I was in the original base. Here’s what’s next post Trump.
Sustainability was my light in the ‘90s. The country’s today? You.
The grass helped. It was soft and just the right bit of moist. When it caressed between the toes, it was particularly satisfying. Looking back, I was like Richard Gere in the barefoot-on-the-grass scene in Pretty Woman. Except this was 1981. The movie came later, and Gere was reflecting on a positive transition in his life.
I walked, it seemed, for miles down Grant Park, though not really. It wasn’t all that long before I sat on a bench facing the vastness of Lake Michigan. And brooded.
I had just taken the Army entrance test at the downtown center. Passed four components stellarly. But failed one, pulmonary. I’m asthmatic, not good for desert-sand and cold-weather combat. And that was it. I couldn’t join.
Not that I wanted to defend the country in the traditional sense. That’s why my dad and brother joined, the first in the ’50s, David in the ’90s. Not me. My plan — or should I say plot — was different.
The genesis was a series of books I read excitedly in ’78 and ’79. A Time for Truth by William Simon, Looking Out for #1 by Robert Ringer, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I became a raving adherent of the Austrian School of Economics (Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt) and the Chicago School of Economics (George Stigler, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell).
At the heart of progress, says this worldview, is the entrepreneur, the hero who risks it all and pours his/her soul into realizing dreams and building wealth, and whose success spreads across society to help others build theirs. When a capitalist is enlightened, as opposed to the indifferent or malicious variety, business is conducted with care for people and planet — the invisible hand with a heart, as it were, the original vision of Adam Smith. The role of government is to facilitate and get out of the way, not to enact needless taxes and regulations that distort incentives to invest and work.
My conservative mission was therefore clear: to pursue the common good by removing those obstacles and reopening paths of freedom. I wanted to become a business journalist to tell these heroic stories and whistleblow excessive state overreach.
The right is full of people animated by different things. This was mine, and it loomed oh so large.
When my freshman year at Tulane University began (September 1980), I was all in. By month’s end, I had joined the College Republicans and pushed my way into the #2 spot, ready to get out the vote for Ronald Reagan, and did we ever, ignited by a huge New Orleans rally where the candidate himself called on us to dig deep, keep our eyes on the revolution, and go to war.
Sounds familiar, right? He looked fantastic that day, with his beige suit, snappy Gipper wave, aw-shucks smile and super spot-on message, as I’m sure Trump looked to many idealistic 18-year-olds in 2016 and 2020.
The election over, a couple of CR buddies and I decided to take it one huge step further. Yes, Reagan was a major advance, but we knew that alone would prove insufficient. Far too many obstacles had been placed on the path to progress, and the country was too divided, the left too strong, to remove them anytime soon. We’d be stalemated for decades.
The only way to ensure the revolution’s success would be to impose it on the country. There was no room for the typical political bargaining that had gotten us where we were.
I was studying Latin American Affairs and knew the ways of coups and juntas. Surely we can do that here, I felt. So we hatched a plan. John would join the Navy and rise through the ranks. Max would do the same in the Air Force. Me? In the Army.
Could the country wait the 20 years that would take? We hoped so, but weren’t sure. The crisis was existential. There was no time to waste.
If we start in ’78, I was a member of the cult nearly 20 years. The country did not, in fact, collapse. And the conservative revolution did, actually, progress. With stalemate and gridlock, yes. Far more slowly than we wanted, of course. The military path, I learned, would not have worked anyway. A crazy figment of youthful vigor and blind excitement, it turned out. I did make peace with my lungs in the end.
The movement got its second biggest boost when Republicans swept into congressional power in the 1994 midterm elections in hot pursuit of the Contract With America, the Newt Gingrich creation that took Reaganism several notches higher, installed Newt as Speaker of the House, and turned conservatism into a cultural tsunami.
That’s when I left. To the left. In a turbulent swirl of facts and conscience, I discovered the beauty of modern, progressive liberalism and switched sides.
I have followed the evolution of conservatism since, how it led to the insurgence and intransigence of the Tea Party, the rekindling of white supremacy, and the obstructionist Party of No during the Obama administration. More recently, it has been puzzling to see 90% of Republicans stick to Donald Trump through his every moral, constitutional, legal and national-security transgression.
And then this. Last week’s election. Trump not only defied polls that predicted a 400 electoral count landslide against him. Oh, no. He didn’t just come close. The man responsible for about half of the 230,000 COVID deaths, on top of everything else, went on to command more than 47% of the vote. An astonishing 71 million people wanted to see him win.
