One of the most dangerous effects of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is the venomous anger his demagoguery has cultivated among his more engaged supporters, to be spewed at anyone who dares to express concern about any of their idol’s (yes, idol’s) soft spots.
Just click on any article, on any website, critical of anything about Trump, and navigate to the readers’ comments. First, notice the unusually large number of them. Then observe the tone: rarely logical, thoughtful, or truly argumentative, the Trump defenders (granting honorable exceptions) simply attack — personally, irrelevantly, uncivilly — any writer or fellow commenter, no matter how unimpeachably serious (even Thomas Sowell, for heaven’s sake!) who dares to suggest Trump may be a poor nominee.
That’s their prerogative, of course, and anyone who writes for public consumption must be thick-skinned enough to stand by his ideas and let the spewers spew. The problem, however, lies in the way this true believer invective is smothering meaningful political discourse precisely when such discourse is most urgently needed.
This is the moment for freedom-loving people to debate the statements and substance of each candidate with all the open-mindedness they can muster, leaving the hypnotized cultist behavior to the progressives, where it belongs. Instead, serious public discussion, which is the heart of the representative element of representative republicanism, has been hijacked by idol-worshippers for whom there is nothing Trump could do or say that would cause them one second of self-doubt. Trump himself highlighted this when he declared that he wouldn’t lose any supporters if he shot someone on 5th Avenue. Bizarrely, that may be the best synopsis of the situation. Trump’s followers have transcended rational discourse altogether, and are prepared to defend anything, attack anyone, contradict their own principles with regularity, rather than address the arguments of sincere critics. In short, like true believers of any stripe, they seem to approach all questions about their hero with pure, unmitigated anger, which is the enemy of sober judgment.
Indignation at those who challenge our cherished beliefs is a natural passion. But it must never be allowed free rein, as though anger itself were a point of view, rather than a mere passion. As we all know from our personal lives, indignation is often the soul’s knee-jerk defense of its dumbest and most indefensible ideas, equivalent to a child stamping his feet and blocking his ears. How many marriages and friendships have been ruptured by indignant responses to sincere constructive criticism?
Unbridled anger in politics threatens both those succumbing to it and those victimized by it. Specifically, it subdues reason by paralyzing the power of judgment and intimidating dissenting voices. Indignation in defense of an unreasoned belief is a mechanism of fanaticism. It characterizes the psyche of people willing to cut off the heads of those who disagree with their creed, to issue fatwas against people who draw pictures of religious idols.
But direct violence is only its most obvious manifestation. The indignation of fanaticism also explains the willingness of Germans to believe that the Jews were the cause of Germany’s economic troubles, or of Democrats to believe that anyone who disapproves of Barack Obama’s presidency is racist.
We are seeing this form of fanaticism — untamed anger in defense of idol worship — among Trump’s supporters, captured well by Trump’s remark about shooting someone on 5th Avenue. What is most disturbing is the effect this anger is having on those among his followers who have been sincere and rational defenders of liberty for years, but have seemingly ceded their judgment to the Trump cult. Evidence for this is the degree to which, for all their vitriol against what they call “the establishment” — which now means literally everyone who is not with Trump — these good people support Trump with the same arguments they themselves justly criticized for years, when those arguments were coming from the GOP elite.
To demonstrate this, let’s consider the idolaters’ stock responses to the basic criticisms of Trump.
To the argument that at this moment of life-or-death crisis, America needs a principled leader, not a deal-maker, Trump supporters say, “We don’t need a talker, we need a doer, someone who can actually get things done.” But what kinds of things will a doer do, if he is without grounding principles? Or is action for its own sake all that is needed? Trump has done many things in his business career. Some of those things involved the use of legal force to take private property from its rightful owners. Some involved the generous electoral support of hard core socialists when he felt it served his personal advantage. Are these the sort of things his supporters want him to “do”?
Against this concern, his followers say, “But Trump will hire the best advisors.” And how will a man without settled principles and character, whose Washington connections are all establishment parasites (see below), determine his standard for defining what a “best advisor” might be?
To the criticism that Trump has advocated socialized healthcare, his followers say “That was years ago,” or “Healthcare is a secondary issue now.”
