On Not Feeling Compelled to Believe That There Are Very Fine People on Both Sides
In my Dorf on Law column earlier this week, I discussed the surprising news that some evangelical Christians in this country are rejecting Jesus's teachings. Indeed, they now treat Donald Trump as their one true savior, and they affirmatively reject even the most basic and obvious precepts that kids learn in Sunday School, including the godliness of turning the other cheek. As my column made clear, this should not in fact be as surprising as it might seem, but it is clarifying.
But why did they elevate Trump in particular? After all, he is most definitely not one of them as a matter of religion, and plenty of Republican presidential candidates are the genuine uber-Christian article, most obviously Mike Pence. And the usual excuse, which is that Trump "ended Roe," is simply silly, because any Republican in the Oval Office would have done exactly what Trump did, that is, take orders from Leonard Leo to exploit an opening that Mitch McConnell created. No anti-abortion Christian voter has any reason to thank Trump for making something happen that would have happened without him.
I will add here that, even if Trump were truly the person who was responsible for giving Republicans a super-majority on the Supreme Court, that deed is done. In politics, "What have you done for me lately?" is quickly followed by oblivion. (Again, Pence comes to mind.) So, for Trump to maintain the fierce loyalty of tens of millions of White evangelical voters, there must be something in it for them going forward. He is not one of them. He cannot give them again what they now have in the courts. They do not care much about regressive tax cuts, but if they do, that is also something that any Republican would gladly deliver. And Trump is the least likely among the Republican candidates to win in 2024.
So what gives? I ended Tuesday's column with this kinda-sorta cliffhanger:
Why, then, do the White evangelicals embrace Trump so rapturously (pun again intended)? He is not in fact responsible for making any of the things happen that they say they care most about, and they could have supported his removal from office at any time, which would have allowed their like-minded paleo-Puritan Mike Pence to do some real damage. What could the reason be? My next two columns, to be published on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law (both on Thursday of this week) will pick up on that question. But the answer is hardly a mystery.
To paraphrase one of my least favorite presidents: "It's the bigotry, stupid." In today's Verdict column, I leave religion aside and directly discuss the secular excuses that are often offered to defend Trump's rabid base. Critiquing a Washington Post op-ed penned by one of their fake "man of the people" pundits who is based in Ohio, I respond to the claim that it is not bigotry but rather patriotism that makes them love Trump. That assertion is merely a dodge, as I argue, because it is a false dichotomy. People can call themselves patriots and be bigots at the same time.
Statisticians who study animus-based discrimination usually do so by process of elimination. Looking at, say, the large gap between the average incomes of female and male workers, the standard procedure is to control for differences between women and men in education, health, age, job experience, time out of the labor force (usually to raise a family), and so on. Each of those control variables can also be biased by sexism (child rearing being the obvious example), but setting that aside, once we have controlled for every non-sexist reason to explain the gap, any remaining gap can only be explained by the one variable we cannot directly measure: animus.
And so it is with Trump and his supporters. The excuses about "tribalism" or whatever are either synonyms for bigotry or are simply one of the many supposedly innocent explanations that do not explain why Trump's base -- which is anchored by White Christian evangelicals -- treats him (and him alone) with such adoration. The only remaining explanation is that they cling to him because he, even more than the rest of his adopted party, makes his base feel that they can stop being "politically correct" and openly hate Blacks, gays, women who are not Republicans (and many who are), and so on. Even Ron DeSantis's increasingly desperate attempts to use "woke" as a cudgel could not deliver the head-rush that Trump's DNA-level hatred of Others provides.
Am I saying that every single person who is still a Republican is an unredeemable bigot? Of course not, because "evil" is only one reason that people might reach bad conclusions. And I am most definitely not saying that all non-Republican conservatives are beyond hope. That is why I wrote "The Strange Case of the One-Good-Moment Conservative" two weeks ago. There, I wrote about conservatives with very bad track records who did one thing that was undeniably good, which misleads us into thinking that they were maybe not so bad all along, only to see them slip back into their old habits of, for example, talking about "invasions on the border" or making sleazy hay out of "defund the police" or other dishonest and retrograde talking points.
I mentioned Rudolph Giuliani and a few others in that column, and I will add here two of the current Republican presidential candidates. Chris Christie's years as governor of New Jersey saw him bullying people, refusing desperately needed funding for transit (to look good to Republican primary voters), and generally being a power-hungry politician of the worst sort who was willing to make others suffer for his benefit. He then made it worse in 2016 by dropping out of the primaries and endorsing Trump, working closely with the Trump campaign and taking the first major step toward normalizing the truly abnormal.
Now, of course, he is one of Trump's only opponents who is willing to call a coup a coup and to say that Trump cannot be allowed to be President again. We do not know if this is to be a one-good-moment moment, but it is certainly very, very good. Not as good as Mike Pence's one good moment on January 6, 2021, but it is the only good option that is available to Christie, and he is grabbing it with gusto. That is not to say that Christie is not a conservative anymore; but what makes him odd is that he still sprinkles head-scratchers into his interviews that are not conservative in a substantive sense but are partisan in the weirdest ways. For example, in a recent interview mostly dedicated to excoriating Trump, Christie took a moment to say that "[i]f Biden wins, we’ll have a packed Supreme Court and the end of the filibuster," followed shortly by his assertion that "Democrats are doing what they’re doing because they think Trump is the most beatable candidate."
