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The Agony of the Anti-Anti-Trumpers

BUt tHe mEDiA!
August 14, 2020
The Agony of the Anti-Anti-Trumpers

It’s mid-August and I find myself thinking about Dante lately. Maybe it’s because all the bugs around here make me think of certain scenes from the Inferno, or maybe it’s because I have been reading too much Twitter.

Welcome to the Daily Countdown. We have 81 days to go until the election; and then 78 days after that until Inauguration Day.

One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was something he thought came from Dante: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

As it turns out, he got the quote wrong. But what Dante did write was far better.

In Dante’s Inferno, the moral cowards are not granted admission to Hell; they are consigned to the vestibule, where they are doomed to follow a rushing banner that is blown about by the wind. When Dante asks his guide, Virgil, who they are, he explains:

This miserable way is taken by sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

They are destined to be forgotten. “The world will let no fame of theirs endure,” Virgil explains. “Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.” Dante describes the vast horde who chase after the elusive banner that “raced on so quick that any respite seemed unsuited to it.” Behind the banner, he writes, “trailed so long a file/ of people—I should never have believed/ that death could have unmade so many souls.”

This, of course, got me thinking about the anti-anti-Trumpers and their season of agita.

A cry went up this week from the precinct of the anti-anti-Trumpers suggesting that the selection of Kamala Harris was the moment for their decisive break into formal indecisiveness. As much as they loathed Donald Trump, they insisted, there was no way that they could support a Biden-Harris ticket.

But the choice of Harris wasn’t really a tipping point, because the anti-antis were never going to support a viable opponent to Trump. The essence of anti-anti-Trumpism is the full recognition of the awfulness of Trump and all of his works, but a firm resolve not to actually do anything to confront them.

They have found a sweet spot where they can criticize the president, but also sneer at his critics, thus keeping their conservative credentials (if not their consciences) intact.

National Review’s Dan McLaughlin could have provided a bumper sticker slogan for anti-anti-Trumper’s by declaring on Twitter the other day that he could never support Biden-Harris, because Kamala Harris was willing “to break norms & disdain limits on executive powers & the rule of law. The most anti-Constitution candidate you could pick.” (I’d like to tell you about a man named Donald.)

That may seem like rather an audacious leap, but it’s what you have to believe if you are anti-anti-Trump. If you recognize Trump as a corrupt threat to the Republic, you can’t regard the Democrats simply as conventional progressives. Kamala Harris cannot be seen merely as an opportunistic Democratic politician with a somewhat inconsistent ideological streak. No; she must be seen as much worse than Donald Trump. Seriously worse.

Back in 2017, I wrote about how this works:

For many in the conservative movement, this sort of anti-anti-Trumpism is the solution to the painful conundrum posed by the Trump presidency. With a vast majority of conservative voters and listeners solidly behind Mr. Trump, conservative critics of the president find themselves isolated and under siege. But, as Damon Linker noted, anti-anti-Trumpism “allows the right to indulge its hatred of liberals and liberalism while sidestepping the need for a reckoning with the disaster of the Trump administration itself.” . . .

Here is how it works: Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?”

In the last three years, that has become a way of life, both in the tonier precincts of the right’s intelligentsia and its trollier suburbs.

For some, being anti-anti has been a simple matter of business model prudence. It is one thing to criticize Trump’s arrogance, recklessness, narcissism, and lawlessness—but quite another to take a stand in favor of his impeachment and removal, or now of his defeat. Best to hang back and prepare to slit the throats of the wounded when the battle is over.

So Trump can preside over a massive public health failure, tweet racist memes, and behave in ways that might bring a blush to a banana-republic dictator—but how about that media bias?

This failure to commit one way or another has many advantages, not the least of which are political. By staying above the fray, they can stay “relevant” in GOP politics, assuage donors, and escape blame for a Trump defeat. It wasn’t me, they can say, it was those bastards over at the Lincoln Project.

But you can see the stress of this sort of mugwumpery, which carries a heavy whiff of guilty conscience. Most of the anti-antis have no illusions whatsoever about who Donald Trump is, or what a second term would mean.

Just yesterday, National Review’s Rich Lowry lamented the “QAnon Rot in the GOP,” and acknowledged Trump’s role in poisoning his party. The spread of QAnon, Lowry wrote, “shows that the Trump-era GOP has weakened antibodies against kookery.”

