By Bret Stephens
The Democrats left my parents. Trump’s GOP has left me.
I grew up with parents who liked the old line that they didn’t leave the Democratic Party—the Democratic Party left them. My father’s political heroes were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. My mother had been a campaign volunteer for Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968. But the party of George McGovern was not for them. As the left turned on “Amerika,” they kept faith in America.
Now it’s my turn to watch the Republican Party drift away. Whether the trend continues after the election remains to be seen, but already the GOP is largely unrecognizable to me. To see how far it’s fallen, let’s remind ourselves of where it once was.
Immigration: At a 1980 Republican primary debate in Houston, candidates George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were asked whether the children of illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools for free. Mr. Bush said they should. “We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law,” he lamented.
Reagan agreed. Instead of “putting up a fence,” he asked, “why don’t we . . . make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here.” For good measure, Reagan suggested we should “open the border both ways.”
Where, in the populist fervor to build a wall with Mexico and deport millions of human beings, is that Republican Party today?
Trade: “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776. “If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better to buy it of them.” Two centuries later, Milton Friedman noted that trade protectionism “really means exploiting the consumer” by artificially limiting choice and raising prices for the benefit of domestic producers.
Adam Smith and Milton Friedman were once canonical conservative figures. Free trade was once a Republican conviction. In one of his final radio addresses as president, Reagan warned “we should beware of the demagogues who are ready to declare a trade war against our friends—weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world—all while cynically waving the American flag.”
Where, in the tide of Tea Party opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and all those other “disastrous trade deals” that Donald Trump never fails to mention, is that Republican Party today?
Foreign policy: In 1947 Harry Truman asked Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to support his efforts to shore up the governments in Greece and Turkey against Soviet aggression. Vandenberg agreed, marking his—and the GOP’s—turn from isolationism to internationalism.
Since then, six Republican presidents have never wavered in their view that a robust system of treaty alliances such as NATO are critical for defending the international liberal order, or that the U.S. should dissuade faraway allies such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia from seeking nuclear weapons, or that states such as Russia should be kept out of regions such as the Middle East.
Where, amid Mr. Trump’s routine denunciations of our allegedly freeloading allies, or Newt Gingrich’s public doubts about defending NATO member Estonia against Russian aggression, or the alt-right’s attacks on “globalism,” or Sean Hannity’s newfound championship of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, is that Republican Party today?
Culture, civility and character: For decades, conservative publishers have issued a long succession of titles on the importance of personal character to the preservation of democratic institutions. Notable on the list William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues,” whose first chapter deals with the importance of self-discipline. The former secretary of education followed that one up with “The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals,” timed to the Lewinsky scandal.
These books were not wrong. Character counts. The example set by a leader colors the culture of the company, institution or country he leads. We long for presidents who might follow Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.” Rule No. 1: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”
Where, in the apparently limitless forgiveness GOP voters are willing to extend to Mr. Trump for his public affronts to “that face” Carly or that “nasty woman” Hillary Clinton, is that Republican Party today?
I’ve become accustomed to the invariable gusher of letters that will follow this column, pointing out Mrs. Clinton’s well-known character flaws, along with apocalyptic visions of what her presidency might bring. Such deflections are the usual way in which people seek to justify their own side’s moral lapses. I don’t see the point of belonging to a party on the increasingly dubious assumption that it’s slightly less bad than the opposition. If I can’t get my Grand Old Party back, I’d rather help build a new one.