For those of us convinced that Donald Trump’s defects of character, lack of knowledge, encouragement of social division and disregard for democratic norms outweigh any good he may do – the rough definition of being #NeverTrump – these are confusing and challenging times.
Trump’s solid basis of support is relatively homogeneous. It is fed up with foreigners, with foreign entanglements and with the political class as a whole. Its worst temptation is dehumanization – reducing migrants, refugees and Muslims to threatening types.
Trump opponents, in contrast, could hardly be more ideologically diverse – from conservatives (like me), to libertarians, to the hardest of the hard left. We have little in common but a hashtag. And our worst temptation is also dehumanization – turning Trump supporters into threatening types. It is a habit of mind that may help consolidate Trump’s control of the GOP and thus his prospects for re-election.
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Apropos is a recent, excellent article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, arguing that the tone and approach of liberal, late-night television are invading and discrediting a serious Trump critique. The typical monologue, as Flanagan describes, is an “excoriating, profanity-strewn, ad hominem tirade against the president (and by extension against anyone who might agree, in any small measure, with his actions).”
Flanagan recounts how late-night personality Samantha Bee set up and ridiculed a young Trump supporter (for which Bee later apologized). “Trump and Bee,” Flanagan argues, “are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values. … Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless.”
It is far more consequential, of course, when Trump does the mocking. But Flanagan is correct that the attitude of late-night television gets mixed up in the public mind with the mainstream media and appears to many as a monolith of cruel, establishment bias.
On the whole, people can better tolerate being shouted at than being sneered at. And the sneer of the knowledge class was clearly a motivating factor for many Trump voters. They felt condescension from the commanding heights of the culture and set out to storm its highest point. The pose of late-night television – duplicated by many on the left – is a continuing provocation. It is the general, obnoxious attitude in which it is somehow permissible for the Democratic National Committee to hawk a T-shirt on its website saying, “Democrats give a sh*t about people.”
This leads to a second, divisive and counterproductive tendency among anti-Trump forces. For many on the left, the energy of opposition to the president is only useful to drive an existing agenda – and to drive the Democratic Party leftward. When women marched on the day after Trump’s inauguration, their platform included “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion” – as though this was the natural position for all who have deep concerns about the president. Some talk of growing discontent as a “left-wing tea party” – as though this were finally the chance for MoveOn.org and the Occupy movement to complete their October Revolution in the Democratic Party.
Warns former Barack Obama official Michael Wear: “The Democratic Party should view Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP as an opportunity to build a lasting majority. Instead, they view Trump as offering license to move further to the left on policy and still win.”
Consider where trends might take us. At the presidential level, there is currently no center-right party in America. With the ascendency of its Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders wing, there would be no center-left party in America. The ideological and cultural sorting of the two parties would be complete, and nearly every issue would become a culture war battle.
It is safe to say that many recent presidents have been saved by the radicalism, overreach and foolishness of their opposition. Some on the right went a bridge too far in impeaching Bill Clinton and discredited themselves with conspiratorial accusations about the death of Vince Foster. Some on the left were off-puttingly feverish in their presentation of George W. Bush as an election-stealing cowboy who may have been complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Some on the right used overheated rhetoric against Obama’s supposed socialism and obsessed on his birth certificate.
A substantive, centrist response to Trump has a chance of releasing his hold on the GOP and the country. A sneering, dismissive, dehumanizing, conspiratorial, hard left leaning response to Trump is his fondest hope.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.