Surely this is not what American conservatism is all about

Surely this is not what American conservatism is all about

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There are a lot of basic aspects of modern life about which American progressives and conservatives differ. Indeed, “differ” seems much too polite a term to describe the yawning gaps that exist on issues like racial equality, education, taxes, health care, the environment, separation of church and state, among others.

The hard truth is that, in many of these areas, we are a bitterly divided nation. Millions upon millions of people have a difficult time even conceiving of how the other side sees the world like they do. Even when it comes to defining basic terms like “freedom” and “liberty,” we often have trouble finding common ground.

But divided as we are on these and other subjects, American history shows us that we can still find ways to work out our differences, coexist and make progress. Yes, both the process and the results may be messy and wildly imperfect, and the likelihood that just about everyone will be dissatisfied with the end result is high.

As long, however, as we remain united on a few basic premises – that everyone is equal before the law, that our government is one of laws rather than individuals, and that decisions must be based upon the will of the people as it is expressed peacefully at the ballot box – we have a good chance to survive and advance.

For several decades – at least since the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960’s – the U.S. has made a run at living up to these basic premises. Sure, right and left have waged passionate battles throughout this era and the results – particularly for people of color and low income – have frequently been a disgrace.

But throughout it all, there’s at least been a basic measure of common ground when it comes to national aspirations and decision-making.

Now, however, even this small spit of shared territory seems to be shifting beneath our feet.

Weirdly and tragically, a large swath of the modern conservative movement appears to be abandoning – at least for the present moment – the once shared national commitment to core American values like human equality, the rule of law and peaceful electoral decision making.

Instead, what had seemed to be good and honorable people – many of them tied to the political party of Abraham Lincoln and devotees of a religious faith founded upon the principle of loving one’s neighbor – are having a fling with what can only be described as a crude and violent brand of authoritarianism.

The evidence of this catastrophic development is painfully abundant and obvious.

One sees it in their unwillingness to confront the recurring nightmare of people of color being killed before our eyes by public employees sworn to protect and serve.

It’s evident in their failure to condemn the violence perpetrated by — and kid gloves treatment accorded to — extremist vigilantes who plead openly for a race war.

Mostly, however, it’s evident in their cowed and craven acceptance (and even celebration) of policies, behavior and rhetoric emanating from the president of the United States that ought to shock and disgust any patriotic American.

It’s not just the literally thousands of lies that the president has told (and continues to tell every day) about subjects both trivial and monumental.

It’s not just the blatant and borderline treasonous lawbreaking and self-enrichment that he has pursued for nearly four years.

In recent weeks and months Trump has begun to make regular statements and threats that strike at the very heart of American democracy – things that no president of any party has ever said or even hinted at: like delaying and questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election, calling for the jailing of his political foes, encouraging police and vigilante violence, and even suggesting that his opponents might attempt to perpetrate a coup.

These are dark, treacherous, and uncharted waters into which Trump has steered our ship of state, and for some conservatives, he has  clearly crossed the line. These honorable men and women may not agree with progressives on health care, tax policy or international trade, but they recognize criminality of the kind that would make Richard Nixon look like a Boy Scout.

Amazingly, however, for a large segment of the conservative establishment – men and women who clearly know better – self-serving loyalty toward Trump, or at least public tolerance, remains the name of the game.

These are the George W. Bushes, Richard Burrs, and Thom Tillises of the world — conservatives who remain so wed to their own near-term personal, partisan and ideological agendas that they would keep their views on such a momentous matter as the president’s criminally dangerous acts hidden and, in so doing, refuse to come to the aid of their country.

Surely, this is not what American conservatism is all about. Whatever happens in the coming months, history will not remember well their cowardly silence.