What Gertrude Stein said of her hometown of Oakland now applies to the Donald Trump-era Republican Party.
“There is no there there,” Stein said.
This much became clear in the aftermath of President Trump’s wrecking-ball interactions with other leaders at the G-7 meetings over the weekend. In the space of just a couple of days, the president managed to initiate what looks like a large and costly trade war and to alienate nations that have been among our closest allies for decades.
It was a shameful performance.
Yet the only peeps of protest from the president’s own party came from U.S. senators such as Jeff Flake, who are leaving office, or John McCain, who fights a life-and-death battle with cancer and may have more than political expediency on his mind.
This silence occurred even though the president assaulted what had been the Republican Party’s most sacred principles.
The GOP as we have known it was animated by a core set of convictions.
The foundation of those convictions was a faith in free trade.
Until this president came along, Republicans believed unfettered trade between nations promoted the greatest good for the most people in at least two critical ways.
First, trade without barriers would fire economic expansion and thus lift the standards of living for all involved. It would create opportunities for growth that would benefit human beings everywhere.
Second, free trade was the best and most-trustworthy vehicle for achieving and maintaining lasting peace among nations. The Republican thinking was that nations who were engaged in mutually beneficial economic relationships had little reason to quarrel, much less fight. Trading partners were just that – partners – and not adversaries, or enemies.
Donald Trump, though, is not a free-trade advocate. He is a protectionist.
Worse, he is a protectionist who wants to establish trade barriers on the most narrow and self-interested grounds. He wants to protect from competition either businesses in which either he or his family have interests or industries that awarded him with votes or cash during his presidential campaign.
(And, given the tight ties between his campaign funding operation and his business enterprises – his campaign pays Trump companies vast sums for services rendered – it has become harder and harder to tell the difference between the president’s political and personal interests.)
All this should be anathema to Republicans.
Reasonable people could and did quarrel with the GOP faith in markets as near-divine forces for universal good, but there was no reason to doubt Republicans’ convictions were genuine.
Until now, that is.
The same goes for the GOP’s determination to have the United States serve as the world’s leader, a role this president is abdicating.
It is Donald Trump’s fervent belief that other nations have taken advantage of the United States by forcing us to shoulder too much of the load for the world’s security.
The problem with that thinking is that it isn’t true.
Other nations didn’t force us to become the world’s policeman. We not only volunteered to fill that role but demanded that we be the ones to do it.
We did so for at least two reasons.
The first sprang from a moral imperative. At the end of World War II, the United States was the only free nation to emerge with the capacity to defend principles of self-government and self-determination on any large scale. Thus, we had a duty.
The other reason was less high-minded. If we were the ones enforcing the law, we also could make sure that our interests were protected around the globe – that markets worldwide remained open to our business.
These motivations, high and low, drove Republican foreign policy from Eisenhower through Nixon, Reagan and the two Bushes.
But no longer.
This new Republican president argues that the United States has no moral duty to lead on the world stage and that exerting such leadership allows America to be exploited.
As Donald Trump turns GOP dogma on its head, Republicans everywhere sit silent.
All of which raises a question.
If the Republican Party no longer stands for free trade and a world led by the United States, what does it stand for?
What is the there there?
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.