To the first point, no it was not years ago. Last August, he was asked about his support of single-payer healthcare, and replied “It works in Canada. It could have worked [here] in a different age.” One would like to know when that “different age” passed, since he was advocating fully socialized medicine at least up to the year 2000. Is he really suggesting that socialized medicine would have “worked” up to 2000, but now, for some reason, it wouldn’t work? Or is he merely saying that advocating socialism “worked” for him in the past, publicity-wise, but that it stopped “working” for him when he became immersed in GOP politics?
This is exactly what disturbs people about the claim that Trump will “get things done.” Shouldn’t you expect any Republican candidate promising to “make deals” to persuade you that his deals will conform to certain elemental principles, one of those being that socialism never works, and was never a good idea.
As for healthcare being a secondary issue, recall that Obamacare was perhaps the central concern of the 2012 GOP primaries, and the main constitutionalist objection to Mitt Romney was that he was too compromised on that issue to campaign effectively against it — a fear which turned out to be warranted. Trump’s followers say the progressive threat is too critical to waste time quibbling about conservative “purity.” But what epitomizes that progressive threat better than the drive for universal government-funded healthcare, an institution that socializes the economy and the popular mind more thoroughly and effectively than almost any other Marxist plank? If Trump remains a pragmatic apologist for one of progressivism’s defining goals (see here) — if he can’t see the moral objection to socialist redistribution — is he a trustworthy candidate? One wonders whether these angry Trump supporters remember why they were so angry in the first place.
To the criticism that Trump supported leftist policies and politicians for many years, his fans say, “That was in the past, but his views have changed.” How far in the past, exactly? Ignoring everything prior to Trump’s fiftieth birthday (1996), we may trace all his most famous progressive advocacy, contributions, and associations through his fifties and (at least) early sixties. Shouldn’t conscientious voters be leery of a sixty-nine year old man who supported leftist causes and leaders well into his sixties? Don’t we normally assume that a man’s political character and basic beliefs should be well established by that age? Why trust a candidate with such a dubious recent history?
“But Reagan was a Democrat,” Trump’s fans object. Reagan began supporting Republican presidents and speaking on behalf of conservative causes while in his early forties, and did so consistently for more than a decade before becoming a Republican governor at fifty-six. When he was elected President at Trump’s age, sixty-nine, he had already been a leading conservative voice for a quarter century. Trump donated $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel five years ago, and said socialized medicine “could have worked” five months ago.
Against critics of Trump’s donations to some of the most despised icons of the left — from Reid to Schumer to Pelosi — his followers echo what Trump himself said in 2011, namely that as a businessman, supporting powerful Democrats was just a normal cost of doing business in Democrat jurisdictions. Given the unapologetic cynicism with which Trump explains his contributions as an unscrupulous business strategy, shouldn’t his followers be just a tad concerned that this is his modus operandi, and that with all his recent tough talk on immigration (contradicting his own statements of three years ago) he may be playing a similar game with them, saying what he needs to say to get the GOP nomination, only to abandon them when working on an audience with different priorities? (See here, for example.)
To the criticism that he has a history of playing footsie with the Washington establishment, a history he recently noted with the cockiness of a man who knows he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose his fans, those fans contend that “Donald can’t be bought.” Can’t he? He describes himself as the kind of businessman who sells his name and reputation — not to mention his country — to leftist thugs for the sake of a little friendly consideration in his real estate deals (e.g., Chicago, 2002-2010: $7000 to Rod Blagojevich, $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel, $12,500 to the Cook County Democratic Party), and his followers say he can’t be bought? Perhaps he can’t be bought with money, but money is not the only commodity. The reason no one can figure out whether Trump is a conservative or a liberal, a Democrat Trojan horse or a patriot, is precisely because the one thing we know about him, from his record and his own self-descriptions, is that his political speech and action are for sale whenever he sees personal gain in the deal.
To all of the above, Trump’s supporters say, “What’s the alternative?” Last time I checked, there were still a lot of candidates in the primaries, and a lot of voting to be done. They say they could never vote for the establishment’s Plan A (Bush), or its Plan B (Rubio). Fine — then why do they support its Plan C?