The first quote is, again, weird -- so weird that one could only imagine that he thinks he can just say random things and have people nod along. His warnings are neither logical (how will three Supreme Court openings come up in the next five years?) nor fact-based (given that the majority party in the Senate decides whether to have the filibuster, not the President). The latter quote is more worrisome, however, because what "Democrats are doing" can only mean prosecuting Trump in this context. In other words, even as he says that Trump is obviously guilty of disqualifying acts, Christie apparently wants to have it both ways by jumping on the "Democrats are weaponizing prosecutions" bandwagon.
Again, we do not yet know whether Christie's current good moment -- a moment that I admire even as I continue to disagree with him on both substance and style -- will be followed by a reversion. What about Nikki Haley? She had a truly good moment as governor of South Carolina when she ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol after a White supremacist committed mass murder in a Black church. Yes, she tried to pull the "that flag's about heritage" move in doing so, but what she did took courage.
Now? During the first fake debate of the 2024 presidential race two weeks ago, the moderator asked for a show of hands to see which of Trump's nominal opponents would nonetheless support him if he were the Republican nominee and he had been convicted of any crimes. Unsurprisingly, the hand that shot up immediately belonged to the person we might as well call Fascist Eddie Haskell, who also kept his hand up just to show how Trumpy he is. But the second hand that went up was Haley's, not in the calculating manner of DeSantis checking out what everyone else was doing, and not even in the half-way-up agreement that Pence (of all people) showed. Some pundits said that Haley was a big star of that night, but if ever there were a moment to assess a person's true values, that was it. She had her one good moment, but now here she is.
As sometimes happens, I received an email from a reader after my one-good-moment column went online. The signature line identified the emailer as a lawyer, and here is what he wrote, in full:
Your recent column offered a taxonomy of conservatives whom you dislike or despise in varying degrees. Personally (and as a self-described moderate) I agreed in part and disagreed in part. But the specifics are not the point of my writing. Rather, my suggestion is that your outlook would be more interesting if you were able to identify some conservatives, any conservatives, with whom you might disagree but whom you nevertheless respect for more than "one good moment." If you cannot think of any, perhaps that is a matter worthy of your reflection.
On one level, there would be no point in commenting on an email from yet another tiresome concern troll. And that is especially true here, because my column in fact did identify some conservatives whom I respect. Even though it is not at all clear why it would be "more interesting" if I respected some conservatives for two or more moments, my taxonomy in fact explicitly includes a group of conservatives with whom I disagree on policy but whom I respect more generally and on an ongoing basis. I called them the This-Is-Not-My-Beautiful-House conservatives.
So, I provided a category (including specific examples) which does exactly what I am accused of failing to do. Even so, it would be churlish merely to mock someone for lacking basic reading comprehension skills. What made this worth thinking about for more than the few seconds it took to read the email was the sneering insinuation that if I in fact did not know of any conservative whom I could respect, then maybe that is my problem ("worthy of your reflection").
As an aside, some readers might be skeptical of the emailer's statement that he is "moderate." "I'm moderate, and I think you're extreme" probably sounds better than "I'm one of the conservatives that you criticized, and I'm angry with you." But as is my habit, I believe even snarky emailers when they describe themselves, and I expect them to believe me in turn. This allows us to skip past any "You don't really think that" objections. I believe that he is a moderate, and I expect to be believed when I say that I respect some conservatives.
Again, that is all a rather uninteresting sideshow. As the title of this column suggests, however, I continue to be truly fascinated by the idea that a commentator like me can only be interesting if I say that some of the people with whom I disagree are very fine people. Other than sounding pleasant and nonconfrontational, why is that important? What possible purpose is served by such a requirement?
Let us imagine, for example, that all of the conservatives whom I do in fact respect (but with whom I disagree on things like tax policy, voter suppression, policing, and so on) had decided during the Trump years that they were not in fact conservatives anymore. In my column, I mentioned Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who was once truly a conservative hack but at this point seems to have simply changed her substantive views. That is not true of people like Joe Scarborough or others whom I respect, but what if it were?
At that point, the world would include a category of former conservatives who were horrified by the recent pro-authoritarian radicalization of their movement and who then took off their blinders. I would of course like those people, but they would not count in my emailer's world, where my views are only interesting if I can identify current conservatives that I have respected at least twice. But if the two remaining groups of conservatives are those who never even had one good moment and those who did but have now gone back to abetting Trumpism and excusing domestic terrorism, among other things, would it be necessary for someone like me to scour the landscape to find one of them who is somehow deserving of respect? Again, what purpose would that serve, if (in this hypo) the remaining ranks of conservatives have been purged of everyone except anti-democratic extremists?
Bothsidesism is deeply alluring for people who think that positioning is more important than thinking. This is how the Republicans get away with ever-further radicalization, because journalists and some moderates tut-tut and scold people with banalities about moderation for its own sake. If I am going to assess someone's views and decide whether to respect them or not, however, it makes no sense to say, "Well, I see on my scorecard that I haven't filled in anyone on the right-hand column yet, so I guess it's time to respect someone whose substantive views should otherwise be rejected."
Having reflected on it, this suggestion is worse than mere concern trolling. It is a request to engage in harmful make-believe. Pass.