For an instant, it looked as if George W. Bush might be an example of integrity all who believe in liberal democracy could grudgingly admire. Last week, he announced his anguish at the police killing of George Floyd. ‘America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity,’ Bush explained. But African-Americans remained harassed and threatened in their own country.
‘There is a better way,’ Bush sighed as he rose to his peroration. ‘The way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.’
And then he went and spoilt it all by stopping right there.
The only option for Americans who want ‘a better way’ is to vote to remove Donald Trump and install Joe Biden. Not remove Trump and elect a conservative, who would not preside over the deaths of tens upon tens of thousands, and boast about his TV ratings as he did it. Or a conservative who would not provoke the military to declare that they were defenders of the constitution, not his private army. Or a conservative who did not use office for his own and his family’s private gain. Or a conservative who did not inflame racial divisions at a moment of social crisis.
Such a conservative is not on offer. Republicans who wish to stop the corruption and dereliction of the American state must vote for Biden and tell everyone who respects them to vote for Biden too.
They give no indication that they will. ‘People familiar with their thinking’ told the New York Times at the weekend that George Bush won’t support the re-election of Trump. Will he back Biden? Even ‘people familiar with his thinking’ don’t know.
As for Jeb Bush, they explained that he isn’t sure how he’ll vote, an indecisiveness which can stand as an epitaph for his career. Further inquiries revealed that senator Mitt Romney of Utah won’t back Trump, and is deliberating on whether to write in his wife’s name on the ballot, a gesture somewhere between the ridiculous and the insulting.
Cindy McCain, the widow of senator John McCain, is almost certain to support Biden but is worried about going public. Meanwhile former Republican speakers for the House of Representatives, Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner are staying silent, and there is talk elsewhere of conservatives soothing their consciences by backing a third-party candidate.
You can understand their agonies. How can they campaign for a Democrat from the hated libtard left? What will happen to their friendships and their reputation in a Republican party where they have spent their lives? The psychological effect of culture wars is to make seeing a glimmer of goodness in the other side a kind of sin. Voting for the other side and telling others to vote for the other side would be an open declaration of heresy.
In 2016 when ‘moderate’ conservatives briefly opposed Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, they assumed that he would never win. Now Trump is the incumbent president. If Biden replaces him, he will be able to exploit the cronyism the American system of government allows, and stuff the civil service and judiciary with Democrats. He could raise taxes on the rich, insist on tougher regulation, rebuild central government, and make all their nightmares real.
After sympathising with their predicament, you must adopt the kindest tone of voice you can manage, tell them to grow up and get real. It is frivolous, in the most damning meaning of that word, to oppose Trump and not support Biden. Bush and all those like him look like they are trying to have it both ways. They want the moral approbation that comes with giving coded warnings about a dangerous narcissist but are not prepared to take on the opprobrium the necessary struggle to remove him from office would bring.
The authoritarian turn of the 21st century has produced a small library of work on how to prevent the collapse of democracy. One of its conclusions is that, when all else has failed, when the demagogue controls the party and gives every indication that he will use the state to attack the media, judiciary and public service, mainstream politicians must form alliances to defeat extremism. They must join with opponents who, whatever else they disagree on, share a commitment to the democratic order.
Cross-party alliances are not as hard to imagine as the jaundiced might think. In their study How Democracies Die the American academics Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt tell the forgotten stories of conservative and Catholic politicians who took on the interwar fascists in Belgium and Finland. First, they expelled Nazi sympathisers from their parties, and then united with democratic socialists rather than allowing fascist parties into power. A readiness to fight ‘your side’ is not confined to the history books. After the conservative presidential candidate François Fillon was knocked out of the 2017 French election, he told his supporters to vote for Macron, rather than let the far right Marine Le Pen take power.
US conservatives should count themselves lucky that Biden is available to support. In Britain in 2019, the choice was between the nationalism of Johnson and the post-communism of Corbyn, and there was no way out for the country. If they still feel the urge to bite their tongues, they should consider the fate of the ‘Never Trump’ movement of 2016. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, and well practically every conservative politician you can name denounced Trump at first. He was ‘utterly amoral’ and a ‘pathological liar,’ as Cruz accurately observed at the time. Then, when it was clear he was going to win, nearly every last one them grovelled before their new master.
Their motives varied: a desire to hang on to their jobs in Republican politics of conservative think tanks and media, a love of the warm feelings of self-importance proximity to power brings, a hatred of the left, and the transgressive thrill of realising that Trump was allowing them to break the old rules and not be punished. There was only one consequence, however: they normalised Trump. They made 2016 look like just another election where conservatives had to line up behind the Republican standard as they always had done.
Fillon’s warning that ‘extremism can bring only misery and division to France’ helped defeat the Front National. About half of his voters went to Macron. US conservatives didn’t tell their followers the truth about Trump when truth telling would have made a difference. George W. Bush and all those like him, might have said words to the effect of: ‘Donald Trump is a danger to American democracy. I’m not asking you to waste your time with a protest vote or to sit on your hands at home. It is time to put country before party. The future of America is at stake and the only way to save it is to vote Democrat.’
They didn’t have the strength of character to say it in 2016. Will they find it in 2020?
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