With the loss of both Georgia runoffs, the bloodletting in the Republican Party has begun. Last week’s riot in the U.S. Capitol has only heightened what promises to be a contentious internal debate.
At least two factions are emerging: those that continue to embrace Trump and those who want to return to the pre-Trump era. I don’t think it’s an either/or but a both/and: keeping the best of Trump without turning off the anti-Trump voters.
Full disclosure: I am a full-on conservative and was a leader of the NeverTrump movement. In 2016, I co-founded Conservatives Against Trump and did my best to recruit someone, anyone who could win other than Trump. Though I don’t regret it one bit, the project was a miserable failure. In 2020, I was largely on the sidelines since the party was four-square behind Trump, as evidenced by the increased percentage of Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020 over 2016. I decided not to spit in the wind but to quietly go my own way.
Yet I can’t deny the good things that Trump brought to the party, things that shouldn’t be left behind. First and foremost, he convinced the forgotten Americans, those feeling the pinch economically and without fancy degrees or titles, that he was on their side. The wild enthusiasm at Trump rallies was in part due to the conviction that this New York billionaire was fighting for them. He didn’t look down on their raw patriotism, their dismay at losing an America they held dear or their plain-spoken suspicion of the Washington “swamp.” His coarseness and his exaggerations sounded more real than the highfalutin language of the lawyerly class of politicians.
Republicans shouldn’t lose this regard for the forgotten American.
Trump also chose not to cower in the face of withering criticism from the elites – which is surprising both because he was a member of the elite class from birth and because he craved praise from others. This attribute has been sadly lacking among previous Republican leaders. From my decades working in the White House and on Capitol Hill, I have never ceased to be surprised and chagrined at the obsequious hyper-attentiveness paid to The New York Times and Ivy League writers who disdained backward conservatives (who, by the way, are far more numerous than self-described liberals).
Republicans shouldn’t lose this courage in standing up to elites.
But there are important elements of Trump that must be left behind. Beginning with Trump himself. He defied gravity by winning in 2016 and performed surprisingly well in 2020. But he didn’t win “in a landslide” and his post-election words and actions – especially his incitement to violence that led to the Capitol riot – have ensured that he is politically washed up. Sure, he could possibly win the nomination in 2024, but winning the general election is out of the question. Time to move on.
Trump’s ubiquitous disregard for facts and truth is inimical to everything Republicans hold dear. Just because there is a pervasive bias in the media and academia doesn’t mean that fiction can become fact. I always thought Republicans prided themselves on governing by facts and statistics instead of emotions and stories. We should embrace storytelling without ejecting facts.
And Trump’s incivility has got to go. E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) is hard enough to achieve without assuming the worst of our opponents’ motives. Just because some Democrats are uncivil doesn’t justify Republicans doing the same. It’s enough to critique the substance of liberal arguments without attributing base motives to our opponents. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but strength. Eschewing ad hominem arguments earns respect, plus it requires conservatives to use our heads.
And strength is not the same as authoritarianism. No, Mr. President, we don’t believe in praising foreign dictators or abusing criminal suspects or castigating prisoners of war or making fun of our opponents’ appearance. This is beneath us as a party and as a nation. It may evince guilty laughter but it is not ennobling and loses votes. An appeal to our better angels works better in the long run.
Moving forward as a party means keeping the best of the Trump administration, sans Trump, and leaving behind those things which we can’t defend. The stakes in politics are high, just as they have been for time immemorial. But cutting corners is dangerous. It’s time to build anew, but we need to use solid building materials worthy of our calling to pursue justice for all.
Bill Wichterman is a former senior Republican aide in the White House and the U.S. Congress.