Like everyone in the American center and left, I was stunned. WTF just happened here? And then it hit me. But of course! I was there. I witnessed and partook in the birth of what would become the rabid, unshakable Republican base of the Trump era.
Sure, there were significant differences. The focus then was fundamentally economic, role-of-government stuff. The Reagan era was not driven by wings of supremacy and nativist isolationism. Respect for truth and norms remained high. Reagan was a decent, honorable man.
But still, we culted. Still, we felt disdain for the other side. We were convinced the battle was existential, that America would be over soon if we didn’t prevail. It did become a crusade.
To say the Reagan-Gingrich era set the stage is not news. Along with everyone else, I too have read the scholarly essays making that case. Intellectually, we’ve known. But not until now had I made the crucial connection with my own journey, where we can see the raw crux of it, the vision and passion animating the movement, the willingness to do, literally do, whatever it takes to win, today unconstrained by any limits or principles set by the Constitution, science and truth.
The reasoning that persuaded me and my Tulane friends to create a rebellious military cell has become the central driving force of the entire Republican movement.
Trump will be gone from the White House in a little over two months, but the base will endure, endlessly excited by the news and social-media echo chamber that feeds the alternative facts, conspiracy theories, confirmation bias, and propaganda that fire them up, combined with some measure of legitimate ideology. Republican leaders who know better will continue to pander, place career over country, and remain silent. New Newts, full members of the cult, will rise in Congress and state governments alike.
“Trump’s America and the post-American society that the anti-Trump coalition represents are incapable of coexisting. One will simply defeat the other. There is no room for compromise. Trump has understood this perfectly since day one.”
Incapable of coexisting. No room for compromise. Back then, that moved me. Right now, it frightens the heck out of me. Because I know how far today’s cult is willing to go. But for Trump’s psychological, narcissistic dumbness, he clearly would have won this election, and we would be on our way.
To the abyss.
I’ve wondered many times these last four years how I’d feel, where I’d stand, had I remained a Republican. Certainly with the Lincoln Project or one (or more) of the other anyone-but-Trump groups. But above all, I’m simply glad to be on the other side. On the right side of history.
In my case, the transformation began with the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I covered the event from my beat desk at Caribbean Business newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Global warming, I learned, threatened the planet far more than any political gridlock. It is, indeed, the final and ultimate threat to the economy, to those dreams, to that prosperity, and everything in between.
The Austrians and Chicagoans never did factor in this sort of externality very well. The market, they argued, would compensate for it just like it presumably fixes everything else. Which of course it doesn’t. Market failures are a thing, this being the mother of them all.
If carbon emissions and the rise in global temperatures continue their fateful march undeterred, I quickly learned, the day would come — today estimated at this very decade — when extreme climate catastrophe would spiral exponentially out of control, worse by the year, unstoppable, irreversible.
Rio thus enshrined the goal of sustainable development in our daily lexicon, business and governing priorities, and news coverage. For me at the time, it became a parallel life mission. I tried for about five years to reconcile it with the other one, but not to be. In the U.S., Democrats were and are the ones with the conviction and the answers, as were/are their counterparts around the world.
And it wasn’t just climate change. Economic prosperity, systemic justice, freedom itself, all stem from the same seminal nexus. Humanity and a just economy are by nature inclusive and consensual and can never be imposed. A small size and role of government is not tautological, suitable in all conditions. Given a smart social contract, government can and must be sized correctly and used with efficiency to pursue the common good, which can be defined and agreed upon with participatory, constitutional, data-based means. My old conservative friends and mentors, as do today’s, got this all wrong.
Climate change is the world’s clearest and most pressing, truly existential example. From 1992 to 2010, I joined the global army of journalists, writers, activists, and business people trying to get this right by innovating and promoting all kinds of sustainability solutions to stem the temperature rise and conserve whatever resources we still could.
The failure of the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen broke the momentum, and I then joined a small but fast-growing number of others who realized the world would likely not prevent the catastrophic temperature overshoot as a result, and we turned to the innovation and promotion of climate adaptation — in my case focused on the role of business, while others address the public front.
In my journey, sustainability did the trick and got me out of that earlier iteration of the Republican base. In the country’s journey, we see how this layer of climate peril lives alongside the one created by America’s profound political schism. But worse, because they just don’t live side by side. The climate crisis is severely compounded by the political crisis, which makes understanding this year’s election and its aftermath all the more vital.
The fact Joe Biden won by such a narrow margin is the first source of concern. And not just because of what it says about the Republican base and how far it’s willing to go.
