On July 4, the nation celebrated the 242nd anniversary of its declaring independence from Great Britain. In doing so, the American colonies proclaimed (National Archives):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The very first Republican Party Platform adopted in 1856, embraced the principles articulated in that Declaration of Independence. It stated (American Presidency Project):
Resolved: That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Federal Constitution are essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions, and that the Federal Constitution, the rights of the States, and the union of the States, must and shall be preserved.
Today, the Republican Party is experiencing a growing struggle for its soul. The principles that once animated it and were powerfully advanced by its greatest leaders, among them Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, are now being discarded. Republicans who remain true to those principles are rapidly shrinking in number. Highlighting this state of affairs, Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote:
The current GOP still has a few resemblances to the party of old — it still cuts taxes and supports conservative judges. But a vote for the GOP in November is also a vote for egregious obstruction of justice, rampant conflicts of interest, the demonization of minorities, the debasement of political discourse, the alienation of America’s allies, the end of free trade and the appeasement of dictators.
That is why I join Will and other principled conservatives, both current and former Republicans, in rooting for a Democratic takeover of both houses in November. Like postwar Germany and Japan, the Republican Party must be destroyed before it can be rebuilt.
Rising Talk Radio pundit Ben Shapiro took harsh exception. He slammed Boot, tweeting,
If you think today’s Republican Party resembles Japanese fascism or Nazism, Trump has driven you utterly mad https://t.co/JyjB3xZWsa
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) July 4, 2018
The tweet was more the exaggerated emotional outburst one witnesses on almost a daily basis from President Trump’s Twitter feed than an expression of reasoned objection. Boot never stated or implied that the Republican Party of today “resembles Japanese fascism or Nazism.” Instead, he referenced history to make the point that the current Republican Party “must be destroyed before it can be rebuilt.”
There is a distinction between the two arguments. Shapiro either missed that distinction or deliberately ignored it. The latter explanation is likely the more compelling one. It is plausible that Shapiro is seeking to grow his audience by trying to keep one foot planted in traditional conservative principles and the other implanted in the ethno-nationalist populism that defines the Trump movement.
It is tempting for people to seek proximity to those in power or those who are expected to prevail. In this case, Shapiro may be framing an argument that will be accepted by the Trump movement rather than taking a position that will draw its wrath.
Such a dynamic is not new. One witnessed just such a scenario in France following Germany’s victory over the French Army in 1940. Historian Robert Paxton wrote in Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972):
Where, one will ask, were the “Resisters of the first hour,” as numerous by 1944 as Mayflower descendants at a DAR convention? …Without clear signals from the organized Left, and with every expectation of rich rewards for the Right at Vichy, the early Resistance in 1940 was the work of exceptional individuals… Genuine “resisters of the first hour” were a rare breed indeed in 1940.
Boot is a ‘Resister of the first hour.’ Shapiro is not.
The vital question of the day is whether Max Boot is correct in his diagnosis of the Republican Party’s present ideological sickness and his prescription for curing the Party. The odds appear to favor Boot’s thinking. After all, what one is witnessing in Congress’s acquiescence to President Trump and the Party membership’s embrace of Trump is not merely a display of tactical considerations. Instead, one is witnessing the wholesale abandonment of principle to achieve those outcomes.
The Republican Party of Donald Trump no longer resembles that of President Reagan. It has largely discarded its guiding principle of individual liberty. Occasional appeals to limited government cannot mask that reality.
The Republican Party once believed that economic, political, and religious freedom were inseparable elements of individual liberty. Reflecting that basic proposition, the 1984 Republican Platform explained (American Presidency Project):
Free enterprise is fundamental to the American way of life. It is inseparable from the social, religious, political, and judicial institutions which form the bedrock of a nation dedicated to individual freedom and human rights.
That fundamental view is disappearing from Republican Party practice and policy. The contemporary Republican Party is increasingly a protectionist party. Yet, tariffs are tax hikes on American consumers and businesses. They impair consumers’ and business’ freedom of marketplace choice. They deprive them of some of their wealth and opportunity. They erode individual liberty.
The Trump Administration assails companies that are perceived to be disloyal to its political agenda or ideas. The President has repeatedly used Twitter to bludgeon Amazon and Harley-Davidson. The Republican Party has done nothing in the face of such attacks.
The Trump Administration has launched a pilot project of sorts to overturn market-driven outcomes in the energy industry. On June 1, 2018, Politico reported, “President Donald Trump pressed for a quick regulatory bailout for struggling coal power plants on Friday — a move that would buoy a mining industry that offered him crucial support in 2016, but is riling other energy companies and even some free-market conservatives.” The Republican-led Congress has not stood in the way of an initiative that, if carried out, could well be scaled up and expanded to additional industries.
Max Boot has taken a position that is deeply unpopular with contemporary Republican thought and Party supporters. For now, it appears to be an unsafe position, perhaps one that could destroy his credibility to speak on Party matters and conservative principle.
Actually, it might be the safer position than Shapiro’s. Over time, Shapiro may find himself in an increasingly perilous situation. Both the traditional conservative and ethno-nationalist populist positions are permanently irreconcilable. Both positions are anchored in conflicting principle. Therefore, Shapiro may have to make a basic choice between the two. The longer he defers his choice, the more costly the outcome could be. He will lose the support of the side he chooses against. Delay could cost him the confidence of the side he chooses.
Boot has made his decision. It is a choice that has been favored across the sweep of time. Individual liberty has prevailed time and again, even after encountering grave setbacks along the way.
If history is representative, today’s ethno-nationalist populism will more than likely wind up becoming a passing fad in American political history. It will likely vanish from the nation’s political landscape. When it disappears, it will take with it those who embraced it, as well as the timid who could not summon the timely will to resist it. After all, there is no courage in a choice, once the outcome has already been decided.