David Frum: The raw desperation of the Republican party
I’m not naive. Having spent my entire professional life in politics, I understand what it entails: the give-and-take; the balancing of ends and means; the fact that much of governing is prosaic, not involving matters of great moral import. I also understand human nature, how our motives are always tainted and never completely pure, and how rare a virtue courage is. Politics is a profession composed of flawed and fallen human beings, as all professions are. It is the by-product of living in a fallen world.
But there is a different, higher view of politics with which Republicans should acquaint themselves. Few have articulated this view as beautifully as the Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel, who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and of the newly created Czech Republic in 1993.
In Summer Meditations, his first book as president, Havel offered the perspective of a person who, as a dissident, championed high ideals and principles but, as a practitioner of politics, faced the immensely difficult task of putting those ideals and principles into practice. The question he wrestled with is whether there was room for morality and simple decency in politics. Did his ideals, forged through decades of brave opposition to totalitarianism, have a place in public life?
Havel readily acknowledged the challenges posed by what he called “practical politics,” but he answered that question unequivocally in the affirmative. “It is my responsibility to emphasize, again and again, the moral origin of all genuine politics, to stress the significance of moral values and standards in all spheres of social life, including economics, and to explain that if we don’t try, within ourselves, to discover or rediscover or cultivate what I call ‘higher responsibility,’ things will turn out very badly indeed for our country.”
He went on to say, “It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics; such people, it is true, are drawn to politics, but, in the end, decorum and good taste will always count for more. My experience and observations confirm that politics as the practice of morality is possible.”
Havel added this: “So anyone who claims that I am a dreamer who expects to transform hell into heaven is wrong. I have few illusions. But I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to change certain things for the better, or not at all. Both outcomes are possible. There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.”
Republicans can’t erase the past four years; with rare exceptions they were, to varying degrees, complicit in the Trump legacy—the lies, the lawlessness, the brutality of our politics, the wounds to our country. But there is the opportunity for Republicans in a post-Trump era to forge a different path, one that again places morality at the center of politics. Republicans can choose to live within the truth rather than within the lie, to stand for simple decency, to play a role in building a state that is reasonably humane and just. This starts with its political leadership, which needs to break some terribly bad habits, including thinking one thing and saying another. It starts with the courage to confront the maliciousness in its ranks rather than cater to it.