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Trump’s Divisiveness and Our Consciences

Contempt for other people is his governing strategy—and it can’t go on forever.
September 4, 2020
Trump’s Divisiveness and Our Consciences
US President Donald Trump holds a Keep America Great campaign rally at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, South Carolina, February 28, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon among my pro-Trump colleagues and friends: They feel a need to get social and psychological distance between themselves and the president. In my offline conversations, this distancing is expressed as, “I don’t like the tweets, but . . .” or “I don’t like him, but . . .” They approve of Trump’s policies, or at least some of them, but are uneasy about his character, or at least parts of it. He delivers certain policies (defense budgets, tax cuts, pro-life policies, judges) for the more establishment types and cultural products (lib-owning) for the rank and file. In exchange, he expects unquestioning support from both GOP elected officials and the rank and file.

All of which raises the question: If conservatives approve of the man’s policies why not just adopt his transactional mindset, too?

One answer: the “revenge of conscience.” In a book by that title published two decades ago, J. Budziszewski, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, argues that when we compromise or violate our deepest-held moral beliefs and instincts, we are visited by four “Furies” or “greater sisters of remorse” that make uncompromising demands for confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. If we don’t undertake those actions out of genuine remorse, we displace them—“confessing” to friends compulsively, for example, or “justifying” ourselves not by seeking to become just but by engaging in exercises of self-justification.

For many Trump supporters, the cognitive dissonance between the desire for certain policy outcomes and moral unease toward the man who is achieving them invites a visit from the Furies. Some of the Furies, like confession, have presented themselves in an attenuated way during my conversations with my Trump-backing friends. But the one most present is justification—Trump’s policies, which are or may be social and moral goods, are so important that I can and must justify the evils deployed to achieve them.

Before I’m buried under an avalanche of whataboutism (“You hate Trump so much you’re willing to turn your back on the good he’s doing and support candidates who are worse”), I would just point out that Budziszewski’s propositions are universal, and they apply to all of us, including me. Trump is living rent-free in certain aspects of my own psychology and background. My reaction to his persistent “button pushing” is the mirror image of my pro-Trump friends: My abhorrence of his conduct overwhelms my agreement with a number of his policy positions, presenting me with an irresolvable quandary. I must either back a president who repudiates my deepest-held principles about the dignity and inviolability of the human person or support candidates I do not agree with on a range of important issues. Some of these policies, like abortion, also go directly to the question of protecting human dignity. There are losses, compromises, and regrets in this dilemma for which the sisters of remorse are often after me.

And mine is not the only head where Trump has taken up residence. Over and over, I hear from Trump-supporting friends how they like both his policy positions and his sarcastic, faux-tough-guy demeanor although they themselves would generally be loath to be caught behaving in such a way. Yes, some people seem to take pleasure in the lib-owning, provocation, and degrading personal attacks emanating from the White House. In other cases, there may be regional disparities at play: Some people from parts of the urban Northeast may be more likely to be familiar with and even enjoy Trump’s modes of banter and behavior. (We shouldn’t write off the political salience of such regional differences in culture. “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger,” said George W. Bush in 2004, “which in Texas is called ‘walking.’”) And for many people—perhaps a majority on both sides—the button being pushed is the one marked “fear”: fear of a changing world, of alien cultures, philosophies and worldviews. Fear that the America we’ve have known and loved is changing in a fundamental way from which there will be no return. Or, conversely, fear that Trump will transform America into a land of anger, riot, low-grade civil conflict, and creeping authoritarianism. My point is that there is more than one way for Trump to “own” us all, to become a squatter in the mansions of conscience, and to do so in a uniquely pervasive, corrosive, and destructive way.

We’ve been here before and it is a bipartisan problem. Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton were all caught on tape engaging in insulting, dehumanizing attacks on their fellow Americans (Obama’s “bitter clingers” in 2008, Romney’s “47 percent” in 2012, Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” in 2016) where they signaled contempt for vast swaths of the country they claimed to love and wanted to lead. Such divisiveness is in our nature. We all harbor ugly, fear-driven antagonisms and indulge in intemperate remarks, especially when we think no one’s listening—or if we’re in a crowd where it feels “safe” to give free rein to those instincts and behaviors.

For Trump, as evidenced by his volcanic Twitter feed, that feeling of safety is constant. He has entirely abandoned the idea of leading the whole country, preferring instead to be president of the GOP base. He has raised contempt for other people to performance art and governing strategy. (How plausible is it that he wants less violence in the streets when civil unrest is now his central campaign plank and the shiny object he uses to distract the country from 185,000 COVID-19 deaths?) In doing so, he has granted permission to others on both sides of the partisan divide to do the same—which is exponentially worse than an occasional unguarded moment of the Obama, Romney, and Clinton variety. And the public is now getting into the act: When I scan social media I see what seems like legions of mini-Trumps, on the left and the right, who have absorbed the lesson that attacking, belittling, and threatening opponents is the way to draw attention and fight for a cause. It’s almost like a pandemic of the mind that jumps from person to person creating a culture in which the sisters of remorse finally give up and turn away in horror.

The more pronounced this pattern becomes the harder it will be to reason our way through the country’s shared challenges or the difficult compromises necessary to overcome them. Trump’s influence is particularly pernicious in this way. As one friend put it, “he’s got the biggest thumbs on Twitter,” and he, the duly elected president of the nation, is using them to erode the social trust and the intellectual, spiritual, and institutional tools we need to govern ourselves.

To state the obvious, this can’t go on forever. Time is running out for a renewal that might lead us to lay down the short-sighted use of partisan legislation and unilateral executive orders to try to impose by fiat that which is unachievable and unsustainable in a narrowly divided country. Unless we begin rejecting and stigmatizing the dehumanizing strategies and rhetoric that are overwhelming public discourse, and do it soon, our problems threaten to become bigger than we are. And when that day comes, extremists and enemies of freedom everywhere will rejoice as the calls to “let it all burn” finally triumph and we destroy the very country we are fighting so remorselessly with one another to control.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.