Opinion: Closing of the Republican mind

Saladin Ambar | February 17, 2021 | Opinion, Politics
Trumpism is is not, and cannot be, a political philosophy — nor an escape from sound argument
Saladin Ambar

With former President Donald Trump acquitted by a 57-43 vote in the United States Senate — the most lopsided in American history — I thought I’d review how New Jersey’s congressional delegation voted on impeachment. It was Valentine’s Day eve, and this constituted a robust night out for a professor accustomed to Zoom as a form of professional, if not personal, contact. It was a disappointing night in. The New Jersey delegation voted unsurprisingly along party lines: 10 Democrats voted to impeach, and the Garden State’s two Republicans were opposed. What was striking however, were the arguments against impeachment.

“We fractured our nation using the same process before,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew said. “Congress must be the glue that starts unifying everyone. By the time this process would conclude the man they want out of office will no longer even be the president. If we want unity this is not the way.” Rep. Chris Smith’s statement was barely more persuasive. “Our nation is in desperate need of unity and civility as it prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Biden,” he said. “Impeachment of President Trump — without a thorough analysis of the facts which takes time, effort and serious scrutiny to establish — will not in any way help to heal a divided America.”

So in the aftermath of this fourth national impeachment saga, we have the two leading GOP arguments against the only constitutional remedy for Trump’s actions: There isn’t enough time, and it is too divisive for the country. I was hoping New Jersey Republicans would offer a better, if not ultimately more plausible, rationale than the one presented by their colleagues across the country. This hope, however misplaced, was the result of the healthy respect I have for the best of conservative political thought. Like many college freshmen in 1987, I was exposed to Allan Bloom’s book, “The Closing of the American Mind.”

Bloom’s book was a kind of bomb in the American academy. Elegantly written, it was nevertheless a screed against liberal education that had lost its sense of values and facts.

Missing moral compass

This is how Bloom’s book begins: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” From there, Bloom went on to argue against a culture that had lost the ability to make judgments — and moral ones at that — on difficult questions. Moreover, Bloom warned that such intellectual relativism would lead to not only the softening, but also the “closing” of our collective minds.

Well, here we are. Or perhaps I should say, here they are. The conservative tradition has had many faces in America, but it has not been until recent years, that it has completely abdicated (save for a handful of principled figures) reason, virtue and sophisticated argument. Progressives who’ve found themselves over the years looking south to find instances of simple-minded political thinking to cast aspersions on, might be reminded that a Mormon conservative from Utah (Mitt Romney), along with one Christian evangelical (Bill Cassidy-LA) and one Methodist (Richard Burr-NC), represented half the Republican Party’s support for removal from office. The South trumped South Jersey, ironically enough.

Appeals to procedure (not enough time!) and the passions (this feels hurtful!) were not the province of Bloom’s approach to tackling difficult problems. Nor should they be. Members of Congress were tasked with addressing whether or not the president of the United States was responsible for instigating, inspiring and leading an insurrection against the United States of America. The severity of the charge required one of two things: a probing consideration worthy of the question at hand that produced a reasonable justification for an acquittal or one that led to impeachment and removal. Failing to address the question head-on, invoking feelings, and appeals to “unity” and other forms of misdirection are unworthy of the best Americans can expect from their representatives in such a grave constitutional moment.

The truth is, the American mind isn’t closed, but the right side of the brain has very much gone into a state of somnambulance. Wide-eyed 17-year-olds like me, who encountered Bloom in the Reagan era, may have thought his arrows were aimed at the wrong problems in American society, but his notions of virtue, moral clarity and reason were never truly the subject of derision by his academic interlocutors. We are a great distance removed from the kind of conservatism Bloom inspired. With the Senate’s failure to convict, we are left with personalist leadership on the right side of our politics. Trumpism is a faith, a zealotry of ignorance and will to power. It is not, and cannot be, a political philosophy, nor an escape from sound argument. The thing that we need to fear being fractured, as Van Drew argues, isn’t our nation. It is our minds.

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