Taking Trumpism Seriously

At a recent dinner, I was reminded of the often unspoken political gulfs that yawn beneath the surface of our daily interactions.  

A smart, attractive woman friend, a lawyer like me, spouse of another acquaintance I knew to be a hard-right conservative, recounted the story of how a woman friend of hers had recently said to her in the context of a social gathering that she couldn’t understand how any woman could have voted for Trump. With that, my friend drew her pinched fingers across her mouth to indicate how she zipped herself quiet rather than admit to the woman, as she was now silently admitting to me, that she had indeed voted for Trump, but didn’t want to fight about it.

One of the greatest of all social faux pas must be to assume that everyone within earshot shares the same political or religious views, which is why talk of such things was long banned from gatherings of polite society. But I can’t tell you how many dinners I’ve attended where, because all the diners were of a certain age and economic standing, it was assumed that we all thought Barack Obama was a plague upon the body politic, so we could take turns trashing him both personally (he’s lazy, you know, and so condescending) and for the policies he was presumed to represent (destroying the economy with excessive regulation, etc.).

And here I was at another dinner, assuming that because this woman friend had a more sophisticated demeanor than her conservative husband, she must not have voted the way her husband would. My only saving grace was that I hadn’t yet blurted out anything to reveal this unwarranted assumption, and in her quiet way she was letting me know where she stood and how little she needed to defend it.

So if we are to be citizens and neighbors and friends, we need to adopt a stance of respectful credulity toward those whose views of our President may differ dramatically from ours.  And I need as much practice in this as anyone.

In my last post I posited that Trump’s victory in 2016 was the result, at least in part, of a failure of education, the failure of a large segment of the electorate to perceive his television persona as the culmination of a protracted con of which they, and therefore all of us, were unwitting victims. They succumbed to the decades-long campaign of self-promotion that had made him a tabloid laughing stock in his home town of New York, yet perfect fodder for reality TV, that oxymoronic confirmation of our cultural decline.

But this is too simple. Despite the policy gymnastics and diplomatic comedies, despite the hair and the tweets, Trump represents serious things to serious people, no matter how much I, and maybe you, would like to pass him off as a charlatan and those people as simply his dupes.

Leave aside the sub-groups that think “The Apprentice” was a documentary, or for whom Trump’s racist dog whistles were a long-awaited imprimatur upon the fevered brow of white supremacy. Leave also aside the Second Amendment absolutists who were convinced by the NRA that Hillary would have taken away their guns. What does Trump represent to the thoughtful citizen — my friend at the dinner party— who voted to put him in office?

To perhaps the largest percentage of these voters, he was simply the nominee, and now the leader, of their party, a far from perfect but at least marginally more acceptable alternative than the arch-nemesis Clinton. In this view, he is just another vessel, however flawed, of traditional Republican policies: constrained Federal regulation, military strength, fiscal sobriety, social traditionalism, robust nationalism. And the substance — if not the tone — of his actions in office have borne this out.  These voters assumed that the fact that he had never held elective office and had no plausible credentials for the job would be overcome by sensible cabinet staffing and Presidential protocol. History may prove them wrong, but they were not historically foolish for thinking it.

For another faction of thoughtful Republicans, Trump is a Molotov cocktail lobbed into the middle of the culture wars, the eruption that was needed to shake the “deep state” to its roots and begin the hard, serious work of dismantling the Washington bureaucracy and the redistributist culture that many of them see as a cancer on the republic, not to mention a threat to their own wealth. This role is one that Trump clearly relishes and that fits his impulsive, narcissistic character best, but it’s also one that pits him against much of the Federal bureaucracy, as we see almost daily.

It’s this deep antagonism on the part of a large segment of American voters to the very idea of a robust, meritocratic, and by definition elitist Federal government that Democrats and liberals of all stripes tend to dismiss, yet need to recognize and address. What’s lost traction, what’s under attack here is the very notion that we are more than a loose confederation of regions that come together periodically for football games and national elections, that we have a common civic purpose, a common morality, and a transcendent social goal. It’s the resurgence of the starkly utilitarian idea that from the selfish behavior of masses of individuals will be magically distilled the greatest good for the greatest number, and it means the decline of the idealisms of my youth, which saw a strong central government as the natural expression of broad-based communal interests, and tribal individualism as a relic of harsher times.

In taking Trump seriously, Democrats need to get serious about articulating and defending the core values of traditional liberalism, and spend a lot less time vilifying a man who is beyond shame anyway. He is not the problem, he’s a symptom, and the illness we’re all suffering from, those who voted for Trump and those of us who wake up every morning incredulous that he’s still President, is the accelerating atrophy of our common understanding of ourselves as members of what we once called a great society. 

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