In remarkable speeches this week, two members of what skeptics like to call the ”Republican establishment” took on President Donald Trump and his brand of nationalist populism. Neither man mentioned the president by name, but their criticisms were unmistakable. Speaking in Philadelphia, where he received a Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, Sen. John McCain said of the current president’s policies, “To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Former President George W. Bush, speaking on Thursday, followed suit: “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” he warned. “We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. … We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” Bush has been reluctant to take center stage since leaving office more than eight years ago, withholding criticism from his Democratic successor, President Barack Obama, even when the latter did not return the favor by calling out the Bush administration in his first inaugural address for “greed and irresponsibility.” But apparently, Bush felt compelled to say something now, perhaps because he sees President Trump as destroying the Republican Party, as well as harming the country.
Trump is an expert at branding; it is the thing he did best as a private businessman. He made his millions mostly by selling his eponymous brand, putting his name on garish casinos, gilded condominium buildings and lush golf courses around the world. The brand stood for glitz and glamour, a reflection of Trump’s outsize persona, not necessarily good taste or high quality. Trump has now branded the Republican Party — and a lot of men and women who have spent their lives building and supporting the GOP, including McCain and Bush, don’t like the Trump makeover. To dismiss their criticisms as the establishment’s trying to hold on to power misses the point.
Political parties change. The Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy in 1960 was not the same party as it had become by 1972, when George McGovern won its presidential nomination. The former supported tax cuts and opposed communism; the latter believed that the communist threat was overblown and that government should redistribute wealth by taxing and spending more. Nor is the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan the party of Donald Trump. Their styles couldn’t be more different, but more importantly, Reagan promoted the very principles and ideals McCain and Bush spoke of.
I cannot imagine President Reagan demonizing immigrants and threatening to build a wall or putting family members in choice West Wing space and assigning them portfolios for which they had no experience or expertise as Trump has. During my tenure in the Reagan West Wing, I once locked horns on policy with President Reagan’s daughter Maureen, who held no formal position and whose views were very different from her father’s. Maureen called and yelled a lot, but the White House came down on my side, opposing a resolution that favored comparable worth at an international women’s conference in Kenya. Reagan’s political loyalty was to ideas, no matter how much he loved family members.
And Reagan’s ideas were a far cry from Trump’s. The GOP of Donald Trump will be forever branded as nativist and protectionist, like some gated community more interested in excluding than expanding. If “establishment” means being respectful, behaving with decorum, honoring tradition and upholding principle, count me alongside President Bush and Sen. McCain, and I suspect a lot more Reagan Republicans feel the same. What will emerge from the Republican Party after Trump is unpredictable. But such voices as those of Bush, McCain and others — notably Sens. Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake — don’t represent the past so much as they do the future if the GOP is to survive.
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