As part of the ND Humanities Game Changer Ideas Festival, ND Representative Nicole Poolman hosted a discussion with Peter Wehner, author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump”. The discussion was held via Zoom on February 4, at 4 p.m. The focus of the Game Changer series this year is focused on the issues and aftermath of the 2020 election.
Wehner is a lifelong Christian and Republican. He has served in three Republican administrations: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Wehner has been a critic of the Trump era from the beginning. Wehner addressed what gave rise to Trump and Trumpism, faith and politics, and where we go from here.
The popularity of Trump was a manifestation of currents that were in motion long before Trump entered politics. The enormous demographic changes taking place in the country – more diversity, fewer Christians, cultural changes in human sexuality – created an unsettled feeling in the country. Legal immigration was up. There was economic anxiety, flat wages, unequal prosperity, and fear that kids would not have as good a life as their parents. The ideological polarization and purification of the two parties had been going on for decades. There was less ability to compromise and a distrust of the political class. The Republican Party got caught up with a lot of grievances and fear of what would happen if they lost power.
Donald Trump took advantage of all of these things. Trump had a capacity to home in on cultural hot button issues. He had the ability to speak in ways that inflame people, divide people, and yet create deep loyalty. Some Republicans’ loyalty to Trump exceeds the loyalty we saw to Reagan.
Wehner does not believe that faith and politics should never intersect. Politics is primarily and fundamentally about justice. There are great moral causes at stake, and politics has something to say about that. People of faith care about life in this world. Wehner is equally wary of how faith can derail politics and how faith itself can get derailed by the temptations of power. The cross itself is the antithesis of political power. He feels the most easily seduced people in politics are the people of Christian faith.
Often Christians get involved in politics for good causes. They get power or close to people in power to effect change. Then you make deals and compromises to stay attached to people in power. The danger is when the people of power go wrong and people of faith go silent. Another danger is people can take predispositions and baptize them with faith. They think since they are a person of faith, they know what God wants. They lose their critical distance. Christians should stand in judgement of all political parties and all political ideologies and be beholding to none. There is no question that faith animated the founding of the country. All of the founding fathers spoke quite glowingly of faith in a free republic and that you must have a moral citizenry at its heart.
There is a chapter on Words in Wehner’s book. Words can unite us or divide us, and Trump took that to a whole new level. Wehner related a story about a discussion with fellow author Bob Woodward. Woodward was reaching out to key people in 2016 when Trump was close to winning the nomination. Wehner stated to Woodward that the key to understanding Trump is that he is psychologically and emotionally unwell. It’s not like dealing with other people. It’s not how the rest of us operate. Wehner felt Trump took a psychic satisfaction and delight in division and had an unerring instinct to be able to zero in on the fault lines of American society. Later he learned that if Trump was not in the news, it unsettled him deeply, and he easily found ways to get in the news via Twitter.
Social media has changed the way we think, and we do not realize how profound those changes are. Data is coming in on the iPhone generation. Human interaction is being replaced by phones, texting, and various platforms, and it is worrisome. You treat people better when it is face-to-face. Social media is not a disaster in itself, but it has made politics more contentious, and we haven’t figured out how to deal with it yet. Foreign countries use social media to create doubt about our own institutions.
So where do we go from here, what is to become of the Republican Party? That will be answered in the coming months and years. To look at a historical example, the Labor party in Britain was completely radicalized in the 1970’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. They never got more than 40% of the vote. Tony Blair transformed the party by signaling a new construct - serious, not radical. It takes people, a story, and a narrative that makes people feel like they want to be part of it, part of a moral enterprise, to effect change and transform a political party.
President Biden has turned the political temperature down. It is good to have a president who is not antagonizing and dividing the country, even if you disagree with some of the things he proposes. The country has seen what happens when you strip politics of things like decency, basic humanity, honor, and integrity. Things can get pretty ugly. We need to incentivize those markers of character.
Poolman and Wehner finished the discussion with answering questions from viewers. The Game Changers Ideas Festival is free and open to the public. For more information and to register for ND Humanities Game Changer online events, visit www.humanitiesnd.org and click on Events.