A brief history refresher course: How did Harry Truman become president of the United States?
Well, he succeeded to the office when President Roosevelt died in April 1945, three months after having been sworn in for his fourth term. How did Truman become vice president? FDR replaced his sitting vice president, Henry Wallace, on the ticket with the senator from Missouri in 1944. Why Truman? Because he had come to national attention as head of the Truman Committee, formally known as the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.
This was a bipartisan special committee that investigated—with considerable vigor and publicity—problems of waste, inefficiency, and profiteering in our war-production effort.
This is extraordinary, when you think about it.
The committee was formed on March 1, 1941. At the time, Congress was controlled by the Democratic party. During most of the next three years, as Truman chaired the committee, the nation was united in fighting World War II. And yet this committee of Democrats was bold enough in criticizing the administration in power to make a name for its chairman.
Once upon a time, Congress was not afraid of doing its job of oversight and legislation.
Once upon a time, members of Congress of the same party as the president were not terrified to criticize him—even though he was popular with his base and the nation was at war.
Once upon a time, the institutions of a free government and a constitutional republic worked.
To compare little things to great: Some of us who’d preferred John McCain to George W. Bush in 2000 became strong supporters of the Bush administration after 9/11. We believed Saddam Hussein had to be removed and encouraged President Bush to act.
At the time, it was not an unusual display of independence, let alone courage, for conservatives to criticize the Bush administration on any number of issues, including the conduct of the war after just a few months. Some conservatives called for more troops, for a change in strategy, and for that matter, even a new secretary of defense.
This was not unusual. National Review had been critical of Reagan on various fronts during his presidency, though the relationship between that president and that magazine was unusually close. The Weekly Standard had become sharply critical of Newt Gingrich as speaker even though the magazine was started in the wake of, and under the influence of, the Newt-led Republican victory of 1994. And this impulse toward intra-party criticism was not unique to conservatives. Many liberal commentators found plenty to criticize in the behavior and policies of the Clinton administration after 1993 and of the Obama administration after 2009.
None of which seemed like an especially big deal. At the end of the day, most people joined the side they were on, but that didn’t mean that they relinquished the ability to clearly assess and comment on the shortcomings and mistakes of their side. That was both the intellectual world we lived in, and, for that matter, the political world members of Congress lived in. Sometimes people broke with a president of their own party.
In that world, the Republican party was able to recover after Nixon, or Gingrich, or Bush, because—whatever one thought of particular policies or the new leaders—it had not sold its soul to those individuals.
In that world, conservatism could survive failures, ranging from moral to political to strategic, because as a movement it had a standing superior to and somewhat independent of any of particular actor.
No longer. It’s Trump, all the way down.
We have now reached the terminus of craven loyalty and pathetic apologetics. I don’t see how either the political institution of the Republican party or the intellectual movement of conservatism recovers from what we have seen over the last three years—but especially the last three months.
And so we will need to think anew, and to act anew.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the date of the creation of the Truman Committee, and also misstated how long after his inauguration FDR died.