The Republican Party is an organization; the Party of Lincoln is an idea. The Republican Party exists to bridge interests and support the mechanics of elections; the Party of Lincoln answers the questions “why and for what?” If the Republican Party, as now appears most likely, succumbs to the candidacy of Donald Trump, it will irreparably sever itself from the Party of Lincoln.
Ronald Reagan would never have announced plans to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, menaced Mexico with war if it did not pay for a wall between our countries, treat our alliances like a protection racket, or crudely threaten the Speaker of the House. He would not have boasted endlessly about his sexual prowess, demeaned a female journalist, or thought that the most important thing about a hostile judge was that he was “Spanish.” Politics begins with words, and Trump’s words are not vulgar; they are vile.
Republican Party leaders who endorse Trump—which many of them will do, out of fear, opportunism, resignation, or simple cowardice—will lose thereby the moral authority to lead the Party of Lincoln. If the Republican Party accepts Trump it will lose its soul, and it will become necessary to find an alternative: a different candidate, and quite possibly a new party.
Both political parties are in varying ways corrupt, beholden to interests or sub-groups or ideological obsessions. A third-party candidate, and a third party if it comes to that, should begin with principles in which it believes, and which are relevant to our current predicaments.
The first of these must be a reverence for Constitutional government, which means restraint by the courts and by the Executive Branch, whose powers have expanded steadily since the early years of the 20th century. This will put a special burden on Congress to recover its lawmaking function, and to do so in such a way that citizens can understand what their representatives have passed. Bills thousands of pages long are not really laws. A system that virtually guarantees that all of us have broken some kind of statute is not the rule of law.
The governing idea should be that of liberty. Social conservatives have no hope of rolling back changes like gay marriage and should not try; the concern of all, however, should be the protection of the fundamental freedoms embodied in the Bill of Rights, which includes the right to differ openly from the social consensus of one’s time and place.
If Trump and Sanders have risen, it is in part because the half of the United States that has done well out of globalization and the fantastic evolution of modern technology has not cared enough about the other half, which is stretched, fearful, and overwhelmed. The solution is not to expel millions of those who have arrived illegally, although any sovereign state must secure its borders and ensure an orderly process of legal immigration. Nor will a return to the beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies of an earlier era do anything but bring another, deeper global recession.
Rather, a new party platform should have as one of its central concerns a renewal of the U.S. education system, to include not only scientific and vocational education, but a rededication to civic education, so that we grow citizens and not merely angry mobs who treat elections as plebiscites or demonstrations of tribal loyalty.
The social welfare state is here to stay. The question is how to make it equitable, affordable, and conducive to independence rather than reliance on government. To that end, government must step in when the market fails, but it should use the power of the market wherever possible. As the friend of capitalism but not necessarily of capitalists, government should above all aim to make life easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs, not only because they generate employment, but because they are the bearers of American aspiration through the ages.
In foreign policy, the labels of today—often little more than slurs—are meaningless. Any sound foreign policy must secure America’s interests and her values, which often overlap but which, when they do not, must be reconciled. Prudence is a virtue, but so too is courage. The United States has benefited enormously from the global order we have helped establish since World War II. A selfish, cramped nationalism, or worse, neo-isolationism, will eventually bring disaster to others, and then to us.
Finally, a different candidate should quietly embody the old republican virtues: steadiness, civility, thrift, forthrightness, firmness, integrity, and fairness. In an age of ranting demagogues and angry activists, of secretiveness and evasion, we need someone whom we can imagine as a worthy holder of Abraham Lincoln’s office, a worthy dweller in Abraham Lincoln’s house.
Will this work? I have no idea. But the crisis of the moment, unforeseen as it is, requires that women and men of republican principles should take the risks of a course like this one. There are politicians who can lead such a movement, experts who can hammer out the policies to support it, and millions of discontented citizens who will embrace it. All that is needed is some of Lincoln’s courage.