Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Just when you thought internal Republican politics could not get any more dysfunctional and bizarre, last week was very revealing. Take the three-way split screen of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California last Thursday, juxtaposed against GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s spectacle of ignorance and grievance in Georgia, all while Senate Republicans tanked the independent, bipartisan commission charged with investigating the violent insurrection of January 6.
Ryan, a good friend with whom I served in Congress and who is passionately devoted to conservative ideals in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and his mentor, Jack Kemp, stated many hard truths that speak to the soul-crushing experience of Donald Trump’s presidency and the state of the GOP now.
“It was horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and disgraceful end…. we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads and here’s the reality that we have to face. If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality or of second-rate imitations, then we’re not going anywhere. Voters looking for Republican leaders want to see independence in mettle. They will not be impressed by the sight of yes-men and flatterers flocking to Mar-a-Lago,” he said.
I agree with everything Ryan said. Strong words, to be sure.
What concerned me most about so many traditional conservatives during the Trump presidency was not their words but their silence and lack of meaningful action to resist the unprincipled cronyism pushed by the former president when they controlled the levers of power. We were often told then of the need to work with President Trump and quietly persuade him behind the scenes to challenge or redirect his worst impulses. I never bought into that way of thinking.
Given Trump’s assault on core GOP principles, the futility of behind-the-scenes diplomacy represented a feeble cop-out that caused me and others to question many traditional conservatives’ devotion to the ideals and values they had so often championed and espoused.
Take free trade as an example of conservative capitulation to Trump. Republicans like me for years promoted opening markets through bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. When Donald Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in 2018 (which were lifted a year later) in the name of national security, I suggested blocking him by requiring a vote of Congress to approve such tariffs, which are taxes paid by American consumers and businesses.
My pleas were greeted with crickets, even though few of my colleagues disagreed with my remedy. It was somehow better to insult America’s closest friend and ally than to upset the mercurial president. This pattern of Trump trampling on traditional GOP beliefs manifested itself in other ways on issues like cutting US financial contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), showing a soft spot for Russia and its authoritarian leader, national security and the broader role of government, like ignoring fiscal restraint. Had a Democratic president proposed such reckless policies, a GOP Congress would have set itself on fire in opposition.
This kind of weakness, failure to speak out publicly and lack of legislative action on substantive policy matters created a political vacuum for extreme voices like Reps. Gaetz and Greene, who have gained a foothold in the GOP with their politics of grievance, conspiracy theories, nativism, nihilism and dishonesty. We are now living with the consequences.
Owning the libs, whining about the transgendered in women’s sports, promoting the discredited stolen election lie, and above all else, pledging fidelity to Trump have emboldened the extremists and given voice to their crackpottery.
As a former chairman of the House Ethics Committee, I can assure you there was a time when members of Congress like Gaetz and Greene who became embarrassing distractions hid from public view and were often forced to resign to avoid bringing further shame upon themselves, their families and constituents. Now these members despicably monetize their notoriety by claiming victim status and relentless media witch hunts. So much for maintaining standards of conduct.
Ryan rightly took some steps to address grievance and identity politics when he said, “our party must be defined by more than a tussle over the latest grievance or perceived slight. We must not let them take priority over solutions grounded in principle to improve people’s lives, because politics based on racial or other identity is always a path to deeper and deeper hostility, with sad and harmful consequences, and it is precisely the opposite of conservative thought. Today, too many people on the right are enamored with identity politics in ways that are antithetical to Reagan conservatism.”
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I only wish Ryan pushed back harder when he had the gavel. Left unspoken in his California remarks were any mention of GOP leaders currently in the trenches like his friend and mentor Sen. Mitt Romney, and Reps. Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, John Katko and others who are taking relentless fire from dark forces too dominant in the party and enraged by the impeachment votes of these courageous members.
Here’s to hoping that my friend Paul Ryan uses his board position at the Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, to address the issues he raised in California and to remove from the platform those who promote the ugly politics he so forcefully condemned.