By Michael Gerson
One of the better speeches I helped produce for George W. Bush was never given. On election night 2000 — standing outside in the rain, at an Austin victory rally that never happened — I had the copy of a concession speech in my pocket. As I remember it, the first lines were: “I have just talked to my opponent, who is no longer my opponent. He is the president-elect of the United States.”
I had no doubt that then-Gov. George W. Bush would have delivered that speech if necessary. The 2000 presidential election was far closer than the one we just experienced — a slight electoral wind could have blown it either way. But Bush, had he lost, would have played by the rules and accepted the outcome, just as Vice President Al Gore eventually did. And how do I know that Bush would have done this? Because he is a man of character who would have put the good of the country ahead of his own interests when the moment called for it.
What America is now experiencing is a massive failure of character — a nationwide blackout of integrity — among elected Republicans. From the president, a graceless and deceptive insistence on victory after a loss that was not even close. From congressional Republicans, a broad willingness to conspire in President Trump’s lies and to slander the electoral system without consideration of the public good. Only a few have stood up against Republican peer pressure of contempt for the constitutional order.
How could such a thing happen in the GOP? It is not an aberration. It is the culmination of Trump’s influence among Republicans, and among White evangelical Christians in particular. Their main justification for supporting Trump — that the president’s character should be ignored in favor of his policies — has become a serious danger to the republic.
Trump never even presented the pretense of good character. His revolt against the establishment was always a revolt against the ethical ground rules by which the establishment played. When he mocked a reporter with a disability, or urged violence at his rallies, or attacked a Gold Star family, Republicans accepted it as part of the Trump package. And some of his most fervent defenses came from White evangelicals.
A group that was once seen as censorious became the least strict chaperone at Trump’s bacchanal. Under the president’s influence, White evangelicals went from the group most likely to believe personal morality matters in a politician to the group that is least likely. “We’re not electing a pastor in chief,” explained Jerry Falwell Jr., the former president of Liberty University. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, argued that “outward policies” should matter more than “personal piety.” Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition made his case for Trump’s reelection based on conservative deliverables. “There has never been anyone,” Reed said, “who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump.”
This is politics at its most transactional. Trump was being hired by evangelicals to do a job — to defend their institutions, implement pro-life policies and appoint conservative judges. The character of the president was irrelevant so long as he kept his part of the bargain. Which Trump largely did.
But now we know what a president without character looks like in the midst of a governing crisis. We see a dishonest president, spinning lie after lie about the electoral system. A selfish president, incapable of preferring any duty above his own narrow interests. A reckless president, undermining the transition between administrations and exposing the country to risk. A vain president, unable to responsibly process an electoral loss. A corrupt president, willing to abuse federal power to serve his own ends. A spiteful president, taking revenge against officials who have resisted him. A faithless president, indifferent to constitutional principles and his oath of office.
Two lessons can be drawn from the Republican failure of moral judgment. First, democracy is an inherently moral enterprise. Yes, politics has a transactional element. But those transactions take place within a system of rules that depend on voluntary obedience. Our electoral system and our presidential transition process have flaws and holes that an unprincipled leader can exploit. Which is a good reason to prefer principled leaders.
And second, U.S. politics would be better off if White evangelicals consistently applied their moral tradition to public life. Not only Christians, of course, can stand for integrity. But consider what would happen if White evangelicals insisted on supporting honest, compassionate, decent, civil, self-controlled men and women for office. The alternative is our current reality, in which evangelicals have often been a malicious and malignant influence in U.S. politics.
This is what a purely transactional politics has actually delivered — a lawless leader resisting a rightful electoral outcome. The only adequate response, as President-elect Joe Biden seems to realize, is a politics of character.