
So, with that as a backdrop, what’s the argument for conservatives scorching the earth, and ripping the GOP to shreds this November? Essentially, it boils down to this: Anyone who is “complicit” in Trumpism has betrayed a lack of character or courage so extreme that it should swallow any other personal or political virtue. Policy be damned, the GOP—not just Trump—has to pay.
I disagree, strongly, even though I believe the country would be better off if Republican senators had displayed historic courage and independence and removed Trump from office during his impeachment trial.
The word “historic” matters in this context. Remember, when Mitt Romney voted to convict, he was the first senator in the history of the United States to vote to convict a president from his own party. The first. In this generation, every single Democrat voted to retain Bill Clinton, despite overwhelming evidence that he did commit perjury and obstruction of justice. Indeed, he was suspended from the practice of law in Arkansas and before the Supreme Court for his perjury.
Yet Democrats continued not just to protect Clinton, but to celebrate him. Who can forget his WWE-style entry into the 2000 Democratic National Convention, as he walked dramatically down the winding halls, music swelling in the background:
At this point, there was also considerable publicly available evidence that he’d committed rape.
It strikes me as an unreasonable standard to declare that Republican senators must have done what no other senator had done before to be deemed worthy of re-election.
Now, that doesn’t mean that individual Republicans haven’t displayed excessive individual flaws that should disqualify them from office. Tennessee’s own Scott Desjarlais, for example, should not be a federal officeholder, and it’s not because he was an early Trump loyalist. No, it’s because, well, I’ll let Politico briefly describe his scandalous past:
Two abortions. Maybe three, if you count the one he pressured a girlfriend—who happened to be his patient—to get. Pulling out a gun during an argument with his first wife. Prescribing pills to another patient while they dated. Getting reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners for dallying with patients, an ethics violation.
There are Republican officeholders who have devolved into little more than Twitter trolls and hot-take factories. But, again, each Republican should be judged on his or her own merits, and Trump support alone should not be sufficient for conservatives—even conservatives like me who are deeply grieved at Trump’s impact on the nation and the Republican Party—to disqualify them from public office.
And it’s not just because the alternative argument would require them to display historic courage. It’s because the alternative argument would also require them to defy their constituents—the people who put them in office—and in most cases completely immolate their careers.
We can (and should) stand and applaud the extraordinary courage of Mitt Romney without making it a mandatory precondition to maintaining federal office. I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it. Vice often leaves virtue with few good options, and the GOP’s good senators have faced few good choices in these last four years.
If you think it’s obvious what they should have done, how many readers have faced such a choice: take a tough stand and likely lose your life’s work or muddle through and hope to emerge on the other side with your dignity and conscience intact? If you faced such a choice, did you take the stand and bear the cost?
Moreover, let’s also remember that policy still matters, and it matters a great deal. It will make a substantial, real-world policy difference if Joe Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats win the Senate. They would understandably (and rightly) believe that the verdict of the voters went well beyond “Dump Trump” and extended into an endorsement of an ambitious Democratic policy agenda.
No, I don’t think it’s an agenda that “ends America.” I think the very idea that the fate of our republic depends on each American election is more dangerous to our republic than any party’s policy platform.
As I mentioned, political rage and “Flight 93-ism” have put our nation in its present predicament. The death toll in the pandemic, the economic toll on American families, and the smoke curling up from American cities are all markers of a failed presidency, and they’re all inflicting wounds on the American republic.
But if Republicans retain the Senate, their continued power completely eviscerates the (already laughable) argument that Joe Biden will “end America.” Instead, what would be left would be a clear, clean repudiation of Donald Trump. His divisive single term and his loss in the face of relative “establishment” GOP stability would help demolish the argument that Trump represents the future of the Republican Party and the argument that Americans demand a new progressive future.
Despite the fact that most GOP Senate candidates outperformed Trump in 2016 (so there is at least some hope for a gap between Trump’s electoral performance and the fortunes of Republican senators) I’m concerned that the appeal of collective punishment may prove too strong. This can change. This may change. But it’s still true that I want what I likely can’t have—a national election that says “no” to Trump without also saying “yes” to a Democratic wave that will set back the conservative cause for years to come.
One last thing …
Did you know that former NBA player Manute Bol had a son in the NBA? Did you know his name is Bol Bol? And did you know he can actually play? Behold, Bol Bol’s first highlight reel, from the NBA’s exhibition warmup games before its restart. Enjoy:
Photograph by Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images.