It is perhaps fitting that President Donald Trump would wait until his final days in office to deliver what was perhaps the finest speech of his presidency. In his January 13th remarks delivered from the White House, Trump calmly and directly denounced the January 6th Capitol Hill violence still raw on the minds of most Americans. He stated clearly that such violence was an insult to both the “MAGA” movement he launched five years before, and to America itself.
The speech was the perfect speech; or, at least, would have been the perfect speech had it been delivered when it was needed most, instead of being lost among the ensuing fallout from that day of shame one week prior.
Sadly, this speech serves only as a tragic reminder that if Trump somehow could have adopted this stately – one might say, “presidential” – tone years before, it very well could be his Inauguration being celebrated today, not Joe Biden’s. Instead, it will be his remarks on January 6th to his supporters massed on the Washington Mall that will at least for the foreseeable future define his presidency.
There is, however, an important lesson for the GOP in this episode; one that could help it out of its present morass. It is a lesson so basic and obvious it is often overlooked in today’s social media driven political environment. The lesson? Substance and principles remain always the most valued currency of political leadership.
Rather than the poise demonstrated in last week’s speech, Trump’s leadership throughout the past year was clumsy and unclear, as Democrats and media gadflies baited him into distracting squabbles.
Missing were moments like George W. Bush’s iconic “bullhorn speech” in the rubble of a still-smoldering World Trade Center after 9/11. Unlike many presidents before him, Trump never appeared able or willing to stop his emotions from getting the best of him, and in so doing allowed pivotal moments to be defined not with rising rhetoric and strong resolve, but with tweets and theatrical but ultimately unhelpful symbolic stands.
Such antics may be excellent for whipping up a political base but not for achieving long-term victory.
If the GOP now seriously wants to position itself to retake the House in 2022 and the Senate and White House in 2024, it must do as then-Governor Ronald Reagan called for in his legendary 1967 speech to the California Republican Assembly, and “grow the tent” (actually, re-grow the tent).
In 1967, Reagan was rising as a national leader of a Republican Party that at the time was busy tearing itself at the seams with litmus tests, in-fighting, and organizational discord. In order that the GOP not disappear in a “blaze of glorious defeat,” Reagan took the reins and called on it to unite around the central tenet of limited government; from which principled point the Party could build a broad tent capable of reclaiming control from Democrats.
Today’s GOP is much like the one faced by Reagan more than half a century ago, with the “Big Tent” of which he spoke appearing now more like a shabby lean-to, set to collapse should one mild storm sweep through. We must not let that happen.
The message of individual freedom is as powerful as it is universal and timeless. From this central pivot, the GOP must demonstrate clearly and consistently its value to voters by showing true leadership that eschews emotional reactivity and childish theatrics in favor of calm, deliberate, and uncompromising focus on the values that made America great — not the slogan, but the substance.
Juxtaposing these principles opposite the soon-to-be official blueprint for forced identity politics and faux leadership by the Biden Administration, should be a no-brainer for the GOP. Whether it has the moxie and the strong leaders to do so, as Reagan did so long ago, is an unfortunately very real question.