Ron Lora: A political conversation with Republican friends

There appears to be no end to the drama of our 45th president. He did not begin the political polarization that Americans are undergoing, but he did elevate it to new heights. Former president Donald Trump is facing a host of investigations, including his most recent indictment on June 8 for mishandling classified documents that he took with him when leaving the presidency and then lying about it. One of his former attorneys general, Robert Barr – who so effectively defended his boss in other matters – was moved to say that even if only half of the charges in the indictment hold, “Trump is toast.”

The scope of the indictment provided an opportunity to speak at length with three Republican friends of mine (two live in Allen County, one in Hancock), all of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. I asked whether they supported the indictment: one said yes, another said no, and the third remains undecided.

To get a fuller sense of the lay of the land, consider the following: The former president supported our entry into a disastrous war with Iraq, urged the intervention in Libya to kill Qaddafi, has denounced gay rights, opposed Obamacare, indulged racism, downplayed the coronavirus pandemic (“We have it totally under control”), gloatingly took credit for killing Roe v. Wade and inspired the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.

All this has no bearing on the indictment, but, I asked: “Would you vote for him should he become the Republican nominee for president in 2024?” Again one said yes, another said no, with the third, a female, responding, “Well, considering all that, probably not. But then again, if Biden is the Democratic alternative, I might not even vote.” (Only a minority of Americans have a favorable view of the two prospective party nominees.)

When I brought up columnist Tom Friedman’s view that our political system is broken, my Republican friends agreed that we are in troubled times, but they were not as concerned as the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Their greater concern was that Democrats have weaponized the justice department to attack their enemies, including the appointment of Jack Smith as special prosecutor in the classified documents.

To my response that it’s not the Department of Justice or Joe Biden that have weighed in against the former president; it’s his own people, his aides, his former cabinet members and attorneys that are the sources behind the special counsel’s decision to indict. “But that’s not what we mostly hear,” one emphasized. We hear “political persecution.”

I reminded them that on the night he pled “not guilty” to 37 felony counts, he flew to his golf club in New Jersey and boasted: “I am the only one that can save this nation.” My friends laughed heartily. They also grasped why some believe that Trump views his minions as mere dust in the wind — in concrete terms, as building blocks in his monument to personal power and glory.

If you find the prospective party nominees next year tiresome, what issues energize you to vote, I asked. Topping their lists were inflation, gun control, immigration and, one made emphatic, abortion rights.

Since his most recent indictment, Trump has suffered a slight dip in popular numbers, most notably in his favorability rating. A shift is taking place, however, among his former cabinet secretaries, chiefs of staff, defense secretaries and attorneys — those who worked closely with him. Anonymous aides say it’s unnerving him.

Our conversation may not enlighten us on possible national trends, but it says something to me when people I know respond as the three did. It’s the sentiment of three Republicans I consulted.

Troubled times. There have been two previous periods when our institutions came under such criticism that observers feared the center might not hold. The first was the decade preceding the American Civil War (when the center collapsed); the second came amid the turmoil of the 1960s. And now the third. The issue fundamentally is about democracy, about the values of integrity, respect for law and a pragmatic balance between order and freedom.

The beatitudes of Matthew 5 (among them, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice” and “Blessed are the peacemakers”) set too high a standard for governments engaging in politics. But they ought not disappear from our moral sentiments altogether; rather, they should inform the most authentic, thoughtful and competent among our leaders. Unfortunately, today we are witnessing the erosion of both democratic values and beatitude sentiments.

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.