Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and a prominent Never Trump voice, is out with a new book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. At a time when politicians are held in low regard, Wehner makes the counterintuitive argument that we must recognize politics as a noble endeavor.
My conversation with him, which follows, has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
Q. You make the point that Trump simply lit the fuse but that the antecedents of the nasty, crude and rancorous politics had been underway for years. How did Republicans become the ones to most fall prey to this phenomenon?
A. It's worth pointing out that the Republican Party hasn't cornered the market on nasty politics. Ted Kennedy's attacks on Robert Bork were an ugly inflection point in the history of the modern Supreme Court nomination process. The attacks in 2012 against Mitt Romney by Harry Reid and a super PAC supporting President Obama were dishonest and disgraceful. So were many of the attacks by Clinton supporters against Ken Starr and against women with whom Clinton had affairs. Vicious things were said about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. So it's not as if the hands of Democrats are clean here. All parties and all political ideologies have a lot to answer for.
Having said that, Donald Trump is in a category all his own when it comes to the politics of cruelty, crudity and dehumanization. He's the face, voice and moral representative--or immoral representative--of the Republican Party, and some large number of Republicans support him and his tactics that
at times seems cult-like.
My sense is that on the right there were dark forces that were far more widespread than I imagined. Pre-Trump, they were kept more or less on the fringes of the Republican Party. Trump tapped into them, though, and mainstreamed them. One manifestation of that is Trump's validation of Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler whose show Trump appeared on during the 2016 campaign and was praised by Trump.
Remember the issue that brought Donald Trump to national political prominence: a racist conspiracy theory alleging that Barack Obama wasn't a U.S. citizen. I warned Republicans about him in 2011-don't play "footsie with peddlers of paranoia" and those who delight in making our public discourse more childish and freakish, I wrote, but I didn't anticipate that the pathologies were so far-reaching.
Q. What else do you think is going on?
A. A lot of people on the right feel like they have been condescended to by the elite culture, disrespected and mocked for their beliefs, and there's some merit in that. I did an event at Stanford shortly before the 2016 election with Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who wrote an outstanding book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. "What his rise is about," she told me, "is lost honor and humiliation. Trump is a kind of anti-depressant to his supporters."
This is combined with a "Flight 93" mindset-the sense that many are engaged in an existential struggle with the Left and that virtually any tactics, regardless of how ruthless, should be employed in order to prevail. I have friends who in their individual lives are deeply decent, and yet they have admitted to me that they want to figuratively slit the throat of liberals and those on the left, who they are convinced are comprised of malicious people who want to destroy America and destroy them.
There's also fear many Trump supporters have about the rapid rate of social change, especially in the area of sexual ethics, that has left them bewildered and fearful. In addition to that, we're in the midst of massive economic changes. All of this has allowed some ugly impulses to rise to the surface.
Q. How do we improve political discourse without tackling polarization, which was brought about by many political, social and cultural factors?
A. James Q. Wilson, who was one of America's outstanding social scientists, described polarization as not simply partisan disagreements alone, but rather an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. "Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked," according to Wilson, "when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong."
Part of the explanation for the acute state of political polarization is what the journalist Bill Bishop describes as "the big sort." We increasingly live with people who think, vote and pattern our lives like we do, who reinforce our beliefs. On one level that's understandable; on another it's harmful, since we begin to view those who live differently than we do as aliens, hostile forces, and even existential threats to our way of life.
What I argue in The Death of Politics is that we have to rethink our attitudes toward one another and toward the pursuit of truth. I describe the friendship between British philosopher and poet Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis, the 20th-century British medievalist, literary critic, author and apologist for the Christian faith. They were members of a literary group called The Inklings and exercised enormous influence on each other. But their friendship was not based on seeing the world in exactly the same way.
In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis described what he called a First Friend and a Second Friend. The First Friend is the person who sees things as you do. You "join like raindrops on a window" is how Lewis put it.
The Second Friend is your anti-self. He shares your interests but approaches them at a different angle. "He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one," Lewis wrote. "How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?"
"In an argument," Barfield said, "we always, both of us, were arguing for the truth, not for victory."
If each of us could move closer toward the spirit of the Lewis-Barfield model of dialogue and debate, we'd all be far better off.
Q. How does the evangelical community address the grotesque failure of moral and spiritual leadership?
A. Evangelicals need to call out leaders in their ranks who have turned into what Pete Buttigieg has called "cheerleaders of the porn star presidency" and who are unwilling to call the president out on any of his moral and ethical offenses that go far beyond sexual misconduct.
A lot of white evangelicals have acted in ways that have discredited the Christian witness by revealing a staggering degree of hypocrisy. Many Americans have seen what they said in the past--during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but not only then--and understandably concluded that this was never really about moral integrity; it was about power, partisanship and political tribalism.
But calling out people is hardly enough. Something more fundamental has to happen. So-called "values voters" have to look within themselves and dedicate themselves to moral excellence and moral integrity, to standing for human dignity and against the politics of dehumanization, to say we're going to support those who embody a Christian ethic rather than the ethic of Thrasymachus. Those who have read Plato will recall that Thrasymachus was the cynical Sophist who insists that justice has no intrinsic meaning but is merely a pretty word for what is in the interest of the stronger party.
Evangelicals have to show a watching world a different portrait, one that embodies more of a culture of grace rather than grievance, healing rather than hate, empathy rather than antipathy.
I understand the argument of evangelical Christians who believed a vote for Donald Trump in 2016 would further a policy agenda that they believed was better for the nation. I didn't agree, but I can see where they're coming from. What has been most discrediting is that so many of Trump's evangelical supporters have been rhapsodic in their support of him and won't speak truth to power. For them, it's a zero-sum game. They are acting more like partisan apparatchiks than as people of faith, integrity and moral and intellectual independence.
The younger generation of evangelicals consider what's been unfolding as something of a freak show, and they are dedicated to creating a far different and better way of engaging the culture, one that puts justice and grace at the center.
Q. What can ordinary Americans do about this?
A. We have to shake off fatalism and corrosive cynicism. At every level--local, state and national; in our role as voters, constituents and citizens--we need to act in ways that promote politics rightly understood and politicians who are champions of justice and human decency. The most important thing is to change our attitude toward politics and rededicate ourselves to what is best about politics.
My book focuses on what politics properly understood is and tells stories about Lincoln and the founding generation who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and exercised power with wisdom. I write about how Harriet Beecher Stowe touched the heart of a nation in the fight against slavery and how Martin Luther King Jr. showed how you could hate injustice while still being civil. I have a chapter on the proper role of faith in politics as well as the dangers; on why moderation, compromise and civility are essential democratic virtues, and why democracy requires that we honor truth and the culture of words.
The political system, whatever its failings, is responsive, and citizens who demand more will yield politicians who offer more. We can also be healing agents in our communities. We can listen carefully to those we disagree with, and do our part to turn the temperature down rather than up in politics.
Context is important. There have been far more difficult times in American history than the one we're in, even if you believe as I do that Donald Trump is pernicious in many respects. We've seen Americans rise to enormous challenges in the past. There have been moments of grandeur, and there can be again. One person acting alone can't do much, but a lot of people acting together can create a culture, and that culture can elevate our politics and our nation.
Q. Is it possible that Trump has sparked a revival of participatory democracy?
A. He's certainly done that. We saw that in the 2018 midterms. But I think he's done more than that. Viruses sometimes create their own antibodies, and I have a hunch that the Trump virus is creating civic antibodies; that in response to the Trump assault on American ideals, people will stand for virtue they perhaps took for granted.
Editorial on 07/07/2019
Print Headline: A conservative's vision for virtue