Bring Me Men to Match My Mountains
Two prominent GOP intellectuals took aim at the Trump phenomenon from different angles in their recent columns.
In the Financial Times, Peter Wehner, a former Bush Administration official and frequent writer, indicted the populist rhetoric and ideological passion of the GOP for providing a fertile nursery for the likes of Trump to rise:
“He is the product of certain intellectual and political habits that have taken hold over the years: a lazy anti-government ideology, prizing emotivism over empiricism, and conflict in pursuit of lost causes. This is not conservatism; it is splenetic, embittered populism. “
Meanwhile over at the New York Times, the columnist Ross Douthat chided the centrist political establishment (including the Republican establishment!) for growing increasingly disconnected from the real concerns of Middle America:
“Finally, freaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.”
While Wehner blames the populists for Trump’s rise and Douthat blames the establishment, it seems to me that both are looking at different aspects of the same story. The Clinton-Bush elite is incorrigibly decadent and invites a populist backlash; the Sanders and Cruz wings of the major parties are vehemently intolerant and impractical and can easily be radicalized.
So your average Joe voter is presented with a less-than-savory list of least-bad options on Election Day. On the one hand, they can go with political “professionals” who are bought and paid for by a variety of moneyed interests and advised by coteries of Washington insiders insulated from the “Real America.” On the other hand, they can go with “grassroots” populist candidates, Left or Right, who spout vague partisan platitudes chock full of impracticality and oftentimes laced with hate.
This dynamic will likely continue on Election Day 2016. Voters will be forced to choose between Hillary Clinton, Crown Princess of the Establishment, and either 1) the Trump himself as GOP nominee, 2) a moderate GOP nominee alongside a third-party Trump, or 3) another GOP populist pulled so far to the Right by threat of a Trump third-party run as to render them basically a Trumpista.
A decadent elite and a throng of mad-as-hell populists. Which is less bad?
Other options would be nice. What about a movement- or a single candidate- with the moderation and centrism of the establishment wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties, yet with the reformist fire and popular appeal of the populist insurgencies dominating the airwaves? A “radical centrist,” if you will, to borrow a term from the early 2000s.
One thing’s for sure- that candidate or movement isn’t going to emerge from AEI’s or Brookings’s networks, for reasons of temperament. We need someone fiery and anti-establishment. And they’re not going to emerge from the Heritage or CAP networks, for reasons of policy innovation. We’re not looking for an ideologue, but for a pragmatist. We’re not looking for Hillary or Jeb, but neither are we looking for Goldwater or McGovern.
Perhaps one figure to look to for inspiration might be President Theodore Roosevelt. He rose to power in an age of a decadent established elite and populist demagoguery on both ends of the political spectrum, and put in place reforms that cooled the looming crisis and set the nation on a path towards world power and national unity. A latter-day Bull Moose from California- centrist, reformist, and innovative, all in the name of the American project and national unity- could do great things in forging the next set of American institutions. Incidentally, TR’s 1912 running-mate was a son of California- Republican Governor Hiram Johnson.
So here’s a proposal for my fellow California Republicans. We shaped the party with a maverick presidential candidate twice in the last fifty years, two great American presidents who united the populist and establishment wings of the Grand Old Party and went on to make great and necessary reforms in their leadership of the nation as a whole- Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Their achievements have been immortalized in the national conscience and memorialized at Yorba Linda and Simi Valley.
Why can’t we do it again- find a leader, shape the party, transform the nation? In Sacramento, at the Jesse M. Unruh State Office Building, Sam Walter Foss’s immortal admonition from the land of the American West to its sons is inscribed- “Bring me men to match my mountains.” Nixon and Reagan stand in the national conscience, arguably, with preeminence similar to that of Half Dome, El Capitan, or Mt. Whitney- giants among giants, the most prominent summits amidst a range of glorious peaks. Where is the next son (or daughter!) of California, hungry to lead America?
Why don’t we look, as a state party, for someone to groom for high leadership in the state- the Governor’s office, perhaps, or a Senate seat- some champion of California-style reformist conservatism who can represent the state and the party on the national stage. Someone, to quote the Hamilton musical on Broadway these days, who is “young, scrappy, and hungry,” with a first-rate intellect and charisma and, beyond that, a principled vision for the country tempered by a realistic understanding of human affairs and American culture. Preferably an older Millennial, a bit of new blood for the electorate to taste.
Of course, this’d be a multi-year process with no quick or guaranteed results. It would take time to bear fruit- the next Nixon or Reagan won’t be decided by lot and spring out of a state convention ready to take on Hillary Clinton next year. Things like this take time.
But, alongside other plans the California Republican Party has to expand its base, propose alternatives to the Democrats’ green-and-blue policy consensus, and elect officials to local and statewide positions, would it not be smart for the state party to prepare for the next decade’s worth of fratricidal national intraparty squabbling by recruiting a champion or champions to rise above the fray and lead the party and nation in the future, and training them for such roles? Nothing, after all, can grant an organization leverage quite like charismatic, visionary national leadership.
Again- California and the California Republican Party have led future trends nationwide since California’s rise in the early 20th Century, from the reforms of Governors Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren to the policies of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. We can do it again. But we must first get our own house in order, define Republicanism for the 21st Century (and pray it doesn’t look too much like Trumpism or the establishment’s incoherent mash of policies,) and find a champion willing to bear the burden of leading such a movement later in their career.
The least we could do for our fellow citizens across the country is work to give them such an option in 2020 or 2024.