Few Republican elected officials have dared stand up to President Donald Trump, and with the death of Sen. John McCain, the party’s moral conscience has been silenced. McCain was everything Trump is not: a war hero, an enemy of dictators and a patriot who, however imperfectly, lived a life devoted to causes greater than himself.
Trump, a draft dodger who cozies up to tyrants and is wholly captive to his selfish impulses, is redefining the GOP in his crude image. A party that once stood for American global leadership, welcomed newcomers of all races, and extolled public virtue is increasingly isolationist and xenophobic, and displays cultish devotion to a vulgar reality television star. Fox News, talk radio, and the conservative movement more broadly have fallen into line behind a president who commands 90 percent approval from Republicans. Aside from a handful of low-circulation magazines and newspaper columnists, few are keeping the flame of honorable conservatism alive.
To remind the American people that such a thing still exists, GOP elected officials who consider Trump unfit for the presidency should produce a weekly address, modeled on those traditionally delivered by the occupant of the Oval Office, to broadcast over radio and the internet. It would provide a glimpse of the alternate reality in which a decent, articulate Republican is leader of the free world. Think of it as Radio Free GOP, broadcasting the virtues of limited government, personal responsibility and a foreign policy of freedom beyond the Iron Curtain of Trumpian demagoguery. (The GOP strategist Mike Murphy had a short-lived podcast by that name, a reference to Radio Free Europe, which beamed news and information to the captive peoples of the Soviet Union and its satellites.)
The primary purpose of these addresses would not be to criticize the president’s policies. From judicial appointments to deregulation, from tearing up the Iran deal to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, conservatives have good reason to like much of what the Trump administration has accomplished and should not feel pressured into reversing their long-standing views just because Trump shares some of them.
Disliking the president personally, believing him to be temperamentally unsuited for the office, finding his rhetoric and behavior unconscionable - none of these things necessitates opposing each and every initiative undertaken by his administration. Unlike some “Never Trump” conservatives - with their knee-jerk hostility to everything Trump does - or the “#Resistance” - whose denizens labor under the delusion that they are living under a 20th century European-style despotism - Radio Free GOP would represent the president’s loyal opposition.
The tone would be forward-looking and upbeat, a contrast to Trump’s nostalgia and negativity. The regular radio addresses Ronald Reagan delivered in the wilderness years between his unsuccessful shot at the 1976 GOP presidential nomination and his victory four years later can serve as a model. During that period, Reagan broadcast more than 1,000 commentaries, mostly written by himself, touching on subjects ranging from missile defense to the plight of Soviet Jewry to economic policy and everything in between. In so doing, he made himself familiar to millions of voters, presenting them with a positive vision to rival Jimmy Carter’s hectoring and malaise.
Featuring the likes of the bookish Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and elder statesman Mitt Romney, Radio Free GOP would hold down the proverbial fort of Reagan conservatism, continuously proving that a better way is possible. The mere existence of Radio Free GOP - like the mere existence of McCain, his fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, and those aforementioned Never Trump conservatives - would no doubt drive the president and his supporters crazy. Trump would probably smear its contributors as “enemies of the people,” as he has the mainstream media. A slur beloved by communist apparatchiks of yore, it makes the “Radio Free” moniker especially appropriate.
The weekly address wouldn’t stoop to the president’s level. Ideally, it would ignore Trump entirely, alluding to him only in oblique terms. The commentary for the week of his disastrous news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, for instance, would have endorsed the Intelligence Community’s finding of Russian intervention in the 2016 election, pledged to prevent such an intrusion from ever happening again, and reminded listeners as to the ways in which Moscow threatens America’s alliances, interests and values. It would have expressed, in other words, what a Republican president of the United States should have said.
Engaging Trump directly risks George Bernard Shaw’s timeless observation that one should never wrestle with a pig because you get dirty and the pig likes it. Just ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
What Trump fears most is being ignored. And what he envies most are people (like the late McCain) better than him, who achieve renown not through demagoguery and deceit, but personal sacrifice and courage. By acting as if he doesn’t exist and appealing to our better angels, Radio Free GOP would help tear down the wall of Trumpian depravity.
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.”