Real conservatives have always prided themselves on their willingness to stand up to their own kind in the name of moral principle. Think of Senator Robert Taft opposing the North Atlantic Treaty, knowing that those positions could destroy his political career. Taft was wrong in his views, but he was principled, he was courageous, and he went down speaking truth as he saw it. William F. Buckley took on the John Birch Society in the middle of the 20th century, and the anti-Semites in the conservative camp later on. In 1993, when Buckley had to choose between loyalty to Joseph Sobran, his long-time protégé and colleague at the National Review, and rejection of bigotry, principle won and he fired his friend.
During the Ford and Kavanaugh testimonies, Americans watched the cranky maunderings of Senator Chuck Grassley and the spitting, menacing fury of Senator Lindsey Graham. The combination of calm strength and good humor that characterized the modern conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, was nowhere to be found. But that spirit, the spirit of a president who celebrated America as a city on a hill that was generous abroad, welcoming to newcomers, and self-confident at home, has been replaced by the sour meanness of a party chiefly of men, who build walls to keep the world out, erect tariffs to destroy free trade, despise the alliances that keep Americans secure, and sanction the deliberate plucking of babes from their mothers’ breasts in order to teach illegal immigrants a painful lesson. In such a world, decorum and courtesy are irrelevant.
There has always been a dark side to American conservatism, much of it originating in the antebellum curse of a society, large parts of which favored slavery and the extermination of America’s native population, the exclusion of immigrants from American life, and discrimination against Catholics and Jews. Many of us had hoped that the civil-rights achievements of the mid-20th century (in which Republicans were indispensable partners), changing social norms regarding women, and that rising levels of education had eliminated the germs that produced secession, lynching, and Indian massacres. Instead, those microbes simply went into dormancy, and now, in the presence of Trump, erupt again like plague buboes—bitter, potent and vile.
The last twitches of conservative independence consisted of Senator Jeff Flake securing a week-long FBI investigation of Ford’s charges. For the rest, there was not a profile in courage to be seen. Not one.
It is impossible at this moment to envisage the Republican Party coming back. Like a brontosaurus with some brain-eating disorder it might lumber forward in the direction dictated by its past, favoring deregulation of businesses here and standing up to a rising China there, but there will be no higher mental functioning at work. And so it will plod into a future in which it is detested in a general way by women, African Americans, recent immigrants, and the educated young as well as progressives pure and simple. It might stumble into a political tar pit and cease to exist or it might survive as a curious, decaying relic of more savage times and more primitive instincts, lashing out and crushing things but incapable of much else.