Speaker Paul Ryan’s announced departure, and the unprecedented number of congressional Republicans choosing not to run this November, has me thinking, again, of where the GOP is.
Its essential problem is that it doesn’t know what it stands for. It doesn’t know what it is. It is philosophically and ideologically riven, almost shattered, and the one piece that still coheres—represented in the House by the Freedom Caucus—is least reflective of the broader base, and the country.
Senators and representatives still have not reckoned with the shock of 2016. They’re repeating what’s been said and following an old playbook. They remind me of what Talleyrand is supposed to have said of the Bourbons, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Some know an old order has been swept away, but what will replace it is not fully formed, so they’re not placing bets.
It isn’t all about Donald Trump. Mr. Trump came from the chaos, he didn’t cause it. He just makes it worse each day by adding his own special incoherence. The party’s intellectual disarray both preceded and produced him. He happened after 20 years of carelessness and the rise of the enraged intersectional left. He was the magic pony who was not like the other Republicans. But he can’t capitalize on this moment—he can’t help what is formless to find form—because he’s not a serious man.
Republicans will have to figure it out on their own. After they lose the House, they will have time!
Here’s what they should do: They should start to think not like economists but like artists.
Often when I speak people ask, at the end, about Ronald Reagan. I often say what I’ve written, that a key to understanding him was that he saw himself in the first 40 years of his life—the years in which you become yourself—as an artist. As a young man he wrote short stories, drew, was attracted to plays, acted in college, went into radio, and then became a professional actor. He came to maturity in Hollywood, a town of craftsmen and artists. He fully identified with them.
The thing about artists is that they try to see the real shape of things. They don’t get lost in factoids and facets of problems, they try to see the thing whole. They try to capture reality. They’re creative, intuitive; they make leaps, study human nature. It has been said that a great leader has more in common with an artist than with an economist, and it’s true.
The GOP needs artists.
If an artist of Reagan’s era were looking around America in 2018, what would she or he see? Marvels, miracles and wonders. A church the other day noted on Twitter that all of us now download data from a cloud onto tablets, like Moses.
But think what would startle the artist unhappily. She or he would see broad swaths of the American middle and working class addicted and lethargic. A Reagan-era person would think: But they are the backbone! They built our roads, fought our wars, worked on the assembly line making the cars that transformed our lives. Reagan came from those people but a step below. His father wasn’t a factory worker with a union card but a somewhat itinerant shoe store salesman who was an alcoholic. Reagan’s family was not fully stable, but America was, and he could rise within it. He became not only a union member but a union president.
He believed passionately in—he defended and advanced—the free-market system. Freedom, he well knew, yields unequal results. Jack Warner had a grand estate and the day workers at Warner Bros. shared a walk-up on Sunset and slept in shifts. But that’s no cause for bitterness as long as the day workers know they can rise—and the system allows them to rise.
Today something seems stuck. Free trade, global trade—yes! But you can’t invest totally in abstractions because life is not abstract. People need jobs, men especially, and a nation that can’t make things is too vulnerable in the world.
A Reagan-era artist would be shocked by our culture, by its knuckle dragging nihilism. She or he might note that constantly telling our children that the deck is stacked against them, even when that message is sent in the name of equality and justice, may leave them demoralized, driven not by hunger and joy but by unearned bitterness. The artist would be shocked that “the American dream” has been transmuted from something aspirational and lighted by an egalitarian spirit to something weirdly flat—a house, a car, possessions—and weirdly abstract.
In foreign affairs the people of that era knew why they were anticommunist. It was not only a totalitarian system that was by its nature brutal and a killer of freedoms; it was expansionist (even to Cuba, 90 miles from our shore) and atheistic. Wherever it went the churches were closed and the religious hounded. So: resist communism! But you go forward accepting the simple tragedy at the heart of life, that this isn’t Heaven, it’s earth, and man is crooked timber. You wouldn’t invade the Warsaw Pact countries even though they’ve been turned into outposts of evil.
What might an artist see as the major need and priority for America right now? Keep this country together. Keep it up and operating and give it a sense of peace with itself. The crisis is our increasing disunity, and the thinning of a shared sense of the national dream.
What should the GOP be thinking of now, as a political priority? Be more human. Show a felt sympathy for those trying to rise. Align yourself with the culturally disheartened. Be on the side—as the party was since its inception, and now seems not to be—of Main Street, not Wall Street. Take a new and honest look at impediments to the American Dream. Figure out why people don’t feel so upwardly mobile anymore. Be for populism without the bitterness, and patriotism minus mindless nationalism. And show respect—more than that, protectiveness—toward the economic system that made America rich. Republicans always think everyone favors economic freedom. But an entire generation has risen since the crash of 2008. They’ve never even heard a defense of capitalism. They’ve never heard anyone speak well of it.
And think twice about your saviors. Those NeverTrump folks trying to take back authority within the party—having apparently decided recently not to start a third one—are the very people who made the current mess. They bought into open-borders ideology. They cooked up Iraq. They allied with big donors. They invented Sarah Palin, who as much as anyone ushered in the age of Trump. They detached the Republican Party from the people.
Republicans now should be trying to see the big picture and the true shape of things.
Don’t see your country through your ideological imaginings, see your country as it is. Recognize reality, respect it, and see what you can do with it, with an eye to trying to persuade. Bend when needed. Define and then defend essential principles. Say what you stand for and stand there proudly. See and speak clearly. Be an artist, not an economist.