Rutledge: GOP must restore its roots in principled conservatism


“What hath the light to do with the darkness?” asked the apostle Paul.

In 1972, my parents took their only trip abroad together. They traveled to Denmark and Norway to visit relatives, and took me, then almost 9, in tow.

Most of our relatives were old enough to have experienced the German occupation. Relatives in Norway had been starved and a great uncle in Denmark had been pressed into forced labor in Germany.

It was a memorable experience for me, and served to first awaken my interest in history.

Over the years, my interest grew. It was furthered by my father, an avid reader.

We frequently talked about the war, during which he served as an infantryman in the Philippines. Later in life, when I lived in D.C., we visited Arlington National Cemetery together.

I was impressed by how many names on the headstones he recognized, recalling campaigns and battles those buried there had fought. He had a long memory, as had my relatives in Denmark and Norway.

On a visit to Norway in 1992, I remember seeing Norwegians unsparingly remind a group of elderly German tourists of the damage their country had sustained at German hands. Norwegian memories were still raw after 50 years.

Such painful memories have their place. They keep people alert to the evils in their midst.

That's what makes our apparent lack of collective historic memory so catastrophic and perilous. At the base of that occupation was a brand of 1920s politics whose basic ideological foundations included racism and autocracy — the mortar and pestle that would grind Europe to dust in the 1940s.

The trauma of the Second World War’s genocide and ethnic cleansing is perhaps unique in its scope. But that uniqueness is only momentary and not guaranteed. And its trauma has passed down generationally.

Those of us with the misfortune to forget little live with fear of recurrence based on recollection that the post-1945 vow “never again” has been mocked in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Many of us are justly gun-shy to any hint of racism.

When whole peoples are attacked or derided by the powerful over their race, ethnicity or religion, we recoil. We prefer to be hyper-vigilant rather than complicit and regretful when faced with something that can quickly turn nightmarish.

Call it historical post-traumatic stress, carried over from the twentieth century’s wars and this country’s endemic racism.

The history of the exploitation of racial animus for political gain has a painfully long history here. It spans my lifetime in one of our two major political parties — from Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 to Reagan’s racist dog whistles in 1980, from Bush I’s infamous Willie Horton ads in 1988 to Bush II’s shameful exploitation of race in the South Carolina primary in 2000. And more recently, that party embraced an open racist in 2015-16 and he collected an appalling number of fellow travelers.

Everyone in life makes compromises. It’s simply a question of how many fleas one tolerates from the dog with which one sleeps.

The now previous administration, which left an indelible stain now on our national fabric, represented a sharpening of racism, cruelty and hatred of government in our politics,. It exploited an irrational hostility against promoting the general welfare, as we pledged in 1787.

Over the past decade, that party’s animus has intensified. Its leadership has now given a green light to open racism, exploitation of militias and paramilitary groups, and subversion of democratic governance. 

This has been driven by rightwing media, apathy to the threat of rightwing terrorism, and a fetish for guns and violence, among other factors. This has arguably contributed to repeated terrorist acts, from the mass killings in El Paso to the murders in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, from the elevation of Kyle Rittenhouse as hero to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, from attempts through armed intimidation to shut down the Legislature in Michigan and plots to murder its governor, to the Bundys’ illegal armed seizure of federal lands, and finally the Capitol riot and the government’s near decapitation, incited by a sitting president.

The poison was already injected deeply enough in this country’s bloodstream 25 years ago to produce the terrorist atrocity of a Timothy McVeigh.

These longstanding elements — racism, hatred of government, fetishizing of violence — combined explosively on 1/6, and later received sanction by GOP senators through the president’s acquittal. That the riots last summer are remotely comparable to the Capitol coup attempt, as argued by the president’s defense, is intellectually dishonest. It ignores the Capitol riot’s deeper historical context and intent.

Republicans consequently carry a burdensome legacy. It's one that many of them refuse to confront, instead embracing those within their party, including a president who publicly incited the attempted violent overthrow of a free and fair election by a mob.

And for what? To stifle progress toward the common good, maintain power for power’s sake, and anoint as king a spectacularly malignant fool.

Let’s be clear: Scores of Republicans fomented and sanctioned seditious terrorism against the government they swore to defend. Some are  carrying arms into a place devoted to civil discourse and menacing and threatening colleagues there.

