Senator Jeff Sessions is in a unique political position.
He is the most respected, influential, and likeable elected official within the conservative movement – a movement that just saw many of its lifelong members declare that they’d never vote for President-elect Donald Trump or who eventually did so but rather reluctantly.
He is also the most respected, influential, and likeable elected official within Trump’s inner circle, having been the first significant politician to endorse his unlikely candidacy and the only senator who did so during the primary season.
Sessions is beloved by us all, and that’s why there’s no man better positioned – or with a better disposition – than our state’s junior senator to unite the two camps, or as Trump put it early Wednesday morning, to help “bind the wounds of division,” particularly within the Republican Party and especially within the conservative movement.
We’ve endured a bloody civil war within the party for more than a year. Lifelong political compatriots have fought hard against each other. Many friendships were heavily bruised, and some may have been irretrievably lost. And now, in imitation of the wisdom shown at Appomattox Court House, a “general amnesty” needs to be granted to all combatants, especially the conservatives with whom we’ve built this movement, this party, and our future.
Trump’s poignant and humble victory speech set the tone.
“I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” the president-elect said, adding that, “those who have chosen not to support me in the past … I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
Hours later, in a speech from his native Wisconsin, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told reporters that Trump’s speech “set the perfect tone” and that now was the time for “redemption, not recrimination.”
Yet there are influential voices who are calling for just that – the modern day equivalent of tarring and feathering those conservatives who backed another horse in the primary, or who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Trump out of a principled stance against his political positions or personal failings. They want to run them out on a rail.
“Paul Ryan is not going to be the Speaker of the House in January,” said Sean Hannity on FOX News, as the results were becoming clear on election night. Hannity was an early and aggressive advocate for Trump, and was highly critical (and often justifiably so) of the speaker’s legislative strategy and policy positions.
Another early advocate and fellow radio talk show host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday warned Governor Chris Christi, who is leading Trump’s transition team, against filling any vacancies in the administration with conservatives who opposed Trump.
So much for “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” right?
I’ve listened regularly to Hannity and Ingraham for years and respect their meaningful contribution to the movement and to the party. They’re also smart, good, and principled people, and I’m sure if they searched their hearts they’d appreciate the dedicated conservative who simply couldn’t get over the many liberal things Trump has said and supported in the past.
Others who are calling for heads and hands need to take a long look at those they’re actually seeking to punish: there are plenty of squishy moderates and establishment types within the #NeverTrump camp, but there are also many deeply committed movement conservatives who we simply cannot do without.
I had, and still have, serious concerns about the authenticity and reliability of Trump’s conservative positions. I campaigned against him in the primary and bellyached about his liberal tendencies throughout the general election, but in the end he got my vote because he was much, much better than the alternative.
Conservatives who didn’t vote for Trump made a mistake. True. But they’re not our opposition.
If they’re truly conservative – and believe in timeless principles like limited government, free markets, and individual rights, among others – we need them in the tent, not outside of it.
Lee helped Grant recognize that in 1864.
Maybe Sessions can help Trump recognize that in 2016.