What happened to the portrait of America as “a shining city on a hill?” Far from being a light to the world, the free world now looks at America’s tormented moment with sadness and fear, while our worst enemies look on with delight.
As a young policy guy in our nation’s capital, I had the unique privilege of working for President Ronald Reagan. He regularly appealed to what he — and Abraham Lincoln — called “our better angels.” I watched firsthand as regularly he tried to turn enemies into friends. By contrast, our current president appears to thrive on having enemies, even creating them among allies where they previously didn’t exist; and he has built his movement upon appeals to our ugly instincts of fear and resentment.
If Donald Trump displayed even a small portion of Reagan’s grace and basic decency, he would be coasting toward an easy reelection. Should he lose, it will be entirely of his own doing, and his followers would do well to accept that it was his leadership and character that voters rejected, and little else.
Our circumstances are not normal and must not become the new norm. When politics becomes warlike, democracy enters into a slow death spiral. I don’t see another leader in all of American history who compares with Trump. On scales of authoritarianism, Trump possesses most of the key traits.
Those traits: Spread fear and exploit divisions. Make yourself the center of everything. Take personal responsibility for nothing. Find a scapegoat, usually ethnic minorities, for every problem. Undermine trust in the media and indoctrinate your followers. Label any information “fake news” except that which comes from the Great Leader and his media sources.
There is more. Aim to discredit anyone in the government who opposes your conduct — courts, the FBI, the CIA — by slapping the label “deep state” on individuals whose job is to ensure that officials act lawfully. Wink at violence and even encourage vigilantism. Deliver nonstop propaganda to your tribe of followers and close down any meaningful dissent. Treat opponents as traitors; encourage retribution against them. And undermine the legitimacy of one of the most sacred practices in democracy — our national election.
To GOP voters, is it not obvious that this is dangerous stuff? In the cult-like climate that Trump is creating in the Republican Party, the GOP is flirting with fascism.
When presented with uncomfortable information, Trump followers either display a powerful will to disbelieve, buying only information that comes to them from their media silo, or they instantly offer two justifications for going along.
The first is: “What about the left?” This is so common, we could give it an acronym: WATL. Of course the extreme left is a menace, and of course urban violence and unrest are troubling, but these things have been around for hundreds of years. The difference today is that every event is fed into a giant, social media-driven propaganda machine that exaggerates the problem tenfold, all to keep people clinging to fear and distracted from their president’s glaring dysfunction.
Second, there is the excuse delivered in the form of a question: “What about the policies?” I count myself among those who appreciate many of the policy gains, especially in the federal judiciary. But policy isn’t everything, and in this context, I would say it is secondary to the overriding need for calm and steady leadership of the country. Keep in mind that, according to fascist lore, Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was popular among the people for making the trains run on time. Before his true nature was revealed, Adolf Hitler was quite popular for having reversed the humiliation the German people felt from World War I. Both generated considerable economic improvement.
Republicans have gone from being preoccupied with character during the Bill Clinton years to apparently believing it now counts for nothing. We have lowered the bar on what we expect from politicians. Even taking that low bar into account, if Trump’s excesses and personal abuses — from his sketchy business history, to his private moral corruption, to his contempt for the rule of law (including tax law) — don’t justify a vote on character alone, what ever will?
Does it not bother the GOP that the carnival-like American environment of leadership has led to our shame and disgrace in the eyes of the world? Polls indicate that Trump is now less respected internationally than Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.
To my conservative friends, let me say that what we are witnessing is not conservatism. Traditional conservatism brings checks and balances, resists demagogues, cherishes constitutional norms and stands for adultlike virtues of prudence and responsibility. It stands against any attempt to concentrate political power at the national level or in irresponsible hands, whomever they may be.
The only hope for rebuilding the GOP based upon the moral vision of its founder and the mainstream conservatism of Reagan and George W. Bush is for Trump and Trumpism to be broadly rejected.
We all have a sacred duty to exercise on Nov. 3. I will vote for responsible Republicans. As for president, I cannot vote for Donald Trump. Recognizing it has no more than purely symbolic value, I will write in the name of the deceased Ronald Reagan, in the hope that out of the ashes of defeat Reagan’s memory and spirit will produce a vibrant movement of Republican reform and renewal.
Don Eberly is a former White House aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He has served in numerous senior national and international policy positions, and is an internationally recognized author of multiple books on civil society. He resides in Lancaster County.