How can a decent human being support Donald Trump?
That’s a question that a lot of pundits have been asking, particularly as we are treated to the sight of House Speaker Paul Ryan calling Trump’s remarks about the Hispanic judge in his fraud case “the textbook definition of a racist comment” while still refusing to disavow his support for the Republican nominee.
Nonetheless, I think Ryan is a decent human being. And I presume that many other people supporting Trump are decent human beings. So why might they be supporting him, despite his frankly – even joyously – vile authoritarianism; his clear and present impulse control problems; his staggeringly offensive treatment of female reporters, disabled reporters and senators who spent time as prisoners of war; his encyclopedic lack of knowledge on any and all policy topics; and his complete disdain for principle or the truth?
Well, there is a case to be made. So here are the best (least-bad) reasons a person might endorse and vote for Trump:
• Republican politicians would like to get re-elected. Also, they would like there to be a Republican Party around after the Trump campaign.
Those goals might be better accomplished by opposing Trump. But some Republican loyalists have decided not to risk splitting the party down the middle. Their strategy is to offer lukewarm support to the Donald, hope he loses and try to rebuild the party for the midterms.
As I’ve pointed out before, Trump is a celebrity candidate, and celebrity candidates do not operate by the normal political rules. They can bring out people who don’t normally vote. But on the flip side, they do not necessarily have the normal effect that rising politicians have on their political parties. It’s actually pretty reasonable to think that as long as he is denied the White House the storm will blow over with relatively little long-term change to the structure of the party.
Given that, Republican politicians who want to disavow Trump may reasonably be more afraid of further alienating the folks who are mad at the establishment. If you believe that the Republican Party is better for the country than the alternative, it’s pretty tempting to just suck it up and condemn his outrages while still refusing to say you won’t vote for him. As Jean-Paul Sartre tells us, it is impossible to participate in politics without dirty hands.
• The Supreme Court. The left is getting positively giddy at the prospect of a Supreme Court with a solid block of five liberal justices who will reliably oppose conservatives on issues they consider vital, from gun rights to religious liberty to abortion. Mark Tushnet, an influential figure on the legal left, is already essentially advocating a total judicial war on conservative policies, particularly those involving social conservatives.
The regulatory disputes surrounding everything from birth control to transgender teens make a lot of religious groups feel – not entirely unreasonably – that they are facing an existential threat, as their rights of free association and conscience are trimmed back to “You can say it in the privacy of your own home, or at church, but don’t you dare act upon what you believe.” For religious people who feel that the next Supreme Court justice may make you choose between following your conscience and doing basic things like earning a living or educating your child, that choice becomes so important as to dwarf nearly every other consideration.
Ah, you will say, but why believe that Trump will appoint good judges? Fair question. However, conservatives may legitimately respond that they know, to a 100 percent certainty, that Hillary Clinton will appoint judges who are actively hostage to both their theory of constitutional jurisprudence and their personal policy preferences. Trump might do the same, but at least there’s some chance that they won’t find abortion restrictions lifted, the Heller gun rights case overturned, Hobby Lobby religious protections gutted, and gay and transgender rights expanded to the point where it becomes difficult to operate a school that teaches conservative Christian morality.
• Clinton’s emails. I’m sorry, Clinton supporters: The email server situation is bad. It’s really bad. You can wave your hands until the sonic booms start rattling nearby china, and it will still be fundamentally disturbing, not merely for its typically Clintonian “rules are for other people” grandeur, its airy disregard for security and its obvious commitment to an utter lack of transparency, but also for the sheer incompetence and stupidity of its execution at both the technical and political levels. If you are going to set up your own email server to keep your correspondence off of government systems, you should probably not let it go without an encryption certificate for months. You should also not bother to set up your own email server, since any moderately bright 14-year-old could tell you that your emails are going to show up in others’ inboxes, and then your secret server is going to become an eminently FOIA-able political disaster. The thing doesn’t just make me question Clinton’s character, but also her political acumen, and her ability to identify and hire competent staff.
• Immigration. Trump supporters are not wrong to say that elites of both parties have basically conspired to keep both immigration and trade off the agenda. Nor are they wrong to be annoyed when any opposition to increased immigration, or to legalizing people who are here illegally, is immediately dismissed as racist. No one who wrings their hands about gentrification can reasonably dismiss “I like my community the way it is” as an inherently racist and illegitimate sentiment.
Moreover, in a country with birthright voters, immigration means importing your future electorate; this, of course, sounds splendid to people on the left who think that this electorate will be friendlier to social democratic programs, but it is perfectly reasonable for people who prefer a more conservative government to oppose greater immigration for the same reason. Opposition to immigration can be racist, but it isn’t necessarily so. Trump’s pledge to deport all immigrants who are illegally in the United States is ludicrous, but it’s not ludicrous to think we should not reward people who have broken our immigration laws.
If this is the most important issue to you, it’s not crazy to prefer Trump.
• Elites need a rebuke. For all my criticisms of Trump and his supporters – and they have been many – I find myself quite sympathetic with the folks who are angry at the establishment. Elites are smug. They are obnoxiously condescending. They have colluded to keep legitimate issues off the table.
This sort of elite collusion can certainly work, but if it becomes too disconnected from the electorate, a political reaction is inevitable. We are in the middle of that reaction. And I have to say that if I were out there in flyover country, I’d probably be pretty mad too.
Are there rebuttals to all these arguments? There are. The most fundamental one is that for all Clinton’s many flaws, she does not have the impulse control issues, petty vindictiveness and cultivated ignorance that make it terrifying to contemplate what she might do with America’s military, or provoke Russia or China into doing with theirs. Most policy issues, no matter how vital, fade into insignificance compared with the possibility of a nuclear exchange between two major world powers.
The problem is that the media and the policy establishment have left themselves in a very poor place to make that argument. The leftward bias of the media has grown more pronounced. This means that conservative views can be excluded, or if they are included, conservative talking points can be rigorously interrogated, while dodgy left-wing statistics on things like campus rape continue to be repeated ad infinitum.
Having treated ordinary Republican politicians as if their views were beyond the pale, those institutions are now incapable of expressing why Trump really is scary and different – why this time, when they say that a Republican politician is ignorant, racist, sexist and authoritarian, voters should actually listen, rather than dismissing this as the same old familiar rhetoric.
That reality is certainly no reason to vote for Trump. But it does relate: It drowns out many of the good reasons to vote against him.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.