Compassionless Conservatives

I cast my first Presidential ballot in 1976 for Gerald Ford, not for Jimmy Carter. In the years between 1976 and 2004, I voted seven times for Republicans, once for a Democrat—Bill Clinton in 1992. (It was a vote I later regretted because I don’t think, in retrospect, I gave the elder Mr. Bush enough credit for being the decent man he was, or for presiding over the fall of communism.) 

The most difficult vote I’ve ever cast was for George W. Bush in 2004. I sat in my truck in the parking lot of the polling place at 6:00 A.M., still not sure whether to vote for Bush or John Kerry. In the end, I stuck with the Republican, mostly because I saw the GOP as a party of traditionalists and realists. Bush’s head may have been empty, but I thought his heart was in the right place: compassionate conservatism, a belief that government had a limited but vital role in solving the problems of the country, an understanding of and respect for basic American values.

The Democrats had done little in that campaign to change my view that they lacked respect for religion and personal freedom. Moreover, I saw Democrats as morally smug and intellectually condescending to regular people like me. All of which is to say, for most of my adult life I have seen myself as generally conservative—maybe with a small streak of libertarianism—but essentially mainstream conservative. 

Since that vote in 2004, I have voted for Barack Obama twice and Hillary Clinton once. Why the shift? The simple answer is this: The Republican Party has changed, and in the process, it’s alienated voters like me. It’s become a party of resentment and anger, a party that values anti-intellectualism over thoughtful deliberation. It’s a party whose spirit is embodied in the rabid utterances of radio talk show hosts. It’s no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. Rather it’s the party of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. I wanted to keep my brain intact, so I decided I could no longer vote for GOP candidates.

And I know exactly when it happened. 

The moment that Sen. John McCain asked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, I realized that being a conservative no longer meant what I thought it did. Palin was a dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance. When McCain chose her as a Vice-Presidential candidate, he was making an obvious play for voters who later, famously, became Donald Trump’s base. McCain, the maverick, was too liberal for the faithful; and so he chose the Alaskan governor to balance things out. Palin was someone who would give the middle finger to the establishment, and it didn’t matter whether she understood the complexities of foreign policy, whether she understood how the government she sought to lead worked, or even whether she understood the Constitution itself. The base wanted someone who would make English the official language of the United States, who would bring back prayer in schools, who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who would end affirmative action, and who would return us to the mythical 1950’s, where marriage was between one man and one woman, dammit. In other words, they wanted to Make America Great Again. And they got all that with Sarah Palin. She was Trump before Trump. I couldn’t in good conscience put her a heartbeat away from the presidency. And so I voted for Barack Obama.

When I saw the Republicans’ response to Obama (birtherism, obstructionism, and thinly veiled racism), I realized what they’d become and I had no problem voting for him a second time in 2012.

2016 was a travesty. Anybody with a brain or a soul should have voted for Hillary Clinton. (I am well aware of how elitist I sound, but so be it. If using my eyes, ears, and brain makes me elitist, I claim elitism gladly. I know that reams have been written about Trump’s appeal to lower working class people whom the economy has left behind. I’m sorry, but I do not accept that being out of a job or being angry at the system that’s failed you requires that you to vote for a clownish, misogynistic, racist, demagogue. Either you couldn’t see what he was, which makes you a fool. Or you could see what he was and voted for him anyway, which makes you careless of the country you purport to love. Either way, there was something seriously wrong with your head or your heart). 

The Republican Party cynically nominated a man they knew—and that they still know—is unqualified to be President of the United States. They were well aware of the class and race divisions that exist in the country, and yet they chose as their standard-bearer a millionaire snake-oil businessman with a history of racist language and behavior. At a time when the country needed an articulate and healing leader, they chose a cartoon character, incapable of stringing together two sentences. They gave the nuclear codes to a narcissist, who in the words of his opponent, could be “baited with a tweet.” And they did it all knowingly. 

I have come to terms with Trump as President. I haven’t yet gotten my head around the irresponsibility and cynicism of the GOP for nominating him in the first place. There’s so much more to say, but for now, I’ll just say this. Until they decide to be a serious party again, Republicans will never have my vote.