This week I received a moving note from a young friend of mine. In college, he realized he wanted to make a difference in this world by serving in government. His opinions leaned right, so the Republican Party became the vehicle for that service. He’s spent 10 years working his way up the Washington policy ladder.
But now he is dismayed by what the Republican Party has become. He’s disgusted by the whole political game. He’s thinking that maybe government is not where vital, meaningful work will take place over the next decades. He is in a career crisis, wondering if he should change the trajectory of his life. He asked for my advice:
Dear Young Republican,
I get it. I’ve been increasingly dismayed and disgusted by the Republican Party since the moment Sarah Palin first stepped onto the national stage. My interests have shifted to those who are weaving the social fabric at the community level, and if you find a way to make a difference out of government, I salute you.
But we do face a political crisis in this country, and the Republican Party is the epicenter of that crisis. Destiny has placed you, all of you young Republicans, at the crucial spot in the line. We either have two responsible political parties in this country or we do not. And it will be reforming Republicans, with your energies and ideas, that determine the outcome.
The Republican Party is going to hold a lot of power in the years ahead. Even with a losing candidate at the top of the ticket, the GOP managed to pick up 12 House seats in 2020. It is possible that the Republicans will control the House and the Senate in just two years.
The Democrats have become the party of the educated metropolitan class. There will always be a lot of Americans who do not share the interests or values of that class and they tend to vote Republican.
The party is politically viable, but it is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Under Trump it became an apocalyptic personality cult. But you should know, as I’m sure you do, that there are many Republicans who want to change their party and make it a vehicle for conservative ideas.
These people are energized as never before and feel their whole lives have been preparation for the coming moral, intellectual and political struggle. This is a struggle to create a Republican Party that is democratic and not authoritarian, patriotic and not nationalistic, conservative and not reactionary, benevolent and not belligerent, intellectually self-confident and not apocalyptic and dishonest.
But is it your struggle? I guess I would ask myself two questions: Are you dedicated to the ideas that are at the heart of current conservatism: the need to hold off the China threat; the need to restrain the power of cultural elites and centralized government; the need to build an economy that functions for the working class. Second, are you attached to actual Republicans? The conservative movement left an opening for Trump because it didn't understand what was on the mind of actual voters.
The party has the potential to be something truly good for America: a multiracial working-class coalition, a party that serves the interest of all those who don’t fit in with the definition of the good life that is promulgated by the meritocracy. It’s to be a champion for those who didn’t complete college, don’t want to leave their hometown for the big city, do have a set of traditional values centered around their faith.
To become that party, the GOP has to displace the cultural circus with actual policymaking. Trumpism is a media strategy, not a political philosophy; it’s a bid to win endless attention and stoke enmity.
Republicans will beat Trumpism not by confronting it directly but by focusing on policymaking, by becoming a regular party once again. As Sen. Ben Sasse put it, it’s to make the Republican Party about more than one dude. You may have noticed that this week, Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton are teaming up on an effort to raise the minimum wage and enforce immigration laws, two plans to boost working class wages. That’s what there needs to be more of.
Will this work? Is the Republican Party salvageable? Nobody knows. Right now Republicans are rallying around Trump because they believe Democrats and the media are going after him. It’s pie in the sky to ask rank-and-file Republicans to denounce the man they’ve clung to. But, as has been observed, we Americans don’t solve our problems, we just leave them behind.
Suppose new leaders, issues and movements arose? Suppose the shows that premiered in the coming years’ seasons made the shows that premiered in 2016 look tired and passe. The party that moved from Theodore Roosevelt, to Calvin Coolidge to Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump is going to eventually move on once again. That future is waiting to be created.
It’s not my struggle, and maybe it’s not your struggle. But it is certainly a noble way for the right people to spend their lives.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.