The anti-Trump holdouts in the Republican Party will cite at least one revelatory event during this convention—the bizarre benediction, Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech, Ben Carson’s insinuation that Hillary Clinton is a Satanist, a wild crowd (egged on by Chris Christie) calling for Clinton to be thrown in jail, and who knows what else—as the moment that crystallized the transformation of the party they once knew. At some level, it’s hard not to sympathize with that reaction. Trump’s rise, and the madness surrounding it, are genuinely distressing. But it’s also true that the chorus of denunciations misleadingly distances Trump from modern conservative politics. As former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner recently conceded, the “repulsive elements” in the GOP were “larger than I ever imagined,” and the party often “played to them.” Nonetheless, he argues, it is still possible for the party to reclaim the mantle of the Great Emancipator: “In every important respect, Donald Trump is a repudiation of Lincoln. Win or lose, on the morning after Election Day, Republicans will have to choose whose vision of the party they want to follow.”
Wehner’s plaintive invocation of Lincoln provides a good reason to revisit Jeffrey Stout’s recent Commonweal essay on the first Republican President’s political religion. Not so much a stance on theological matters as an attitude of reflective reverence for America’s system of laws, the lingering tension within Lincoln’s religion—relevant for us as well as for him—was its demand for fidelity to a system that nonetheless must also change. For Lincoln, this culminated in the crisis of slavery and secession, and the need to preserve a constitutional order that was fundamentally flawed and in need of transformation. Lincoln believed that freedom, as he understood it, was impossible without both “a just legal order and a virtuous citizenry.” In a time of social unrest over the question of slavery, he feared lawless mob violence and the possibility that it would lead to calls for a strongman. He came to advocate both “a fitting respect for law and a disposition to change whatever laws are at odds with liberty,” and saw that, in the context of American slavery, these imperatives were in tension.
The view that emerged from these reflections, writes Stout, is one of piety for the law—“a virtue and practice of acknowledged dependence, integrated with republican political ends and self-reliance.” A proper orientation toward the political system, then, acknowledges our debt while understanding the need for change:
In proposing the law as a suitable object of piety—as something on which we depend for our political existence and progress through history—Lincoln is not…presenting it as divine. Much as you can acknowledge your dependence on your parents without thinking them perfect, so too can we depend on laws that are often, in fact, alarmingly imperfect.
There is much in this mindset to distinguish Lincoln from his party’s current standard-bearer. Most obvious is his fear of the social chaos, mob violence, and strongman politics that are the constant subtext (at best) of Trumpism. But the recognition of the law’s potential and its shortcomings; the piety capable of acknowledging dependence without fetishizing the “original” constitution, and the corresponding willingness to change it; the general stance of humility and ambivalence—all of these are out of step, not only with the current nominee, but the wider movement that, at this moment, is largely rationalizing its decision to align itself with him. And Stout has a pointed rejoinder to the idea that, as Wehner puts it, other contemporary conservatives offer a “vision” that would return the GOP to the spirit of Lincoln. Lincoln understood liberty to mean “security against arbitrary power.” In contrast,
Contemporary American politicians like Senator Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan have a different notion of liberty. What these latter-day Republicans mean by it is not freedom from domination or tyranny, but from foreign and governmental interference. In this conception of liberty, which republicans long dismissed as mere license to do as you please, a free society is one with an army strong enough to protect its borders, a police force strong enough to protect the lives and property of its citizens—and a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. It holds that the fewer the constraints placed on citizens, the freer those citizens will be….
This is roughly the same notion of liberty that slaveholders deployed against Lincoln. Today it is being used to persuade us that members of the economic elite are not oligarchs using their power to abscond with the fruit of our labor and to defeat all political attempts to constrain them, but rather are overtaxed, excessively regulated individuals whose heroic creation of wealth funds the lives the rest of us lead, and to whom we should therefore bow in pious gratitude.
The impending coronation of the elite, gaudy Trump is, of course, not the kind of piety Lincoln himself had in mind. But as Stout shows, the voices that dominated the pre-Trump GOP were also a far cry from their party’s founding convictions. Maybe an anti-Trump conservative vanguard will regain control of the Republican Party. But whether that would restore the Party of Lincoln—the republican theorist of liberty, the advocate of federal power, the enemy of sectionalism and subordination—is a different matter entirely.