Apostasy From The GOP?
In the span of one week, two of this country’s foremost conservative intellectuals, David Brooks of the New York Times and George Will of the Washington Post, have promulgated what’s become an increasingly popular, albeit politically heretical idea. Avowed, bespectacled, and in every way consummate Republicans though Brooks and Will might be—though one can be forgiven for looking upon the former with some degree of suspicion from time to time—they’ve both taken to their pens and their on-air pulpits to urge voters to break from the Party with which they’ve so long allied. This is no small thing. This is a turn from the very Party from which they both emerged as great public thinkers and the roots to which they owe a great deal.
And yet, their gospel, their papal bull, their Clermont speech as this Crusade to save conservatism from itself gets underway is this: leave in the lurch the Republican Party you once loved; cast your colors from red to blue, your ballot from “R” to “D”; above all, fear not divine nor demagogic retribution from neither God, the devil, nor Trump—commit yourself to an apostasy from the GOP. Only then can you expunge this conservative sin.
In essence, the upshot of their combined message is to make of you a defector, a turncoat, a liberal. That is, at least for a little while, if only long enough to spite the GOP. As the 2018 midterm elections approach (all of whose predicted results have vexed and eluded the best and savviest of statisticians—as of now, it appears Democrats are best-suited to reclaim the House but not the Senate, yet give it a day, and these predictions will surely change) Brooks and Will want of their readership an army of apostates marching to the polls against the beat of the Republican drum. Once a bounding baseline, with scores of timpani, the ode to conservatism has fallen recently flat. Chagrined at having countenanced so many milquetoast, pseudo-“conservatives” that fill the Senate and House chambers today, Brooks and Will want to orchestrate an overture to a new song.
Will is particularly unimpressed with the current Republican status quo. Taking one step further, perhaps, my analogy to Christianity and her tireless crusades, Will referred in his article to the “carnage” that is the “Republican misrule in Washington”. I know not the mortality rates, but I’m certain that the word “carnage” needn’t here apply. As far as the White House is concerned, I fail to see anything sanguinary about this presidency. Forget for a moment, if you can, all of Trump’s vitriol, raillery, and noise. Forget also just how utterly—and in some cases, shamelessly—supine to his temperament the Republican wing of Congress has become. In action, not in word, this president, if not this legislature, has forwarded a rather conservative agenda. Be it his crowned jewel of a justice Neil Gorsuch, his much-ballyhooed tax cuts, his de-regulatory measures, or his Middle Eastern stance, Trump is governing as the conservative we never expected him to be. Of course, the chameleon that he is, he’s changed his colors more than once for the worse by implementing broad and economically illiterate tariffs, praising murderous dictators, and spurning ageless allies, but such is the complexity and vagary of President Trump. Taken to the scorecard, though, it would be hard to argue that this administration and the legislature to which it responds hasn’t been overall conservative in such a way we haven’t recently seen.
Because this Trump presidency has been such a mixed-bag, it’s often a challenge to parse out the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff. Yet if it’s conservatism Will wants, at least on the net balance, it’s conservatism he’s received.
Yet his argument for defecting from the Republican Party seems not to be one rooted in conservatism and its preservation, but rather in his own personal frustration. It’s for this reason that he’s called for us as voters to ensure that the congressional Republican caucuses are “substantially reduced” come this fall. Reduced so much, in fact, that they’ll be rendered effectively impotent and useless moving forward toward the second half of President Trump’s first term. By taking from Republicans what’s become their “atrophied” and dormant muscle, they’ll be stripped of the strength given them by an all-too gracious Constitution. As if Republicans were teenagers from whom car keys could be punitively snatched, only then might they get their acts together and learn to wield their “Article I power” that they’ve so gallingly forsaken.
So, while Will spares no enmity for President Trump, his major contention is with the Republican members of Congress. One can agree that the latter has been embarrassingly otiose, for quite a long time but especially as of late, but this leads to a confusion in Will’s line of thought. He’s upset that Republican congressmen have been ineffective in passing meaningful legislation—which is, I suspect, a frustration to which any fan of progress will admit. Rather than perhaps advocate that his readers cast ballots for Republicans who might take seriously their constitutional prerogative and in the process boot out the slumbering incumbents who’ve accomplished for us and for him so little, he’s calling instead for Democrats to replace them wholesale.
Yet if his aim meets its target and the Democrats do indeed take back the legislative branch, his frustrations won’t very much change. He simply won’t have to levy them upon those he looks as part of his own Republican flock. His gripe that “Article I” (the legislative branch) has prostrated itself to “Article II” (the executive) will remain as it currently is and will only exacerbate in time. The inefficacy of Congress will be just as it’s been, save for a more feverish and zealous cry for President Trump’s head. Gridlock will permeate from which we won’t escape, legislation will lie fallow, the Overton window will shrink, and all of this will be a subtitle to the real headline that will define the next two years: Democrats going in for impeachment and the kill.
Ask Will, though, and this fate is worth the price. Should, against his wishes, the Republicans win the midterms and retain the Senate and the House, the decadent state of conservatism as he sees it will persist. So far as he’s concerned, the electoral victory will be nothing but Pyrrhic; his Party will win with numbers, but lose the fundamental ground upon which it once proudly stood.
Brooks offers a slightly more nuanced and cogent take. Playing for his part the strings of philosophy, he harkens back to the first principles of conservatism and applies them in our day.
A word, though, on first principles. They’re paradoxical things; they’re at once ethereal—seeming to float weightlessly and impractically above it all—and rudimentary. They’re the cornerstones over whose emergence you can’t leap, the pillars upon whose strength every institution grows, and the artifacts to which we too seldom return. Brooks does, as always, a fine job of describing exactly what these first principles are.
Without evoking the likes of Hume, Burke, Buckley, Arnold, or Locke, Brooks provides a brief primer on conservative thought (one wonders if it’s yet too soon to canonize Krauthammer into this distinguished group). He clarifies the way in which it fundamentally differs from liberalism—with the former prioritizing order and institutions (in the sense that Burke might’ve espoused) and latter regarding more highly liberty (a Rousseauian insight).
The distinction that he draws is intellectually astute and philosophically fun, but what’s important is its application today. On this line, Brooks seems to have converged with Will. You can, says Brooks in a binary, albeit slightly nerdy ultimatum, “be a conservative or a Republican, but you can’t be both”. Putting to practice this logic leads you to the very same end at which you’ll follow Will. Brooks simply presents his letters a bit more artistically and esoterically before getting to his similarly penetrating point. That point is that if you deign to vote for a Republican this coming fall, you may as well kiss your conservative credentials good-bye. But is this really the only choice?