Peter Wehner, a conservative writer at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and occasional contributor to the New York Times, wrote a reasoned and thoughtful assessment of Donald Trump’s place in the current presidential race.
For the most part, Wehner’s comments make a nice, concise summary of smart interpretations of Trump already offered by reasonable people. In a nutshell, Donald Trump represents a disturbing trend in political discourse and — quite literally — political action, specifically political action as political violence.
This is easy for people to grasp and there really isn’t a lot in this essay that is exceptional…until you get to the penultimate paragraph. Assessing what that paragraph says — and what it doesn’t say — helps us understand what is missing in conservative complaints and condemnation of Donald Trump.
Wehner laments, “That Mr. Trump’s rise has occurred in the Republican Party is painful for those of us who are Republicans. That more and more Republicans are making their own accommodations with or offering outright support for Mr. Trump — governors like Chris Christie and Rick Scott, the former candidate Ben Carson and the former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — makes things even worse.”
This is kind of a laugh out loud moment, right? Is Peter Wehner suggesting that a candidate like Donald Trump might rise somewhere other than the Republican Party? Seems so. Now, I don’t want to sound snarky or cynical, but where, exactly, might that other place be, especially if we limit the scope to American politics?
Here is the problem. Republicans want to distance themselves from the manner of politics that Trump offers when in essence he is a hyperreal expression of GOP politics. For decades Republicans have turned Americans against government, scapegoated Americans, and even implied violence. Trump hardly is the first. He’s merely the loudest and most successful. Very simply, Donald Trump has stolen the GOP brand and made it his own.
That’s why denunciations of Trump by the so-called Republican “party establishment” sound flat. Peter Wehner’s commentary is yet another example. It is milquetoast and distant. It displays again how Republicans refuse (and perhaps to some degree are unable) to see a connection between the party that recent decades has forged — today’s Republican Party — and the man that leads the race for their presidential nomination.
The next sentence in this paragraph — “Because we can no longer deny what Mr. Trump is and what he presents.” — bears this out further. It comes close to an honest assessment of who Trump is, but Wehner doesn’t really explain what he means. This sentence is packed with unanswered questions. Why can you “no longer deny”? Does that mean the party once did deny? Why? And please tell us, what is Mr. Trump? What does he represent?
It is precisely those questions that the GOP dare not answer because the answer stares at them in the mirror. They can complain and protest all they want now, but it comes too little, too late precisely because prior to Trump the rhetoric of Trump was the implied and unspoken foundation of the Republican Party.
It isn’t the rising tendencies of demagogues and authoritarians that Republicans have sought to prevent, it is the outward expression of those tendencies in the form of a strongman.