How can a decent human being support Donald Trump?
That's a question that a lot of pundits have been asking in recent days, particularly as we are treated to the sight of Speaker of the House 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. I confess that whenever I contemplate our nation's nuclear codes falling into Trump's fingers (regardless of their length), I find it hard to be convinced by that case. But I like to understand a terrible argument before rejecting it. So here are the best (least-bad) reasons a person might endorse and/or vote for Trump:
1. 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. Trump brings no organization with him, no political network that will survive when he exits stage left. He has no ideological fellow-travelers who will thrive in his wake. (How could he, when he has no detectable ideology?) He has done none of the work that might render the party beholden to him in future elections: no get-out-the-vote operation, no crack team of political consultants, no mailing lists, donor networks or polling powerhouses. It's actually pretty reasonable to think that as long as he is denied the White House -- which still looks like the most likely outcome, though by no means inevitable -- 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.
2. 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." Many liberals seem to believe that this is more than enough religious freedom for anyone; many religious people strenuously disagree. 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.I'm not endorsing this state of affairs, mind; I think that over the last 50 years we have become far too fond of turning everything into a judicial question, rather than leaving things to legislatures and other elected officials. However, that is the spot we are now in, and neither side looks interested in de-escalating. So people are quite rightly concerned about who will be appointing the next round of judges.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.
3. 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.Of course, Clinton supporters can point out that Trump has some problems in the planning, staffing and truth-telling departments. He really really does. But the email server makes it hard for the Clinton backers to hit him on those things as hard as they otherwise could have.
4. 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 more friendly 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 U.S. is ludicrous, but it's not ludicrous to think we should not reward people who have broken our immigration laws. Tarring these arguments as racist has not made them go away; rather, it appears to have made people less worried about being called racists. And empowered Trump, the only politician who has refused to be cowed by the epithet.Practically, I think people who support Trump on these grounds are off base in many directions. For one thing, they're too late; the demography of the country has probably already shifted too far to make restricting immigration, or winning elections on such a platform, possible. I doubt that Trump would find either the money or the popular support for his wall readily forthcoming, or for the kind of massive police operation that would be required to deport the people already here illegally. And I doubt that his commitment to restricting immigration is much more than skin deep, so I'd expect this issue to get dropped in the face of congressional opposition.Moreover, since nominating Trump has made it much more likely that Clinton will get elected with substantial congressional majorities in both houses, I'd say advocates of restricting immigration have scored a game-losing goal in their own net by nominating him. After the debacle of 2012, Republicans were terrified to liberalize immigration, for fear of retaliation from their base; Democrats are salivating at the prospect.However, given that he's the nominee, opponents of broader immigration are now faced with a choice between a guaranteed move toward wide-scale legalization, or whatever Trump might manage. If this is the most important issue to you, it's not crazy to prefer Trump.
5. 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 of Clinton's many flaws, she does not have the sort of impulse-control issues, petty vindictiveness and cultivated ignorance that make it actively terrifying to contemplate what she might do with America's military and nuclear arsenal, 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.