When my grandfather was a child, he was among some of the last people to escape Germany to America before Hitler closed down the country. He came to America not speaking English, but never let it slow him down. He was always proud of his German heritage, but from the moment he set foot in this country, he was only an American. There was nothing he was more proud to be than American. America delivered him from the evil that blighted his beloved homeland. America took him in and gave him the opportunity to live out the American Dream. After the war when he turned 18, he served a short stint in the Navy — something he never talked about — long enough to earn veteran status and benefits. He never used those benefits because, to him, his service was the absolute least he could do for his country and he wanted no reward for it. Every chance he got, he’d visit a National Park to bask in the beauty and the history. He collected stamps and coins, partly to revel in Americana and partly for the good investment. Grandpa Theodore became a student of history, idolizing his namesake Teddy Roosevelt and the other heroes of American history. Until his last days, he never stopped learning or teaching.
He was brilliant, kind, generous, tough, responsible, dauntless, curious, loyal, humble, caring, silly, and full of love. He cherished his family above all else. There is nobody I have idolized more in my life.
But if there is one quality that stands out above all else, it was his integrity. Without fail, he always did the right thing the right way. He didn’t brag, he didn’t cut corners, he didn’t skimp, and he didn’t patronize. Always the engineer, he never considered what was the easy or hard way to do something, only the right way. The moral way. Everyone deserved fairness, respect, compassion, and decency; they are their own rewards. Throughout my life, whenever I have struggled with a decision or hardship, I have asked myself: “What would Grandpa do?” What is the RIGHT choice? It has never failed me.
He was living proof of the American Dream and, I think, what it means to be a real conservative.
It saddens me to admit that I never really got to talk to him about politics — I was too young and uninterested — so I couldn’t tell you the exact confines of what his politics were. I know he was Republican in the general mold of Reagan and HW Bush, but with an independent streak of Teddy Roosevelt. He revered America as an honorable and necessary force for good, but also wanted the government to leave him alone. He knew that government is not inherently evil, but not the answer to every problem. He loved his guns — as much for recreational shooting as for a cultural touchstone. He knew that everything starts and ends with family. In the cosmic scheme of things, it was no accident that he died on April 15th — his last middle finger to his only real nemesis, the IRS. A quintessential conservative, for all the right reasons.
I can’t replicate my grandfather’s politics, but I try to see the world through the lens he left me: the character and integrity that poured out of him. These days, I’m a conservative in a very different world and, frankly, in a different mold. Reconciling that in this modern world is increasingly difficult but the principles my grandfather taught me get me through.
Which brings me, as all things seem to these days, to Trump.
Everything that my grandfather stood for, Donald Trump stands for the opposite.
Grandpa knew that good men don’t need to lie if they did the right thing. Trump lies about everything.
Grandpa served and honored his country. Trump made up an injury to dodge the draft.
Grandpa would never skip out on paying the bill. Trump has been stiffing contractors for decades.
Grandpa would never cheat on his wife. Trump cheated plenty of times with his first, second, and third wives.
Grandpa would never demonize immigrants, he was one. Trump started his campaign on a racist lie.
Grandpa would never disrespect or assault women. Trump has been disgusting to women for years.
Grandpa would go to the ends of the earth to keep a promise. Trump makes nothing but promises and doesn’t care about keeping them — just as long as you believe him when he tells them.
I could go on forever with examples, but if there’s one thing that I know deep down it’s that if someone is the opposite of Grandpa, no matter their politics, they can’t be right. That is NOT the right choice. It’s not about politics, it’s about core morality. Doing the RIGHT thing. Integrity.
I couldn’t live with myself if I voted for a man like Donald Trump. But it’s more than just that. Whatever moral high ground the Republicans may have once had is gone. Their positions haven’t changed much over time, and yet their entire worldview has been warped beyond recognition. Family values, small government, and personal responsibility have become discrimination, deep state conspiracies, and constant victimhood. They have lost their integrity.
Without integrity, rule of law means persecuting your political opponents and exploiting your friends. Without integrity, norms of good government become loopholes to be exploited for more power. Without integrity, you can’t even get sick without people wondering if you’re playing an angle.
Without integrity, everything falls apart. We’re watching it happen before our eyes. We elevated someone with the least amount of integrity imaginable to the presidency, then are somehow surprised when he downplays a deadly virus and pays barely lip service to the 200,000 Americans who have died on his watch? What did we think would happen? He fleeces the taxpayers by golfing on their dime to make himself richer. Are you surprised? Just today, he shuts down any possibility of more help from the virus, only to use the election as leverage. I’ll help you later if you help me now. Do me a favor though…
So don’t tell me that having Trump as president is preferable just because the stock market is better. It was fine before. Don’t tell me the economy is working when the billionaires are getting richer and the rest of us are struggling. And don’t tell me that the amount of taxes you pay is worth selling your soul over (unless you make more than $400k per year, you may be paying less under Biden anyways).
On paper, I match up pretty well with Trump’s stated policies. I loved that he put out a list of potential Supreme Court Justices in advance, and I celebrated the judicial philosophy of many of his nominees. I liked that he was less interventionalist around the world than Bush or Obama. I’m always onboard for some tax cuts and deregulation. There was a time, long before his actual candidacy, that I really wanted Trump to run for President as a no-nonsense, self-funded businessman in the mold of Ross Perot. In my imagination, he would have balanced the budget, shaken loose the cobwebs of bloated government, and led a relatively benign administration of peace and economic growth.
That’s not what we got, and none of those good things matter now. On the issues, I align with Biden on very few things and I look forward to criticizing President Biden on just about everything. It will be a refreshing relief from now, when I know that our president is never going to do the RIGHT thing even when it seems like I should be agreeing with him. There’s the rub.
The more I analyze my own notions of conservatism and the changing ethos of Republicans, one thing has become clear to me: true conservatism cannot exist without integrity. Same for Americanism. Phony conservatism is far more dangerous than a wasteful liberal with a good heart. Conservatism without integrity is fascism, and that’s where we’re headed. The GOP as it stands today is a cancer on America until they excise the rot. Until they get their integrity back. They may be too far gone as they cling to the anchor of Trump’s sinking ship.
Being liberal is easier, and less ideologically fragile. A terrible liberal policy that throws money at the problem is still going to help some people along the way. Help without accountability is simply shallow and ineffective, whereas conviction without righteousness is just evil. Temperance without responsibility only restricts progress. Liberalism doesn’t require the same sort of moral or ethical vigilance that conservatism does, and when that vigilance is gone, everything it touches dies.
If Grandpa were alive today, he’d be appalled and ashamed of what America has become. He wouldn’t recognize it. I don’t know if he’d see a little bit of himself, his character, in Biden — I do — but I know he would be repulsed by the idea that the Great American Storybook is being written by Donald Trump.
So I have to ask myself that question: Why should I vote for my ideological opposite?
The answer is immediate and visceral, and I have my grandfather to thank for my unwavering certainty.