A prominent conservative critic of President Trump argues in a new book that the destructive style of the real estate tycoon turned politician is a threat to democracy.
Peter Wehner writes in his new book — “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump” — that the president’s relentless record of lying and inaccurate statements is intended to sow confusion and instability. He cites a Washington Post study showing Trump made “15 false claims a day” in 2018, and writes that Trump is “attempting to murder the very idea of truth.”
“He’s certainly not an authoritarian or dictatorial figure, in large part I think because the system doesn’t allow it, and because the genius of the founders, checks and balances and separation of powers, he hasn’t been able to do it,” Wehner said in an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”
But Wehner argued that while Trump’s authoritarian instincts have been restrained by our institutions, the Trumpian style of politics and behavior is a virus that could prove deeply harmful to the American democratic system if it spreads.
Wehner served several years as a senior White House adviser to former President George W. Bush. He has deep roots in the world of conservative policymaking and ideas, having also worked as a White House aide to two other Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Wehner began writing a regular column for the New York Times in 2015, which gave him a prominent perch from which to espouse a conservative critique of Trump. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
“I think where [Trump] really has hurt the country badly is in our civic and political culture,” Wehner said. “The avalanche of lies, the attacks on truth, the dehumanization, the cruelty, the crudity, this whole style of politics, the way that he’s inflaming the public, the way that he is creating almost an epistemological anarchy — this idea that truth is whatever you decide is in your interest — that, I think, has real long-term effects on the country.
“He’s pouring salt in the soil. A nation’s civic and political culture is somewhat amorphous … but it is very, very real and it can be a source of national greatness or it can be a source of national decline,” Wehner said. “I think if you take the Trump effect in that area, it is extremely damaging.”
Wehner’s plea to the news media and to other Trump critics is for “self-restraint.”
“The more ferocious the attacks made against the press, the more detached and dispassionate, fair-mined, and even-handed the press needs to become,” Wehner writes in the book. “As things speed up, we need to slow down.”
Wehner told Yahoo News he is conflicted about the question of impeachment. “I’ve read the Mueller report, and I think it’s pretty clear that he obstructed justice,” Wehner said. “I’m worried that if Trump can do what he did, and if he were to get away with it … that that would send the wrong signal.”
But, Wehner said, “he’s not going to be removed from office so the question is not so much from my perspective whether it helps or hurts the Democrats politically, whether they go forward with this, but whether it inflicts the kind of trauma on the country that is unnecessary and does more damage because we know how this is going to end.”
Impeachment would inevitably turn Trump into a “martyr” for his supporters, Wehner said.
Wehner’s book is only partly about Trump. It is, first of all, a plea to the American people not to give up on politics. “A lot of Americans are deeply cynical about politics. They have a completely negative view of what it is. They think that almost all politicians are knaves or fools, that the system is rigged and corrupt, and that very little that is good can come out of politics,” Wehner said. “I don't share that view. I think it’s an unwarranted view and I think it’s a dangerous view.”
Wehner comes from an evangelical Christian background, and part of his book deals with the paradox that has puzzled so many political observers: how religious conservatives who attacked former President Bill Clinton for his personal behavior can shrug off Trump’s actions?
“I think that the Trump era has hurt the Christian faith itself, not just the political manifestation of Christians involved in politics,” Wehner said.
He said that evangelical leaders such as “Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr., or Eric Metaxas, or Robert Jeffress … are essentially cheerleaders for Donald Trump.”
“There’s no transgression that they seem inclined to hold him accountable for, and I think that is a cost to the faith because people look at that and they say, ‘This is all a game,’” Wehner said.
Wehner said his own personal faith is deeper now than in his youth, but his optimism about how much faith can do to transform personal behavior has shrunk.
“When I was younger I thought that what would happen is that faith would be the starting point and people would imperfectly conform all sorts of things including politics to fit the faith. And I would say now that much more than I anticipated, it’s the other way around,” Wehner said. “The starting point here is some kind of political ideology and attitude, and that faith is twisted into a pretzel to fit into that ideology.”
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