This election speaks to a more fundamental nature of America, a point I made in this story right after the 2016 election and Roxane Gay made in this one last week. The wonders of our 18th century founding remain with us, but so do the devils of our 17th century past.
The Martin Luther King long arc of history Barack Obama is fond of quoting is still arching toward a more perfect union, but damn, this is one slow freaking pace.
For now, though, we allow ourselves to cheer, because we know at the very least, even if Mitch McConnell holds on to majority Republican control of the Senate and impedes much of Biden’s progressive legislative agenda, deep and important change is coming.
Science and truth are back in charge. Our government will no longer run on conspiracy theories. Authoritarianism and criminal corruption are out, and democratic constitutionalism is in, as are honor, trust, compassion, principle and respect — here at home and in the country’s foreign policy.
The U.S. will no longer be under Russian influence, nor defenseless in the face of cyber warfare and election interference. We will rebuild foreign alliances and make America once again a beacon of hope around the world, while addressing COVID, healthcare, guns, inequality, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration, education, systemic racism, the technology revolution, even the budget deficit, here at home. And, naturally, extreme climate, the most local/global imperative of all.
Biden’s empathy superpower will heal us. Kamala’s inclusiveness and powerful womanness will lift us. Their experience and management prowess ensure reliable competence, which will inspire us.
No matter which way the Senate goes, the White House can get much done, in alliance with friendly cities, states and companies. But why not go for more, right? So here’s to Georgia’s two Senate runoffs in January going Dem.
Did somebody say heal? To be sure, all of this will contribute. But it takes two. It takes a village. And we ain’t got one. Read that Gingrich no-coexistence, no-compromise quote again. The Republican base, and by consequence the party leadership, is out to displace and impose. That is their nature.
And more so today, with additional right-wing motivations in the mix, the ones that weren’t a big influence in the ’80s and that therefore sideswiped me as much as anyone in today’s iteration of the base. The white supremacists, ethnic nativists, isolationists, religious fundamentalists, and others.
Trump reawakened these dormant, forever-American instincts, the ones we had read about in history books, and he gave them a voice. Today, they’re not about to retreat as they did following the civil rights advances and social reforms of the 1960s and ‘70s.
A movement is already rising to bring Trump back in 2024 and keep him vocal and rowdy between now and then. He will keep that fire aflame in the same news and social-media echo chamber and organizational ecosystem. Sorry to break it to you, but there will be no healing. There will be no peace.
He is, though, unlikely to flame the blaze a free man, not if the new Attorney General does his/her job. Others will have to fill the vacuum, as surely many will.
Trump and his cohorts committed heinous, treasonous crimes and leave behind a long trail of evidence and a heck of a lot of prosecutors who want nothing more than to make the rule of law once again mean something by doing what they do best: ensuring no one is above the law and making criminals pay, a move Biden has already signaled he will allow.
Indeed, any attempt by the new president to block the Justice Department, arguing that prosecutions will hurt healing, will amount to precisely the sort of White House meddling we judged corrosive under Trump. So by all means, let the prosecution and jailing begin.
The four clearest cases sure to move quickly are Russia, Ukraine, the Cohen campaign-finance conspiracy, and the New York State tax-fraud investigation. Mueller fizzled under the weight of Bill Barr, the Trump spin, and Republican enabling, but he left all the evidence needed, ready for immediate indictments and arrests. So did the Ukraine impeachment. Cohen already went to prison; Trump and others at the Trump Organization are likely not far behind. And NY is ready, unburdened by any self-pardon that might delay, not prevent, federal justice.
So Biden’s mission is clear: pursue whatever healing, legislation, COVID resolution, economic recovery, sound foreign policy, and climate salvation he can muster, and leave the legal dramas to the DOJ, with Congress doing its thing on both fronts (policy and law). Indeed, Adam Schiff says he’s been readying a slate of reforms to make sure Trump’s most egregious constitutional and national-security incursions are never successful again.
Then, here’s hoping the results earn Democrats vital seats in the Senate and House in 2022 plus reelection and additional gains in four years.
Were that the scenario, our new president will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest. Don’t hold your breath, though. When we look at this 40-year trajectory as the struggle it is and has been, it is easy to see that we’re just getting started.
But hey, “started” implies a long game, not a lost cause. As Obama reminds us frequently, let’s stay with it, remain vigilant and engaged, whether this takes 20 years or another 200 — actually, whatever time climate change grants us. Franklin did say it’s up to us as citizens to keep the republic. The ultimate outcome is in your hands. In our hands.
And may I suggest, a barefoot walk on the grass every so often will help get you through.