To that, the cultists say, “But he’s the only one who can win.” Leaving aside the fact that they have no evidence for this, while the polls (which I hate) seem to suggest the opposite, I think this defense of Trump proves how effectively Karl Rove (whose American Crossroads group and its offshoot, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, Trump generously funded for years) has gotten into the heads of some conservatives. GOP insiders always undermine principled candidates with the argument that only a nominee from the pragmatic “center” who is prepared to “deal” with the progressives can win in the general election. For decades, conservatives have rejected this argument because it requires abandoning freedom on the false premise that in a progressive era, only a candidate who looks like a compromiser can succeed. Trump fans have now effectively reduced themselves to this milquetoast argument.
Doubling down on this weak position, they say, “This year stopping Hillary is the defining goal.” Does anyone recall the last presidential candidate who stopped Hillary? If defeating Hillary (who, according to Trump in 2008, “would make a great president”) becomes the defining goal, failure is almost assured, as the GOP typically fails when campaigning on a negative, unprincipled platform. What is needed is a clear direction that people find more inspiring than the one offered by the neo-Marxists. Clarity of purpose, a positive vision for a radical re-Constitution of America, if you will, is exactly what a pragmatic opportunist cannot provide.
For years, constitutionalists have dreaded the prospect of being forced to vote for Republicans who play the big government game of cronyism and mutual back-scratching. Trump epitomizes that game, has long been a participant in its protocols, and is now boasting of his great relationships with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Testing his “5th Avenue” theory, Trump is already telling his hypnotized followers that it is time to start sounding less “strident” and to become “a little bit establishment” to “make great deals.” Does the phrase “deal with the devil” mean anything to you?
“But Donald wants to make America great again,” say his fans, quoting his campaign slogan as a talisman against self-doubt. I wonder how many of those same people, had anyone else claimed to love America while supporting Reid, Schumer, McConnell, et al, would have replied, “No one who loves America would spend thousands of dollars supporting politicians hell-bent on destroying her and then defend himself by saying it was good for business.” Is this a time for patriotic repackaging of establishment “deals,” or for genuine revolutionary content?
To the charge that Trump’s opportunism translates into a campaign style defined by schoolyard bullying and turncoat personal attacks against anyone who challenges him, his supporters say, “The aim is to win,” suggesting that winning without moral integrity is fine by them. Can America afford another four to eight years of rule by cynical bullies, unprincipled power-players manipulating an angry mob, crybabies who scream “I hate you!” when they fear they might not get their way? Haven’t seven years of such tyrannical tirades and rule by personal intimidation been enough?
Against this, Trump’s fans complain, “We’re tired of the know-it-alls, academics, and commentators telling us to be respectable.” Translation: If Trump shot someone on 5th Avenue; if he mocked a sixty year old Republican businesswoman by saying “Look at her face”; if he smeared an eminent Republican brain surgeon by comparing him to a pedophile; and if he joined forces with Mitch McConnell to impugn as “nasty” and “hated” the only man in the Senate with the guts to stand up to McConnell publicly, they would support him anyway. If he praised crony capitalism to win votes in Iowa; if he conveniently flipped his position on a rival’s eligibility when that rival became a threat in the polls; and if, having solidified the support of an angry following by running as anti-establishment, he suddenly pivoted to highlight his close relationships with socialists and his eagerness to “make deals” with that establishment, they would support him anyway.
And they will support him in Trump style. Thus, anyone who questions Trump in any way, in addition to being assailed with the aforementioned mantra of talking points, will be given a thousand lashes of “establishment hack,” “fraud,” “RINO,” “moron,” and “sell-out.” In other words, if you don’t support Donald Trump, “Everybody hates you! You’re nasty, ugly, and pathological!”
For the record, I am not saying all of Trump’s recent positions (e.g., on Islamists) are wrong. However, the man’s past and present behavior and rhetoric suggest he is politically unprincipled, habitually duplicitous, delusionally self-aggrandizing, and profoundly unserious. If you can accept that, perhaps he’s your man.
But if Trump and his cultists continue to paralyze rational political discourse with mob tactics and ad hominem vitriol, a republic founded on principles of reason and moderation may finally burn itself to the ground in a fit of fanatical anger. Could the progressive radicals have planned this any better?