Sitting in the sunny, steaming park, I began sopping up the hand-wringing confessionals of two conservatives whose pieces led off the Times Sunday Review. In “A Cure for Trumpism,” by Ross Douthat and Rehim Salam, the authors ruminate on the possibility of saving the Republican Party through national solidarity and unity. “Stronger Together” has been spoken for. The authors, conservative columnists for the Times and the National Review, respectively, repeat the teachings of the GOP’s autopsy following Romney’s loss in 2012: become a party friendlier to women and people of color. The authors then point out the flaw in their argument.
“Some liberals believe that this kind of shift is basically impossible – that racism and right-wing politics are so deeply intertwined that any Republican populism will just end up defending welfare for white people, that any immigration 'in the national interest' will descend into ‘Mexican rapists’ one-liners on the campaign trail.”
They concede that Trump and his followers support the liberals’ view of their party. In order to shift, Trump would have to drop most of what he has been saying for the past year. The party would have to abandon a legislative agenda it has pursued for 50 years. They did not give any reason to hope this shift would happen.
Peter Wehner has been a Republican all his life. He served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. He is now a senior fellow in a conservative think tank and an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. In in his op-ed piece, “Can We Find Our Way Back to Lincoln?” Wehner picks up the theme of Republicans lost in the wilderness. He has set himself a formidable challenge. Finding his way back to Reagan would be great start. He ponders that liberals might have been right all along about his party being a haven for racism and intolerance. Has he forgotten Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when former Democrats switched party affiliation in the Deep South in response to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts enacted by turncoat Lyndon Johnson? The Deep South has voted as a Republican bloc ever since, with slight fissures appearing as the demographics have changed or where a local guy, like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, has made good in national politics. Incredibly, Wehner has taken the “few bad apples” view of the party, which he describes as the “repulsive elements.” He admits that the party does have an ugly side, one which is showcased by Trump. He despairs of being able to reclaim the party or to bring it back to its once-noble roots.
Both authors, but Wehner especially, represent the economically conservative end of the party, aligned with Ben Domenech of the Federalist. They operate under the illusion that entitlement programs can be rolled back without alienating those who receive their benefit. They forget that their branch of the movement is supported by Fortune 500 America, not moms and pop businesses. They can’t end corporate welfare without inflicting pain upon their donors. The benefactors don’t need to pay for that treatment. They can walk across the street and cut a deal with the Democrats. These fiscal conservatives are in a box because their philosophy is unsuited to the country’s population and demographics. This strategy will not make the party a majority interest in the country. Wehner reaches back to Lord Charnwood, a Lincoln biographer of the early twentieth century, evoking Lincoln’s turn toward compassion for the defeated Confederacy. Charnwood saw Lincoln as one of those few “successful statesmen [who] have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural eloquently gave voice to the spirit of reconciliation; in victory and strength, to help bind your enemy’s wounds. He understood that it was needed to heal the victors as well as the vanquished.
It is doubtful that the two branches of conservatism will find common ground. They reach their end through different means and motivations. Even if there were common ground, from what ground will a leader emerge with the wisdom and courage to begin the healing process? Certainly not Trump. He has shown no temperament for washing the feet of those he has vanquished. This vacuum of leadership and the absence of a path to reconciliation explain the firefight between Ben Domenech of the Federalist and Matt Schlappa of the American Conservative Union. It also explains why it will be so hard to put that fire out.
The party of Lincoln mounts its quadrennial tonight, but there is no peace in the house. Thoughtful conservatives question whether the house divided will stand.