It took a MAGA-draped mob storming the U.S. Capitol and five deaths for a handful of Republicans in Congress finally to have the courage to stand up to Donald Trump. Ten GOP House members joined all their Democratic colleagues to impeach Wednesday, making Trump the only president ever to be twice impeached. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican leader in the House, explained her vote: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
But Trump’s actions last week were just the worst in a series of actions that have defiled the office. This man is the most corrupt, dishonest, and anti-democratic politician in our history. But for much of the last four years, the Republican Party leadership remained silent. Most said nothing during the past two months as Trump spewed daily lies about how the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him. Many elected officials stood with him on rally platforms as he whipped up crowds with fabricated tales of hundreds of thousands of votes cast by dead people, illegal immigrants, felons, and out of state voters, and claimed votes for him were magically switched by machine algorithms or simply discarded or shredded by renegade poll workers.
It was no surprise that Trump followers descended on Washington at the president’s call to “take back our country.” Yet, even after this mob attacked the Capitol, two-thirds of Republican members of the House and fully a quarter of Republican senators returned to the chamber to perpetuate the president’s lies of a stolen election by opposing the constitutionally mandated certification of electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Despite my revulsion at Trump’s behavior, I have been reluctant to leave the Republican Party. I hoped that the GOP could be reformed and must be so from within. But when Sen. Josh Hawley announced on New Year’s Eve that he and several other GOP colleagues would oppose the Senate’s certification of the Electoral College votes in several states, I finally had enough. I have changed my registration to unaffiliated. I remain a conservative, but I am no longer a Republican, nor do I want anything to do with the conservative institutions and intellectuals that have enabled Donald Trump’s nativist-driven populism.
Perhaps principled conservatives will work to woo back former Republicans like me. Certainly Liz Cheney and her nine colleagues give some hope, as do Sens. Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey and others who have indicated they are open to convicting Trump in the Senate. Only one -- Romney -- was willing to vote to remove the president when he was impeached for abuse of power a year ago. But many others, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, remain steadfast Trumpists, as do most of their caucus. It is the same in state legislatures and executive offices controlled by Republicans, not to mention among the party’s faithful voter base.
If the Republican Party remains the party of Trump even with their leader out of office, where do conservatives like me go? I believe that the most important role of the federal government is to provide for the defense of our nation. I believe that free market capitalism and free trade provide a better standard of living and more opportunity for more people than any alternative system. But I also recognize that free markets require individuals who are guided in their decisions by a moral code that includes integrity and compassion.
We remember Adam Smith for “The Wealth of Nations,” his treatise on free market economics, but the foundation for that work was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which posits that societies require both sympathy and justice to survive and beneficence to flourish. I believe that the United States is exceptional, but part of that exceptionalism is that we are not bound by blood and soil but by adherence to the Constitution and the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.
As a conservative, I distrust social engineering, central planning, and intrusive government. But I recognize that government has a legitimate obligation to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves and to protect our environment. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that health care must be accessible to everyone in order to protect us all, which entails a role for government.
And I believe, as did Ronald Reagan, that immigrants help make America great, but also that large-scale immigration only works well when immigrants -- and especially, their children -- integrate into the larger society. We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, but we share a common language and a common culture. American pluralism must not become balkanization. Identity politics is divisive, and the psychology of victimhood is destructive to those who embrace it. I believe government must guarantee equality of opportunity for all, which requires investments in and equal access to education, but I do not believe that government can or should guarantee equal outcomes. Too often programs that attempt to do so unintentionally harm the targeted beneficiaries as well as others who have been left out.
There are Republicans who share many if not most of these views, but apparently too few. Unless and until leaders in the party across the country repudiate Donald Trump and wrest control of the grassroots by disavowing the bigotry that has found such fertile ground, the party will continue to drive many of us away. For the moment, at least, we are politically homeless.