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Beholding Trump in Full

The president’s supporters and the Never Trumpers talk past each other because they each tend to acknowledge only a piece of him.
August 5, 2020
Beholding Trump in Full
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One prior to departing Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Florida, July 31, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Try to imagine that your political adversaries are motivated by interests other than selfishness or an orgiastic desire to banish everyone with your views to the island of Saint Helena. Now . . . if you were successful, you should introduce yourself to Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman of Penn State University, who have had a tough time finding your kind in their research of Americans’ political attitudes.

For a “Mood of the Nation” poll they conducted last summer, Plutzer and Berkman asked voters who had cast ballots in the 2018 midterm elections to locate within themselves that rare resource of American political life, empathy:

We asked every Republican in the sample to do their best to imagine that they were a Democrat and sincerely believed that the Democratic Party was best for the country. We asked them to explain their support for the Democratic Party as an actual Democratic voter might. . . . But most had trouble looking at the world through Democratic eyes. Typical was a 59-year-old Floridian who wrote “I don’t want to work and I want cradle to grave assistance. In other words, Mommy!”

And Democrats “return[ed] the favor” against Republicans:

Democrats inferred that Republicans must be “VERY ill-informed,” or that “Fox news told me to vote for Republicans.” Or that Republicans are “uneducated and misguided people guided by what the media is feeding them.” . . . Many used the question to express their anger and outrage at the other side. Rather than really try to take the position of their opponents, they said things like, “I like a dictatorial system of Government, I’m a racist, I hate non-whites.”

Findings such as these give some color to the country’s typical partisan divides, all of which are sketched along similar battle lines: right versus left, conservative versus progressive or liberal, red state versus blue state. But the basic insight of this part of Plutzer and Berkman’s research transcends such debates, and is broadly applicable to any two competing political forces in a democracy: voters often do not understand or acknowledge their opponents’ motivations, and in the absence of knowing accuse them of acting in bad faith.

This insight can help us to think more clearly about the antagonism of the pro-Trump and Never Trump factions of conservatism.

Donald Trump is not a complicated person. He speaks in simple words, never says “no comment,” and appeals to what the late neuroscientist Paul MacLean called “reptilian” instincts. Nonetheless, he is so multitudinous in his discernible traits, so prolific in the records of his history and the news he creates, that he can be indescribable—not because one must squint to see him, but because he is so overwhelming a figure that he exists partly inside the field of vision and mostly beyond the periphery. Trump’s defenders and detractors alike often account for only a piece of him when they say he is either the chosen one or a bringer of doom.

What, then, would a fuller accounting of Trump look like? How would his most politically salient characteristics be described? Maybe something close to this:

1) Trump is a Republican and the president, which makes him the doorman of his party’s favored policies and judges, and the last line of defense against progressives in Congress.

2) He is a “different kind” of Republican, one who declares new culture wars (unlike, say, Mitch Daniels, who sought truces to old ones); reversed his party’s orthodoxy on trade, entitlement reform, and foreign policy; and charted a more restrictive approach toward immigration.

3) He is guilty of having an unacceptable comportment, which shows up not just in tweets—which are awful enough—but in the White House press briefing room, the Pentagon, and the Oval Office.

4) He is an abuser of executive power, as reflected in policy fights, such as his unilateral effort to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in issues of his personal or political interest, such as Ukraine, his commuting the sentence of Roger Stone, and circumventing the constitutional appointment process by filling key administration posts with indefinite temps.

Some of Trump’s sympathizers invoke one of the first two points to dismiss his critics’ warnings about the latter two, often by leveling ad hominem attacks against them. Wrote R. Emmett Tyrell recently: “All the chief architects of the Never Trump movement are either has-beens or never-weres. . . . Donald, his tweets aside, brought us to a robust economy. He is doing it again.”

Other Trump supporters believe that his conservative opponents, despite all their talk about the third and fourth points, actually object to the second point—as if sounding an alarm about Trump’s comportment and abuses were just a pretext to fight against “America First” conservatism. “The Lincoln Project is thus a U.S. version of a phenomenon seen worldwide: centrist conservatives who no longer feel at home in a party whose voters want a more nationalist and populist agenda,” claims Henry Olsen, referring to the pugilistic ad firm led by a handful of Republican presidential campaign veterans.

But as Olsen himself notes, the Lincoln Project has also launched a political offensive against some Senate Republicans not in response to their backing of “a more nationalist and populist agenda,” but rather for “backing Trump on matters such as impeachment.” By Olsen’s own admission, the group’s concern is not restoring “the pre-Trump Republican economic orthodoxy on matters such as trade, regulation of the Internet and immigration,” but rather the judgment of the Republicans who sided with Trump when he was accused of leveraging U.S. diplomatic authority over an ally to damage his likely election opponent. These things—the government policies of Trumpism and the conduct of Trump himself—exist in different universes. Think of it this way: Major League Baseball’s issue with Pete Rose wasn’t his management of the Cincinnati Reds’ pitching staff.

For all the ways that Trump supporters mischaracterize their estranged friends, though, the Never Trump community has to reckon with what benefits he provides to the right. It is indisputable, for example, that a Democratic president would not nominate judges with the judicial philosophy of either Neil Gorsuch or Brett Kavanaugh to any federal court. For individuals who prioritize religious freedom or Roe v. Wade to the exclusion of other issues, then, the judiciary could be a deciding factor in choosing to stick by Trump—a more consequential consideration than his flaws. Other right-of-center voters may adjudge the progressive left to be a greater threat to democracy than Trump. And the value systems of still others may rate the Republican agenda, especially in contrast to the possibilities of Democratic governance, to be a net good even when taking into account the bad that comes with Trump. These are logically defensible positions—and logical positions can be debated, even if a participant who disagrees with them finds them maddening or repellent.

The key phrase is “can be.” Such intellectual exchanges do not animate the internecine war of the conservatives. The right’s pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions are motivated by different priorities—that much is clear. But what differentiates the groups in general is how they acknowledge the tenuousness of their stances when they face one another. Never Trumpers are essentially unanimous in rejecting the president for his megalomania and maladministration (a toxic governing cocktail during a pandemic). But they do not try to augment their arguments by denying the obvious: that Trump is the leader of the American right and therefore will help deliver certain policy outcomes to their liking. If anything, Never Trumpers often struggle with the tradeoff. In any case, the Never Trump point of view is that the presidency is subject to a hierarchy of needs, in which character, competence, and commitment to the law are more fundamental than policy goals.

“Character, competence, and commitment to the law” do not factor in as clearly to the alternative perspective. The prevailing pro-Trump posture—the one inherent to his political base—instead holds up Trump’s comportment as a virtue, admires his wisdom beyond question, and deems his power theoretically limitless, since it is the obligation of everyone on the right to, in the words of an infamous Trump-universe commentator, “trust Trump.” “Power is not a means; it is an end,” said O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is the only worldview in which it is coherent to recast Trump’s misdeeds as good works and revel in his behavior that pulps standards of decency. Only by justifying power for power’s sake would it have been possible to nod in agreement when he said on July 19 that “I’ve been right [about the coronavirus] probably more than anybody else,” when he said nearly five months before that the number of cases in the United States “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, [and] that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Tens of thousands of Americans died from the bug in the time in between those statements.

There is no flattening the curve of Donald Trump’s delusion. It is only convex. It only grows over time. And thus it becomes easier to ride it than to deny it.

Chris Deaton

Chris Deaton is a writer living in Atlanta.