In the early days of the 2016 Republican campaign — an unusually important period, in which the viability of the GOP is being defended against a toxic form of populism — some of the clearest leadership has emerged from an unexpected source: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Those Republican candidates and commentators who sought to accommodate and domesticate Donald Trump, praising his views on immigration or petting his followers, failed an important political and moral test. Trump is (unknowingly) attempting to revive the spirit of Know-Nothingism — a mid-19th-century political movement that stirred up resentment against immigrants (particularly Catholic immigrants) and fought to keep government in the hands of people born in the U.S. In Trump’s updated version, the enemies are China and a perfidious Mexico, which he claims is purposely sending its rejects and rapists to the U.S.
Perry has been blunt in describing the nature of Trump’s candidacy: “What Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism, it is Trumpism — a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense.” Perry understood something early that many of his peers did not. While appeals to nationalism are a traditional Republican strength, xenophobia is a poison. Republican fortunes at the presidential level will not be restored with the political philosophy of Archie Bunker. For the GOP to succeed in this election — and for any viable form of conservative populism to be preserved — Trump must be discredited. Not just defeated, but discredited.
By denying John McCain’s status as a war hero, Trump has done a good job of that himself. Perry has declared that Trump “is unfit to be commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, and he should immediately withdraw from the race for president.” The first part of that sentence is manifestly true. The second part would require a sense of shame, which makes it very unlikely.
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But Perry has done more than expose Trump. Following last month’s church shooting in South Carolina, he delivered the best and bravest Republican speech of the campaign so far. In remarks at the National Press Club, Perry confronted his state’s history of racial violence in the story of Jesse Washington, tortured and lynched by a Waco mob in 1916. By vividly recalling the details of that case — by looking this evil of racism straight in the face — Perry took the American debate on race to a deeper level of honesty.
So, at two turning points of the presidential race — the rise of Trump and the Charleston massacre — Perry emerged as a responsible voice. How to explain it? Some of this is assuredly sound staffing choices, providing him good advice and good speeches. But there is a factor more intrinsic to Perry. He has a history of making gaffes that reveal his decency. During his spectacularly failed candidacy in 2012, Perry defended his state’s extension of in-state college tuition benefits to the Texas version of “Dreamers” — illegal immigrants who had graduated from Texas high schools. If you want to deny them education, he said, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Last time around, Perry also defended the vaccination of girls against human papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer, pushing back on Michele Bachmann’s irresponsible, dangerous claim that vaccinations can cause “mental retardation.” This issue is often a dividing line between political responsibility and the conspiratorial fringe. Both Trump and Rand Paul, it is worth noting, have fed baseless fears of vaccination.
Perry’s approach to politics gives evidence of actual executive responsibility. Others can be emperors in ideological fantasy worlds of their own choosing. Perry was governor of Texas. And a good one.
The Republican recovery will require a series of Sister Souljah moments — small declarations of ideological independence — as Perry has done with Trump. The model is the first great Republican. “I am not a Know-Nothing,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1855. “That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”
The words still apply, and echo.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to email@example.com.