Trump himself sets the tone. He’s an indiscriminate tweeter of disreputable Twitter accounts, and he’s floated all sort of ridiculous conspiracy theories himself over the years—just ask Ted Cruz’s father, or Joe Scarborough. Trump fulsomely praised Marjorie Taylor Greene upon her primary victory as a Republican rising star.

A week earlier Lowry had described Trump as “thin-skinned, self-obsessed, small-minded, intellectually lazy, and ill-disciplined.”

But—and here is the thing—Lowry isn’t going to break decisively with Trump’s re-election by calling for his defeat by Joe Biden. Instead, he will criticize Trump while lacerating those who actually oppose him.

Last week he tweeted:

But what has Lowry signed up for? A party infested with QAnon? Birthers? 9/11 Truthers?

Lowry writes regretfully of Trump’s failures, but he is passionate in denouncing the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and its “spittle-flecked rage” against Trump. Trump may be a disaster, but Lowry saves his indignant disdain for the Never Trumpers who take positions that are “rageful and extreme, but satisfyingly emotive.”

This is textbook anti-anti.

Elections, however, require a choice. You either own Trumpism, or make a temporary alliance to drive him from office. It’s hard for some conservatives (like me) to find ourselves allied with figures whose politics they have opposed for decades.

But it has to be especially awful for the folks who know that another four years of Trump would be catastrophic but cannot bring themselves to say so or do anything about it.

Thus the crankiness of the past week, as they come to grips with the reality that they have joined the ranks “of the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.”

It’s hard to capture how bad yesterday was. Here in Wisconsin, we enjoyed a stunningly perfect summer day, but if you were foolish enough to check the news, you saw that (1) Trump is openly saying that universal mail-in balloting requires extra funding for the U.S. Postal Service, and that he’s opposed to giving it to them, and (2) suggested that the circumstances of her birth to immigrant parents might make Kamala Harris ineligible to serve as vice president.

In Pennsylvania, elections officials are already sounding the alarm. “USPS says Pennsylvania mail ballots may not be delivered on time, and state warns of ‘overwhelming’ risk to voters.”

And then felon Trump lawyer Michael Cohen announced he was coming out with a new tell-all book that will almost certainly not be greeted with the skepticism it deserves.

The birther thing felt stunning, but was actually totally on brand for Trump. “Wow,” my colleague Tim Miller tweeted, “who could’ve predicted that the racist birther asshole president would bite on the racist birther nonsense targeting Kamala.”

Eventually, perhaps, Trump will insist that he “was just asking questions.” But yesterday, the president seemed eager to give the bogus theory oxygen.

President Trump, in an echo of his false birtherism claims against President Barack Obama, said questions raised by one of his campaign advisers about the eligibility of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to run for vice president were “very serious.”

Harris was born in Oakland, Calif., and is, by the laws of the Constitution, a U.S. citizen. But some birther conspiracy theorists say, wrongly, that her parents’ immigration status at the time of her birth makes her ineligible. Trump’s remarks were a reprise of his past false allegation that Obama was born in Kenya rather than in Hawaii and thus ineligible to serve.

Trump also announced that he will accept his renomination on the White House lawn. That violates long-held norms against the political use of taxpayer property. But, who needs norms? And who is going to stop him?

With 81 days to go, this appears lo be literally true. And, yes, I meant literally.

Trump took credit for brokering a deal between Israel and the UAE, but also worried about TV ratings.

White-knuckle poll update: For the moment, I’m going to ignore the insta-polls about the selection of Harris, because its too early to get a sense of how it will play. But a new  NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that Biden now leads Trump 53 percent to 42 percent, up from an 8-point advantage at the end of June. The poll also has these less-than-reassuring details

It comes as 71% of Americans now see the coronavirus as a real threat, up significantly over the last several months, as more than 167,000 Americans have died and more than 5 million have become infected with the virus.

And yet, more than a third of Americans (35%) say they won’t get vaccinated when a vaccine comes available; 60% say they will. There are huge splits by education and party on this. Those with college degrees are 19 points more likely to get vaccinated than those without (72% to 53%), and Democrats are 23 points more likely than Republicans (71% to 48%).

There are 81 days to go.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.