The Company Trump and His Supporters Keep

by Neil H. Buchanan

We have long since passed the point where it makes sense to try to compare Donald Trump's outrages.  "A new low."  "Most depressing."  "Even more dangerous." "Unprecedented in its depravity."  The inventory of negative superlatives has been depleted.  Everything, it seems, is the worst.

I will not, therefore, try to claim that there was one Trump statement in the last week that shocked me more than any other.   I will, instead, take one of his moments of awfulness as a starting point to make a larger argument.

As most observers know, Trump claimed in his indescribable press conference on Tuesday, August 15, that there were "some very fine people on both sides" of the Charlottesville protests.

Trump's claim seemed to be that some fine people marched alongside groups of men carrying Nazi and Confederate flags who were chanting anti-semitic slogans, but the company they kept does not reflect badly on them, because they were merely there to protest the removal of a statue and the renaming of a park.

Even giving a complete (and undeserved) pass to people who would defend statues and other public honoraria that exist "to celebrate white supremacy," the best response I have seen to Trump's whitewashing (unfunny pun intended, of course) of bigotry was offered by the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel:
"If you’re with a group of people and they’re chanting things like 'Jews will not replace us' and you don’t immediately leave that group, you are not a very fine person."
Failing to notice the company that people choose to keep is an act of willful moral blindness.  Any person who could say, "Well, these people shouting hateful slurs and carrying the symbols of America's defeated enemies don't make me want to leave their presence," is a person who himself is morally bankrupt.

The question is how far this extends.  And it brings into sharper focus a question about Trump's voters that far too many commentators have been failing to understand for the past two years.

One of the most ludicrous lessons that mainstream journalists quickly agreed upon after November 8 was that they had been hiding in a bubble, living such sheltered lives in liberal enclaves that they had failed to understand the anger of Trump's voters.

This was not an isolated act of self-flagellation by one or two reporters.  The bible of the field, the Columbia Journalism Review, featured a piece on November 9, written by its editor-in-chief and publisher, that excoriated journalists for being unwilling to engage with Trump's supporters.  This was, he said, "our anti-Watergate."

This is nonsense.  The press did not "miss" the Trump phenomenon by failing to interview angry white people.  One could not turn anywhere in the mainstream press or the liberal media universe (including late-night comedy shows) without seeing Trump's voters on camera.  The tragicomic, hateful words coming out of people's mouths were not edited or taken out of context.

Moreover, the press thought that Clinton would win because the evidence showed pretty strongly that Clinton was going to win.  She did not lose the popular vote, and she barely lost the three states that provided Trump's margin of victory in the Electoral College.  No reporter said (as far as I know) that the polling indicated a 100 percent certainty of a Clinton victory.  To blame reporters for believing polls -- polls that showed an 80 percent chance of Clinton winning -- is to elevate anecdotes above systematic analysis.

Even if my dismissal of this argument were wrong, however, the short-hand version of the message from the self-flagellating caucus quickly became a matter of flagellating others.  It is not merely coddled, elite journalists who refused to "get it," we were soon being told.  It was all liberals, those out-of-touch not-real-Americans who supposedly had had their comeuppance on Election Day.

Easily the most annoying and ultimately dangerous version of this intramural blame-game was Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake's article from last month, "Nearly Half of Liberals Don’t Even Like to Be Around Trump Supporters."

Note the word "even," which captures Blake's tut-tutting attitude as he reported that "Liberals don't just hate President Trump; lots of them don't even like the idea of being in the company of his supporters."

Here is a further taste of the condescension: "The poll shows almost half of liberal Democrats — 47 percent — say that if a friend supported Trump, it would actually put a strain on their friendship" (italics in original).  Wow, it would actually do that?  Tell us more!
"And while partisanship and tribalism are pretty bipartisan things in American politics today, Democrats are actually substantially less able to countenance friends who supported the wrong candidate: Just 13 percent of Republicans say a friend's support of Hillary Clinton would strain their relationship."
It sure is a good thing a liberal Washington Post writer is there to tell us tribal liberals that we are worse than our Republican counterparts.

Sarcasm aside, what was Blake's explanation of the poll's over-hyped findings?  He claims that liberals live in more homogeneous neighborhoods and are not exposed to "dissenting political voices."  He thus posits that "perhaps it's no surprise that they don't hear and don't want to hear those voices coming from their friends' mouths."  Perhaps, but maybe there are other reasons?

Blake then rolls out what is supposed to be the ultimate proof that liberals are uniquely at fault in their disdain for Trump supporters: Hillary Clinton's description of roughly half of Trump's base as "deplorables."  Blake then admits in a parenthetical: "Her campaign later clarified that she meant only people at Trump's rallies. But still."

But still ... what?  Blake's article trades in the most simplistic kind of equivalence, acting as if Trumpists and anti-Trumpists are all "very fine people" but that a somewhat larger percentage of the latter are simply closed to dissenting views.

