Politics & Policy

Unity Is Overrated

Steve Bannon speaks at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, October 14, 2017. (Reuters photo: Mary F. Calvert)
A program, of sorts, for conservatives

The Republican party of Macomb County, Mich., is hosting a “unity dinner,” and its guest of honor is Steve Bannon, whose current ambition is to destroy the Republican party. He’s well on his way.

It’s a non-obvious choice, if what you’re after is “unity.” But if you’re after obedience . . . 

“Destroying the Republican party” is not an exaggerated account of Bannon’s ambition: Bannon, deploying the bombastic language associated with moneyed dilettantes everywhere, has proclaimed a “season of war” on the party with which he is notionally affiliated. Backed by the fortune of billionaire Robert Mercer, he is working on a purge, recruiting primary challengers to Republican senators, and in the process of doing so very well may hand a few seats over to the Democrats. That operation already has borne some fruit in the person of Roy Moore, the sideshow freak the Republicans have nominated as their Senate candidate in Alabama. He may well win that race, but the presence of a Putin-admiring birther conspiracy theorist in high office — another one! — is not the sort of thing Republicans should welcome.

Purges are the order of the day. Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff recently called upon Republican donors to enact a “purge” — his word — of the party. President Donald Trump, in his usual incoherent manner, is on both sides of the question, berating Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in person but backing Luther Strange, the non-lunatic candidate, in the Alabama primary, a position he quietly stepped away from when it became clear that his support was not enough to carry Strange across the finish line.

Neither a “purge” nor a “season of war” is the stuff of which party unity is made, and the ladies and gentlemen of the Macomb County Republican party have made a foolish decision.

But unity is overrated.

I myself left the Republican party more than a decade ago over its continued indulgence of Arlen Specter, which, in retrospect, seems quaint. Specter would follow me out a few years later, jumping ship to the Democrats when it benefited him in doing the only thing he ever really cared about: holding tenaciously to political power. I have been tempted to return to the GOP from time to time.

Party unity is not desirable when it means uniting with undesirable elements, people, and ideas.

This is not one of those times.

The Republican party is either going to be a political outfit that supports free trade or it isn’t. The Republican party is either going to be a political outfit that supports free speech or it isn’t. Republicans will throw in their lot with Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan, or they will throw in with Putin, Le Pen, and Götz Kubitschek. The Republican party is either going to remember “When Character Was King” or it is going to forget all that happy talk about “family values” and make its peace with habitual dishonesty, adultery, and betrayal — so long as those things go along with winning elections. Which they very well may, but the Republicans will have to do it without my vote.

Party unity is not desirable when it means uniting with undesirable elements, people, and ideas. There isn’t any common ground to be had between classical liberals (we call them “conservatives” in the United States) and the blood-and-soil tiki-Nazis of Charlottesville. As Lou Reed once told Jesse Jackson after he embraced Louis Farrakhan: There’s no ground common enough. The same goes for Bannon, who prided himself on turning the website soiling the good name of the late Andrew Breitbart into “a platform for the alt-right,” “alt-right” being a nice way to characterize daft race cultists, half-baked national socialists, Jew-hating weirdos of various persuasions, warmed-over Buchananites, Putinists, Confederacy romantics, and that gaggle of sad and occasionally homicidal masturbators in Charlottesville.

All this talk of “unity” — by which Bannon et al. mean obedience to a mere politician — is creepy. It is also distinctly un-American, as indeed is the alt-right at large, which turns its eyes not to Plymouth Rock or Philadelphia but to nationalist figures and fascist movements in Europe. “Support the president!” has become a moral imperative for some Republicans, who have descended into the classical error of conflating loyalty to the nation and loyalty to its political leader. That isn’t patriotism — it is cultism, and a creed of serfdom. The ritualistic praise of the president from men such as Mike Pence is nauseating.

“Unity” with that? Hard pass.

“I mean to live my life an obedient man,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not?”

It was.

There’s a different program now, and one of the great ironies of our times is all the current complaining about professional athletes’ kneeling from men and a movement determined to live on their knees — in the name of “unity.”

READ MORE:

Is the GOP Steve Bannon’s Party Now?

A Profound Tension Point for Conservatives

The GOP Identity Crisis

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.