(CNN) — There’s a tragic scene in Thomas Hardy’s classic work “Far from the Madding Crowd,” and we see something very much like it being played out, right before our eyes, by the leadership of the Republican Party.
In the novel, sheep farmer Gabriel Oak has faced one financial setback after another. For reasons that are never explained, one night one of Oak’s sheepdogs starts chasing the flock, which numbers hundreds of animals.
As sheep do, the animals allow themselves to be blindly guided by the canine, which drives them off a cliff to their deaths. The dog meanwhile remains safely at the top of the precipice, impervious to the fact that it has destroyed everything his master has worked so hard to achieve.
I can’t help but see parallels among key leaders of the GOP, who seem — either by design or default — intent on steering their adherents to certain ruin, without regard for the moral implications of their actions.
(Before I go too much further, I should say that I am keenly aware that Democrats have their own moral troubles, but I am not a Democrat. I will leave their criticism to someone in their own house).
For most of my life I have identified myself as a Republican and, with few exceptions, have voted the same. But I now find that the GOP leadership of today is unrecognizable when compared to the party I supported enthusiastically during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
I was Bush’s minister for the last 11.5 years of his life, and had occasion to witness the rectitude with which he approached governing and that guided his views on politics. But men like him are in short supply. A GOP that once welcomed character, decency and morality is sinking quickly into an abyss. These days, the party values polls and raw power more than principle and probity. But there may be a high price for ignoring the moral high ground, as Republicans may discover at the ballot box a little more than a year from now.
How unlike Bush is the severely morally challenged GOP of today, with failings that eclipse even those of former President Richard Nixon. We are where we are largely because of former President Donald Trump, with his history of sex abuse, shady corporate business deals, abuse of presidential office to attack his perceived enemies — and other transgressions too numerous to name. Yet, for some reason — either by design or default — the GOP is failing to hold him to account.
To my mind, one incident that perfectly illustrates the party’s identity crisis when it comes to morality was the recent exchange between Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and CNN journalist Chris Wallace in the July 14 edition of the “Look Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace” program.
Wallace asked McDaniel whether the Republican Party would have a problem nominating a presidential candidate who is under federal indictment or who is a convicted felon. The GOP chairwoman fumbled, stumbled and diverted so much that she sounded like a toddler trying to explain an advanced calculus problem. In the end, the best answer she could come up with was “It’s not up to me. It’s up to the voters. They’re going to make their decision.”
It was as egregious as missed opportunities go — but it was just one of many by leaders of my party. The GOP’s elected and appointed leaders have decided — either by design or default — that voters must remain sheeplike as they ignore the moral dangers of Trump’s antics. The collective leadership of the GOP appears willing to stand by, hands on hips, witnessing the party’s descent into the loutishness of Trump and his acolytes. It may take a generation or more for the party to recover from the looming disaster — if it recovers.
The fault is not entirely Trump’s, to be fair. He is who he is — twice impeached and thrice indicted, with perhaps more counts coming in the future. On Thursday, court records showed that Trump has been indicted by a federal grand jury in special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election, ahead of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him is the shadow that hangs over the party. And too many Republican officials to count have been echoing the refrain. What’s needed now is full-throated condemnation of the former president from members of his party.
Doling out criticism to others was difficult for Bush, but I am convinced that in a moment as critical as the one in which the party finds itself, he would have found a way. He showed precisely that kind of fortitude during a history-making moment when he shrugged off his usual reticence.
It was the summer of 1974, after the scales of devotion to disgraced Nixon had fallen from his eyes. In the midst of the Watergate crisis, Bush, who at the time was GOP chair (the same position now occupied by McDaniel), wrote in his journal that he was making a clean break with Nixon over Watergate.
“I want to make damn clear the lie is something we can’t support. But this era of tawdry, shabby lack of morality has got to end… because what we need at this juncture in our history is a certain sense of morality and a certain sense of decency,” he wrote in August 1974.
On August 7, he addressed his remarks directly to the president, writing: “It is my considered judgment that you should now resign,” which Nixon did the very next day.
Even Nixon had enough of a moral compass to understand when it was time to leave office and not put his own interests above that of his party or the nation — especially when party leaders were showing him the door.
Trump, by contrast, has pledged that if convicted, he will continue to pursue the presidency — yet another example of that sheepdog on the edge of the cliff, giving little thought to the disaster he would be setting into motion.
If you are a Republican like me who hopes to prevent this impending disaster, do not count on the current leadership of the GOP to do the job. McDaniel and many other top-tier Republicans have missed their moment to offer moral leadership. But McDaniel was right about what’s next: It’s now up to the voters.
We in the party can do infinitely better for ourselves. More of the same will only lead Republican voters hurtling down a precipice and into a pit of ethical nihilism — led there by the poll-leading but immoral former president.
If, instead of the bottom of the abyss, you are seeking to return the Republican norms and values that our party once embodied, then turn the page with me and offer a hearty amen to a great, late president Bush — and Republican presidential contenders cut from a similar cloth who still understand the importance of grace, morality, decency and dignity. It is there that we will find our party’s future leader.
The Reverend Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr. is Rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, and the author of “Witness to Dignity: The Life and Faith of George H. W. and Barbara Bush.” The opinions in this commentary are his own.