In a final flourish, Blake informs us that 68 percent of Democrats and leaning-Democrats find it "stressful and frustrating" to talk to Trump voters, and 52 percent of the other side say the same.
"When people ask why politicians in Washington can't get along, this is why: Americans can't even talk to each other about politics anymore without getting flustered."  (italics in original, again)
Flustered.  What exactly is it that might make an anti-Trump voter uncomfortable "even talking" to a Trump voter?  What possibly could make an anti-Trump voter not want to be friends with a Trump voter?  What was Clinton thinking when she described people at Trump's rallies as "a basket of deplorables"?

The answer is that a lot of Trump's voters really do hold deplorable views, and they have made no secret of that fact.  Remember the rallies in which people defiantly displayed Confederate flags with Trump's name written on them?  The rallies where Trump encouraged people to commit violent acts against black protesters?  The speeches and rallies where Trump trafficked in shameless and unrestrained race-baiting?

If a person who rejects Trump's racism, his misogyny, and his channeling of white supremacist views (including his hiring of more than one white nationalist leader) learns that a friend or a person sitting across from her supports Trump, I would think that she would have good reason to be flustered, at the very least.

Prior to Trump's reversion to form at his August 15 press conference, when the conversation was focused on Trump's insincere prepared statement condemning the KKK and others, the never-Trump conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin recently put it this way:
"One might conclude from Trump’s foot-dragging and obsession with stoking racial tensions (e.g. his vote fraud commission, his crusade against legal and illegal immigrants, etc.) that, despite his apologists’ protestations, his campaign message was aimed at white resentment. Trump continues to tell those who want to 'take back their country' that 'their' country is being overrun by foreigners, non-Christians, non-whites."
Even so, Rubin was willing to be generous: "The majority of his followers had a more benign, non-racial interpretation (take the country back from liberals, elites, urbanites, etc.), but it surely hit home and brought out from the shadows Duke and his ilk."  And she had also offered in a column before Charlottesville: "They liked him because he hated the 'right' people (e.g. elites), fought for them, channeled their fears and prejudices and spoke his mind."

Why would it not bother a liberal to find out that a friend bought into all of that hatred, even if the friend claimed not to be a bigot (and had not seemed to be one prior to 2016)?  The evidence is clear that Trump's voters were more motivated by bigotry than "economic anxiety," although that does not say that all Trump voters bought into everything Trump said.

But again, why is it somehow evidence of closed-mindedness or "living in a bubble" to have watched Trump's speeches and rallies and concluded that people who supported him were wrong -- not wrong in the way that voting for McCain or Bush or Reagan was wrong in the eyes of liberals (bad on policy grounds for any number of reasons), but wrong in the sense of being inexplicable?

Now, the journalistic both-sides-do-it habit -- a move that, we can certainly hope, has been dealt a death blow by Trump's embrace of false equivalence this week -- is to say, "Well, Republicans would say the same thing about Clinton's voters."

But if that is true, then one has to stop engaging in relativism and make some actual judgments based on evidence and morality.  It should be obvious that the Clinton-haters who still think that she killed Vince Foster are truly nuts.  It is the people who otherwise viewed her as a she-devil whose awfulness justified a vote for Trump who are in question.

And what is the worst that one can say about Clinton that is based on even a tiny bit on evidence?  The worst accusations against her were all repeatedly disproven, of course, but even giving the Trump voters the full benefit of the doubt, what was so bad about her?

She supposedly ignored calls for extra security in Benghazi, erased emails that might or might not have made her look bad, used the Clinton Foundation as a slush fund, and ... and what?  She was guilty of being Hillary Clinton.

It is inevitable that some people will grow to hate their political opponents, but if one takes the things that Clinton has done and said and puts them up against what Trump had done and said before election day, it would take an effort in total dishonesty to say that their partisans had equally understandable reasons to feel discomfort with the other side.
Trump voter: "I'm voting for Trump even though he has attacked racial and ethnic minorities and women in extreme and unapologetic terms."

Clinton voter: "I'm voting for Clinton even though I don't completely follow the back-and-forth about her emails, and six Republican-run committees exonerated her on Benghazi."
See?  They're the same!

And all of that was before Trump's August 15 meltdown.  In the days since then, only a tiny percentage of Republicans have changed their minds about Trump because of his indefensible comments.  In addition, two-thirds of Republicans in a recent poll approved both of Trump's handling of the Charlottesville situation and of his apportioning of blame.

All of which brings us back to Kimmel's formulation of the matter.  If you could see what Trump had done before the Charlottesville tragedy and still be in the group of people who supported him, you were already on shaky ground.

Now that Trump has sided with white supremacists even more blatantly than he already had, however, if "you don’t immediately leave that group, you are not a very fine person."