The Better Angels of Our Nature

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Bret Stephens, WSJ

What’s at stake in Cleveland is the identity of the GOP, not the next president.

BN-OY766_glovie_M_20160718132724The Republican Party came to presidential life under the leadership of a man who concluded his first inaugural address as follows:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This week, the same party will nominate as its presidential candidate a man who on Saturday introduced his running mate as follows:

“The turnaround and the strength of Indiana has been incredible, and I learned that when I campaigned there. And I learned that when I won that state in a landslide. And I learned that when Gov. Pence, under tremendous pressure from establishment people, endorsed somebody else, but it was more of an endorsement for me, if you remember. He talked about Trump, then he talked about Ted—who’s a good guy, by the way, who’s going to be speaking at the convention, Ted Cruz, good guy—but he talked about Trump, Ted, then he went back to Trump. I said, ‘who did he endorse?’ ”

I cite these two passages to discuss two subjects that once were dear to conservative hearts: national decline and personal character. Many conservatives believe the subjects are one and the same.

When did the decline of American character begin? Maybe it was between July 1969, when two Americans walked on the moon, and a Saturday that August, when 400,000 Americans rolled in the mud at Woodstock. Maybe it was when that year’s commencement speaker at Wellesley said it was the mission of her generation to search “for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” Maybe it happened the night of January 14, 1970, when Leonard and Felicia Bernstein held a soiree for the Black Panthers, inaugurating the era of radical chic.

Or maybe the date came later, when American culture sanctioned the idea that self-actualization should count for more than your children’s emotional health. Or when bragging ceased to be considered uncouth, and ignorance ceased to be embarrassing, and lying ceased to be shameful, and the habits of understatement gave way to ever more conspicuous displays of wealth, desire, feelings, skin.

Whenever. Whatever. Pick your date and trend. Not everything that happened to the American character in the past 50 years is bad—we are more tolerant, more empathetic and more relaxed—but much of it undoubtedly is. If Republicans are going to spend the next few days talking about making America great again, shouldn’t part of that discussion also be about making Americans great again—or, at very least, making us better?

We could use that discussion right now. Especially after Baton Rouge and Dallas, what better time for the GOP to invoke the better angels of our nature? But the party can’t do that, because in nominating Donald Trump it is elevating a man whose character and candidacy are the antithesis of the better angels.
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From its beginning, the impulses that have dominated Mr. Trump’s candidacy are the insult, the put-down, the slander, the threat, the refusal to apologize. These have poured out of him in such profusion and at such velocity that they have degraded Republicans simply by accustoming us to them. Mr. Trump’s apologists praise this as a refreshing burst of political incorrectness, but that just betrays an ignorance of what it means to be politically incorrect.

Saying you aren’t worried about global warming is politically incorrect. Making fun of physically disabled reporters is called being a creep.

But that isn’t all we’ve grown used to. Mr. Trump doesn’t merely lie, as Hillary Clinton does. His statements are postmodern, in that they have no connection to a foundational concept of truth. Nor is Mr. Trump’s political ignorance a matter of not knowing the finer points of this or that policy. In a recent meeting with Republican members of Congress, he promised to protect Articles I through XII of the Constitution. The Constitution has a grand total of seven Articles.

This would be the Constitution he would be sworn, as president, to preserve, protect and defend. That presumes knowing it.

This column will elicit the usual mental wheezing from the True Believing Trumpsters, whose skins are as thin as their candidate’s, along with the slightly better rebuttal that the presumptive GOP nominee is the lesser of two evils. That’s pure conjecture, based on the prayer that Mr. Trump will soon transform into a statesman. People who believe this also kiss frogs.

But that’s beside the point. What’s at stake in Cleveland this week isn’t the identity of the next president. It’s the identity of the GOP: its ideas, its leaders, its followers. Above all, its character.

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Fellow conservatives: the same goes for your political party.

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