One of my conservative friends wanted me to know that he's not sympathetic to Donald Trump's campaign for president. Not one bit. But he did have to admit that he's beginning to feel some sympathy for Trump's supporters and quite a lot of irritation at the swarm of critics — left, right, and center — who've descended on them, especially in the week since the candidate suggested a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States. Maybe, instead of denouncing the Trumpsters as racists, idiots, and fascists, we should be listening to them, treating them and their concerns with some respect.
My friend isn't pro-Trump. He's anti-anti-Trump.
You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen: If, come February, the seemingly unsinkable Donald Trump actually starts racking up caucus and primary victories, the anti-anti-Trump faction is going to start spreading on the right like toxic black mold in a dank garage.
Relatively few conservative writers will actively support a Trump candidacy, no matter how well he does at the polls. But staking out an anti-anti-Trump position allows pundits and politicians alike to enjoy the best of both worlds: remaining aloof from a campaign they can't, on ideological grounds, endorse, while also making nice to those who enthusiastically support it by attacking its loudest opponents — and all in the name of fairness, open-mindedness, and deference to populist sentiment.
That's a very bad idea.
For one thing, it's cowardly and tribal. Instead of taking a stand against a candidate and a political movement that could do considerable damage to the country, the anti-anti-Trump conservatives would prefer to hedge their bets, not contributing directly to that candidate and movement, but not contributing directly to its defeat either. Instead, they'd rather protect their status in the Republican Party and their cred among the pro-Trump grassroots by keeping their fire trained on those actively trying to stop the populist demagogue.
We shouldn't expect loyal Republicans to work openly for the victory of a Democratic presidential candidate. But we should expect that conscientious Republicans who place concern for the good of the country above their own immediate personal and partisan advantage will refrain from acting in ways that might help scuttle a Democratic campaign against Trump.
But the deeper (and less high-minded) reason why Republicans should avoid picking up the mantle of anti-anti Trumpism is that it will perpetuate and perhaps even intensify what may be the single biggest factor in Trump's rise: the incessant flattery of culturally alienated, conservative white male voters by right-wing talk-radio hosts.
Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and many others have created an enormous industry and made vast sums of money for themselves by telling millions of listeners, day after day, year after year, that their ill-informed, illiberal, anti-government, anti-Washington, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views are irrefutably, indisputably, incontrovertibly correct. Such views are so obviously right, in fact, that the only plausible explanation for their failure to prevail politically (until, perhaps, now) is the constant, undeserved ridicule heaped upon them by a class of cultured despisers in Washington, the media, and even at the commanding heights of their own party's establishment.
This is what populism has come to mean in today's Republican Party. It's less a consistent policy position on economics, taxes, foreign policy, national security, or even immigration as it is a form of therapy for a grievance group that's been manipulated by profit-seeking political entertainers into a perpetual state of aggrieved indignation. Trump's campaign has masterfully tapped into this feeling of wounded pride, festering disrespect, and craving for validation and vindication.
That's why establishment Republicans and thoughtful conservatives who genuinely reject Trump's message need to refrain from playing the anti-anti-Trump game. As the old saying goes, that would make them part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Politics isn't supposed to be about making resentful people feel good about themselves. It's supposed to be about enacting an agenda and proposing policies that make sense and have a good chance of benefiting the country as a whole. There are, of course, legitimate disputes among knowledgeable, informed citizens about which agenda and policies are best. Those differences are one important source of the partisanship that arises everywhere a people tries to govern itself with free institutions.
The Trump phenomenon is different. Trump's supporters are not especially informed, and they're not especially knowledgeable. Their views consist largely of what Lionel Trilling once condescendingly but accurately described as "irritable mental gestures." It's one thing to recognize that, having contributed for more than two decades to the creation of this faction of angry, credulous, self-important voters, the GOP has no alternative now but to see just how powerful it really is and live with the consequences. It's quite another thing, knowing all we now do about this faction and its enthusiasm for demagogic illiberalism, to continue indulging its prejudices.
That's what the anti-anti-Trump Republicans would have us do. This needs to be resisted, for the good of the GOP no less than the good of the country.
The time for flattery is over.