Did George W. Bush read my book?
On October 19, at the ‘Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World’ event in NYC he delivered an ill-disguised rebuke of Trumpism in which he said: “At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.” That resonates with me. In my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’, I wrote: “The core of my disenchantment with America, as it functions today, is in the fact that the forces that pull America apart seem to have overwhelmed the forces that bind America together.” It was more than three years ago that I wrote these words, well before the surprising rise and coronation of Donald Trump, and it only has gotten worse. At the time of writing my book, I was hopeful that dissatisfaction with gridlock in Washington DC would open up an avenue for moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats to take control of the agenda of the Congress, if not by the creation of a centrist third party, then by an informal coalition for legislative action on the most pressing issues of our time: the increasing inequality, healthcare reform, immigration reform, tax reform, debt reduction and infrastructure renewal. That hope seems to have dissipated, turned into a pipe-dream, for now.
We are witnessing a period of the quickly disappearing middle of the road. Not only in the United States, but also in Europe. The question is if this is a temporary phenomenon or a precursor of things to come. In the United States, we may get some clarity with the mid-term election in November of 2018, which almost certainly will turn into a referendum on Trumpism versus the establishment. Of course, that election will be a traditional battle between Republicans and Democrats and a battle for control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, but more tellingly it will shed light on what brand of Republican and what brand of Democrat will prevail. Establishment candidates for re-election will find themselves confronted with unprecedented primary challenges, mainstream Democrats from the far left, mainstream Republicans from the far right and from populist candidates in the vein of our current President. After this primary tussle for the soul of republicanism and democratism has been decided, and assuming that it will result in a defeat for the establishment, the voters will then have to signal if they think this movement to the extremes is going to have their support or rejection. The mid-term election will be the first clash in this battle. The 2020 Presidential race will, two years later, either confirm a trend that started with the 2016 surprise, or become the turning point back to traditionalism or normalcy. After all, changes in the political arena of our country are still only forged at the ballot box. We have no choice but to go through the contest of finding out if the middle road, the center, is or is not where America is at this juncture.
It is evident that not all Americans see the disappearing center in politics as a threat and a loss. Particularly the populist faction of the Republican Party (and populists outside of the party) led by Steve Bannon are tirelessly working on the demise of whatever remains of the center. They see compromise in politics as treason and strive for unmitigated hegemony. American leadership, for them, equates to imposing its will and its narrow view on the rest of the world rather than sharing our values and ideals with the world by leading by example.
John McCain, a rare remaining representative of the political center willing to speak up against the populist tide, in the speech with which he accepted the Liberty Medal Award, reminded us of what is at stake with the abandonment of the Western liberal order, created by the United States in the aftermath of the second world war: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to”.
Some divisions require dialogue, reaching across the great divide, and, ultimately, compromise. But outright repudiation of America’s ageless ideals and values deserves only resistance, an uncompromising stand against the corruption of everything this nation has stood for from its inception. We are beginning to see a movement in that direction developing. But only slowly, late and hesitantly. And the voice of alarm appears to come nearly exclusively from the media, the political opposition, and, on the Republican side, the departed or the departing. George Bush speaks out, but is a voice from the past. John McCain speaks out, but he knows that his days are numbered as he has just started serving his last term in the Senate. Bob Corker speaks out, but only after deciding not to run for re-election in 2018. Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, we need to hear this voice of resistance and for the soul of the Republican Party develop into a chorus, a crescendo that invites Americans to join in, like they join in when asked to sing the national anthem, God Bless America or America the beautiful.
America needs an unapologetic return to the center, the middle of the road. It will only get there by an unambiguous repudiation of Trumpism, Bannonism and populism in general at the voting booth. It will require charismatic and principled new leadership on both sides of the aisle willing to put the country ahead of its political ambitions. Only after the void at the center has been recaptured can Congress begin to seriously address the causes of the current discontent that has split America apart.