Never has “law and order” rhetoric been exposed as more fraudulent than in their reckless endangerment of the Capitol police, witnessed by 1/6 causing the most single-day injuries to police since 9/11. It's a case of thin blue line for thee, but not for me.

We have political leaders assailing the Black Lives Matter movement for the mere suggestion of police reforms, which might as well be fantasy, given their slim chances of actual realization. But they give a free pass to colleagues who, with studied mendacity, incited a very real and deadly riot in a bid to advance tyranny.

This brings me back to Paul.

Good faith debates over policy are one thing. Silencing your neighbors by suppressing their votes, attempting to overturn the election they participated in and trying to subvert the very form of government guaranteeing their freedoms is quite another.

This is not about issues. It is not about liberalism versus conservatism. It is about the very form of government under which we — and our children — will live.

One party, however imperfect, still embraces self-determination, free and fair elections, rule of law, the Constitution and civil discussion based on observable truths and evidence. Substantial elements of the other now seem to embrace lawlessness, violence, authoritarianism, corruption and lies, none of which have anything to do with conservatism.

A party that applauds a Marjorie Greene, who has associated herself with Neo-Nazis, stands on the worst side of history.

“What hath the light to do with the darkness?”

As an academic, I believe in the values of tolerance and open discourse. But I am painfully aware those values can be turned against themselves when what is tolerated turns repugnant, resulting not in engagement and civil exchange of ideas, but repression and violence.

The good news is that it's still in our hands.

We can decide to make engagement again possible, to restore and reform our democratic republic, to restore a reasonable conservatism that Tom McCall might recognize. What we can't do is continue awarding power to a deleterious personality cult, surrender our future to authoritarianism, and merely remember our republic, to cite Paul, “as through a glass darkly.”

Originally from Oregon, Steve Rutledge moved to the East Coast to earn degrees in Latin, Greek and history at the University of Massachusetts, then a doctorate in classics at Brown University. After teaching almost 17 years in the Classics Department at the University of Maryland, he took early retirement in 2012 and returned home. He is now serving as an adjunct professor at Linfield, specializing in ancient history and languages. He has published three books and numerous articles on early Roman history and literature.



Bill B

Was going to say typical left wing blather, but this verbiage goes far beyond that.


Some standard leftist projection here (e.g. accusing the right of current authoritarianism). Nearly all of the modern day authoritarianism in America comes from the Left. Whether it be cancel culture, lockdowns, BIG-TECH and media censorship, etc..

Whether it is Marxist Socialism, National Socialism, or your run of the mill Leftist dictatorship, they all of the same pre-requisite for authoritarianism - centralized power and minimalized individual liberties. Conservatism is for small and limited government and individual rights dictated by the creator, not the state.


Pretty standard denial of reality. Who is calling for a boycott of MLB and Coca-Cola right now. Oh yeah, the oracle of Mar-A-Lago.


You mean the former president of the United States who is currently censored from Twitter, Facebook, and can't even be interviewed on YouTube?

Twitter had the audacity to claim it had concern for "free-speech" when Russia recently threatened to block its app in their country. I haven't had a laugh that big in quite a while.



Very good. You are aware the cancel culture you say is nearly always the left, is coming from the extreme right. Do not attempt to deny it.


Even the example you cite is itself a reaction to MLB cancelling the All-Star game in Atlanta. I'm sure there are examples from whatever the 'extreme right' is, however, cancel culture from the Left attacking freedom of expression has seemingly become a daily occurrence. I wish old-fashioned liberals would stand-up to defend free speech but alas, even in supposed institutions of thought like Universities, the principle is all but abandoned.


Rob--the only creators I have are my parents. Thank you, Mom and Dad.


Lulu- I may have misspoke and over-simplified - sorry. I also know many on the traditional American political Left whom believe in God though they may not be as vocal about it in regard to political beliefs as some conservatives today. Some types of socialists and dictatorships do view religious belief as a political threat which is why they sometimes target them though some socialist actually protected religious minorities because they themselves were/are (e.g. Ba'ath parties in Iraq and Syria).


As someone that is supposedly an expert on Roman history, you would think that rather than trying to redefine the GOP he would take note of the dangerous parallels between that of the empire that once was and these here United States of America, and how the liberal agenda is leading the world's experiment in democracy into an irretrievable collapse.


Sowing doubt about the election process, restricting voting rights of citizens and attempting to overturn a valid election seem like the biggest threat to democracy at the moment.....and not part of any “ liberal agenda”.....

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