Political campaigns are supposed to kick off debates about how we should feel about the candidates. Donald Trump’s campaign has started a debate about how we should feel about the candidate’s supporters, too.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens was early in taking the fight against Trump to his fans. “If by now you don’t find Donald Trump appalling, you’re appalling,” he wrote in August. More recently, Gabriel Schoenfeld has written in the New York Daily News that “all Trump voters can and should be held to account” for flocking to a candidate who combines low character with hostility to constitutional freedoms. Conservatives, he added, should not address these voters “with sympathy.” James Kirchick, in the Tablet, says we should “not respect anyone” who supports Trump, nor “explain away” this “bad behavior.”
Should people even stay friends with Trump supporters? After Peter Wehner, another fierce conservative opponent of Trump, argued in the New York Times that friendship should come before political disagreements, Isaac Chotiner criticized Wehner in Slate for this softness: Trump caters to bigotry, which is worth ending a friendship over.
A lot of Trump supporters, I’d venture, do not yearn to dwell in the good graces of Chotiner, Schoenfeld et al. They already think that people who oppose Trump look down on them, and it’s one reason they are backing him. When anti-Trumpists openly announce that they have no respect for Trump voters and wish to shun them, they just confirm these Trump supporters’ view and harden their resolve.
Blanket hostility to Trump supporters isn’t just counterproductive; it’s unjustified. I’ll admit it is sometimes tempting. Almost all of my interactions with Trump supporters have been online and unhappy. A lot of them have consisted of racist jibes at me (I’m supposed to go back where I came from, which incidentally is a pleasant land called Kansas City), followed by my quick use of the delete key for e-mail and the mute button for Twitter.
Other commentators I know who oppose Trump tell me they, too, have been experiencing much more racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny than ever before.
Even the nonracist feedback I’ve gotten from Trump fans has tended to be unreasoning, hypersensitive — especially galling coming from people who assail “political correctness” so much — or just plain stupid. If there’s any of it I find amusing, it’s when people use anonymous accounts to call Trump’s critics a bunch of wimps.
Luckily, Twitter isn’t at all representative of the American public, and neither are website comment sections. They could be an especially bad proxy for the roughly 10 million people who have voted for Trump. Kirchick has done valuable reporting on white-nationalist support for Trump. But most of Trump’s voters aren’t hiding under the same rocks as the “alt right”; most of them haven’t heard of it.
People who disdain Trump voters en masse are, it seems to me, confusing two questions: Should an intelligent and decent person back Trump? And can an intelligent and decent person back Trump? I’m a firm “no” on the first question. But the answer to the second question is “yes.”
Someone — a lot of someones — might think that mass immigration is lowering wages, that Trump is the only candidate who would try to do something about it and that he should therefore be president. Or someone might think that our government has been dysfunctional for a long time, that we need someone who is not beholden to the orthodoxies of either party to fix it and that Trump fits the bill. Or someone might think it’s important for Republicans to win the White House and that Trump has shown such surprising political strength that he is the best candidate for that purpose.
All of these arguments are, I believe, seriously defective. They don’t “justify” voting for Trump, as Kirchick puts it. But these are not obviously delusional or hateful reasons for supporting him. They are not different in kind, morally or intellectually, from the reasons tens of millions of people voted for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012.
To support Trump for these reasons requires looking away from a lot: his ignorance of many basic facts about American government, his encouragement of violence toward protesters, his advocacy of war crimes and more. It’s a distressingly long list. But we should not assume that most of his voters are fully aware of all of these things — let alone that they are choosing him because of them.
Living in a democracy often means thinking that millions of our fellow citizens are making a big mistake, and saying so. That doesn’t have to mean considering them our moral inferiors. To the extent that my fellow anti-Trump conservatives are adopting that mind-set, they are making a depressing political season even more so.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.