The new and old Republican Party: Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. (Credit: AP)
One of the common laments around the Paas-Lang household since 2016 is that Donald Trump has forced us to agree with people like David Frum. A Canadian transplant to the land of the free, Frum is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and is currently a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a conservative through and through, but he has also been one of the foremost critics of Donald Trump in the United States.
Frum is just one of many conservative figures that have become alienated from their party in the past two years. This estrangement extends from conservative intellectuals such as Frum, Bill Kristol and Yuval Levin to politicians like Mitt Romney and John Kasich, and, to a certain extent, John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It similarly encompasses the conservative media, as outlets including The Weekly Standard, The National Review and even (for a time) Fox News have struggled to reconcile the differences between Trump’s agenda and traditional conservative principles.
While Fox has now gone all-in on Trump (and less Trump-friendly anchors like Megyn Kelly have left the network) the rest of the conservatives named above have largely maintained a strident anti-Trump position. And their criticisms of Trump have been incredibly valuable for the left. For while these figures, Frum among them, certainly suffer from membership in the “establishment,” none can be accused of Democratic partisanship in the same way as left-leaning voices. As a result, they are less easily dismissed by Trump supporters.
Frum and his conservative partisans (in the military sense of the word) have been welcomed by the left as representatives of the true, principled conservative position. In our eyes, Frum and others have now reached a level of legitimacy and respectability that they never could have dreamed of three years ago. Never mind that the same policies these people espouse are the ones we raved against for the past decade and a half. What was the big deal with Romney’s 47% comment? Support for the Iraq war? Old news! An enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Trump has shortened all of our memories.
It’s easy to see the left-right establishment alliance as ridiculous, cemented as it is solely by opposition to Donald Trump. But I think it’s a good thing. It gives us a chance to rework our political discourse in a more positive way.
We didn’t know how nice we had it in the first 15 years of this millennium. But now that Trump has paved paradise, it’s clear that the way we went about debating each other in 2008 and 2012, for example, was absurd. While the left and right establishments fought amongst themselves (to little effect), they allowed an unhinged far-right to co-opt the hearts and minds and hopes of much of America. To be clear, though, I believe that it is primarily the establishment on the right that is at fault for variously ignoring, encouraging and exploiting this part of its intellectual base.
The solution to the anger on the right is an expanded, united centre dedicated to restoring faith in American democracy and achieving results for the American people. With this, the necessity for Trump (such as it is) would disappear.
When the rotten facade of Trump finally collapses, and I have no doubt it will, Americans will need to reexamine how they talk to one another about opposing policies and competing visions of America. Inevitably, there will be a powerful incentive to go back to the same bickering as before. The same passion that has been aimed at Trump will once again be directed across the aisle. Serious, reasonable people will once against fail to treat each other as serious, reasonable people.
American elites should resist that impulse with everything they have, for two reasons. First, it would immediately destroy any sense of respect and good faith that has been built up during the Trump years. The polarization that characterized the Obama era would roar back into focus. Any possibility of compromise and progress on the enormous and consequential issues that face America (healthcare, tax reform, immigration, income inequality) would vanish.
But more importantly, a return to the same intractable debates of the early twenty-first century would completely miss the point of Donald Trump. A rebounding of political discourse back to the pre-Trump era would leave the president’s supporters behind. They would not only be ignored but would also have tasted bitter defeat on a national scale. If the right fails to reintegrate the Trump movement, it would set America up for an even greater catastrophe later on.
That reintegration — I would go so far as to say reconciliation — can only happen if the right takes the views and complaints of Trump supporters seriously. I believe this is what is happening now. But reconciliation also relies on a cooperative left. If right-wing intellectuals like Frum once more face attacks from the left, they will experience another incentive to draw on Trumpistas for support. If Trump supporters continue to see Democrats as the enemy, they will be less inclined to moderate themselves and come to the table. The growing cult of victimhood and isolation on the right would be further reinforced.
This would be disastrous. When Trump falls, it will likely be at the hands of an existing or imminent Democratic majority on the political landscape. When that happens, Democrats should resist the urge to kick the right when it’s down. If they do, it will make the responsibility of the right (to rein in its extremists) even harder. It would further entrench the notion that politics should be a zero sum game. It would also undermine the nascent notions of bipartisan respect, compromise and congeniality that are currently budding among a few players on the left and the right.
The spread of these ideas should be the goal of those active in the political scene, because it is those things that will help to stop and reverse the rising tide of polarization that is the marker of this generation and the source of the Trump phenomenon.
Niki Ashton is one of five candidates for NDP leadership. (Credit: Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)
Unfortunately, the incentive to attempt to ride the wave of Trump-style populism (or tar one’s opponents with it) is still strong. Even in Canada, where we pride ourselves on avoiding most of America’s pitfalls, we are at risk of undermining civil political discourse. Kellie Leitch was the first, scary example of this. Blessedly, she seems to have faded away for now. More recently, I was concerned when I read Niki Ashton’s comparison of Andrew Scheer to Donald Trump, as well as the subsequent counterattack against her: that it was Ashton’s accusation that was in fact Trump-like.
This is irresponsible from both sides. Andrew Scheer is not, as far as we know, a threat to democratic institutions or values. Donald Trump is. To accuse one of resembling the other is to undercut the real threat that Trump poses. To turn the charge back against Ashton is similarly destructive.
The rise and eventual fall of Trump presents America with a rare opportunity to fundamentally reimagine the way their political discourse works (and it should also give Canadians a chance for self-reflection). The first step will be reconciliation with those who bet on Trump and lost. The next will be ensuring that we on the left and those on the right keep our own disagreements in perspective. We should seek to moderate our opposition with a sense of respect and a desire for compromise that derives from a justifiable shared sense of good faith and good intentions.
We now know how bad it can actually get. It’s our responsibility to make sure that American (and Canadian) democracy is protected. In a year, two years or four years, when Donald Trump stumbles out of politics, let’s remember what David Frum and others like him said and did. Without Trump as a common enemy, we will be tempted back into our old ways — but we would be falling into a trap.
The common enemy is still there, in the ideas and attitudes that Trump personified. Deceit, corruption and cruelty. Polarization, division and distrust. Those threats will still exist and we will need both the left and right to fight them together.