Published February 4, 2021
In the original Star Trek series, there was an episode in which M-5, a revolutionary computer created by Dr. Richard Daystrom, is designed to handle all ship functions without human assistance.
It’s thought to be an impressive achievement—until M-5 takes total control over the USS Enterprise and begins to attack other Federation ships. Captain Kirk tells Daystrom to disengage the M-5 unit, but it proves to be impossible. M-5 has grown far more powerful and dangerous than anyone could have imagined; the crew scrambles to shut it down.
“Reverse thrusts will not engage, sir,” the chief engineer, Montgomery Scott, tells Kirk. “Manual override isn’t working either.” Mr. Spock, the first officer, chimes in: “No effect on any of the M-5 controls, Captain.” And then the chief medical officer, Leonard McCoy, utters this line: “Fantastic machine, the M-5. No off switch.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s insane conspiracy theory that his “landslide” election victory was stolen from him, in the aftermath of the violent siege on the Capitol, and with the arrival in the House of Representatives of a full-fledged QAnon supporter, Marjorie Taylor Greene, many Republicans are unnerved by how radicalized their party has become. After they spent nearly five years empowering and supporting Trump and Trumpism—at best, looking the other way; at worst, publicly defending Trump and cheering him on—it is belatedly dawning on more than a few Republicans that they risk being devoured by the forces they placed in control.
And they are discovering to their horror that there’s no off switch.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week that Greene’s embrace of “loony lies and conspiracy theories” is a “cancer for the Republican Party.”
McConnell is right, and I’m glad he spoke up. Yet for the entirety of the Trump presidency, with Trump peddling one loony lie and conspiracy theory after another, McConnell said and did nothing. And with a few exceptions, like Senator Mitt Romney, no one else said or did anything, either. They went along for the ride, some hoping to use Trump to advance policies they believed in, others gambling that sticking with Trump would enhance their power and the size of the party, and still others living in fear that anyone who stood up to Trump would be attacked and destroyed by him.
But a party that defended Trump’s every assault on decency and reality shouldn’t be surprised when someone like Greene—who not only has expressed support for the execution of Democratic leaders, but also has said the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings were “false flag” operations, the worst wildfire in California history was caused by a space laser that might have been funded by “Rothschild Inc.,” the Clintons had John F. Kennedy Jr. killed, and the former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered by MS-13, which Greene described as “the kind of henchmen of the Obama administration” (among other things)—ends up in Congress. (She easily won her primary with the support of key Republicans.) Nor should it surprise anyone that according to Greene, Trump, still the most popular figure in the Republican Party, called her on Saturday to express his backing. In her words, “I had a GREAT call with my all time favorite POTUS, President Trump! I’m so grateful for his support.”
So how did the Republican Party end up in this dark place?
It’s complex, but surely part of the explanation rests with the base of the party, which today is composed of a significant number of people who are militant, inflamed, and tribalistic. They are populist, anti-institutional, and filled with grievances. They very nearly view politics as the war of all against all. And in far too many cases, they have entered a world of make-believe. That doesn’t describe the whole of the Republican Party’s grassroots movement, of course, but it describes a disturbingly large portion of it, and Republicans who hope to rebuild the party will get nowhere unless and until they acknowledge this. (Why the base has become radicalized is itself a tangled story.)
The base’s movement toward extremism preceded Trump, and inevitably complicated life for Republican lawmakers; they were understandably wary of speaking out in ways that would alienate their supporters, that would catalyze a primary challenge and might well cost them a general election. But that fear and reticence in the age of Trump—a man willing to cross any line, violate any standard, dehumanize any opponent—produced a catastrophe. In some significant respects, the GOP is a party that has been morally inverted.
Consider: Liz Cheney, a loyal Republican and member of the GOP House leadership, voted to impeach Donald Trump for his role in inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol. Since that vote, there has been more outrage directed at her from the right-wing media ecosystem and local party activists than there has been over the crazed pronouncements of Marjorie Taylor Greene. “At home in Wyoming, the sense of betrayal [toward Cheney] among Republicans is burning hot at the moment,” Jeremy Peters of The New York Times reported. Cheney ultimately survived a vote to strip her of her leadership position on Wednesday night, 145–61. (That it was a secret ballot, which allowed House Republicans to vote for Cheney without having to go on record with their support, was undoubtedly one of the reasons the vote was so large in her favor.)
Republican lawmakers made a fundamental conceptual error in believing that their task was simply to reflect the views of their constituents, no matter how menacing, rather than, in the words of James Madison, to “refine and enlarge the public views” by passing them “through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”
A few years before Madison, across the Atlantic, Edmund Burke, in his speech to the electors of Bristol, acknowledged that a lawmaker ought to put great weight in the opinions of his constituents and prefer their interest to his own. “But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living,” Burke said. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Burke ended his speech by saying, “I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.”
Mature judgment, enlightened conscience, and the wisdom to discern the true interests of the country are not traits we saw from Republicans over the past half decade. Instead, they saw their role as flatterers, as seismographers whose job was to stay in the good graces of constituents, even when their constituents were allowing “unfriendly passions” to rule reason. They were afraid to speak truth to power, in this case to President Trump; but they were also afraid to speak truth to their constituents. They bet they could take the safer path for their careers and the nation and their party would escape the damage.
They bet wrong.
But the even more damaging error committed by Republicans (not all, but most) was prying apart politics from morality, viewing politics as simply a means to gain and hold power. It was power for its own sake that mattered—individual power, first and foremost, but also party power. If principles collided with power, the former gave way to the latter.
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.
I don’t know if Republicans are up to the task right now, and I certainly understand those who doubt it. But there are plenty of people willing to help them try.
Even if a significant part of the party’s base is not yet willing to let go of the ugliest and most toxic aspects of the American right, though, Republican lawmakers should still take a stand. Because there is honor in acting with integrity. Because it’s better to live within the truth than within a lie, even—no, especially—if the lie is dominant in your community, in your church, in your political party. And because it is never meaningless to strive in a good cause.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.