The Motivated Thinking That Allows Trump's (and Reagan's) Supposedly Reasonable Defenders to Live With Themselves

I confess to being surprised that Senator Mitch McConnell has endorsed Donald Trump for President.  I harbor no illusions about McConnell's deeply evil influence on American politics, going all the way back to his argument that low voter turnout among poor people is evidence that they are satisfied with their lives and see no reason to change anything (although he more recently simply admitted that high voter turnout is bad for Republicans).  And let us not even start on his impact on the courts.

Even so, what the heck is he thinking?  He is retiring after having a very contentious (mostly non-) relationship with Trump, and he should have every reason to want to save his party from the kind of hyper-populist extremism that has engulfed it in the last few decades.  There was no reason to expect him to do the right thing for the right reason, but there were plenty of more McConnell-like reasons for him to ice out Trump at this point.  Oh well.  And if it has not happened already, we should expect that Nikki Haley will soon gulp her way to endorsing Trump as well.  She will most likely flip-flop at least twice more, but we know where she is almost certainly headed.

McConnell and Haley are completely political in every way, hacks down to their DNA, but what about other people who end up supporting Trump when they should know better?  Several days ago, a cable news segment included an interview with a young person named Sarah Matthews, who was apparently the deputy press secretary in the Trump White House for some amount of time that ended on January 6, 2021, when she resigned out of disgust with what had happened that day.

The newsworthiness of the segment is that Matthews has joined forces with the more well known former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson and a few others to sound the alarm about the danger that he poses to the country.  That is very public spirited, of course, and one cannot help but applaud people in their position for refusing to do what McConnell and (soon enough) Haley cannot stop themselves from doing: caving and enabling a would-be dictator.  It is shocking that there are not more Trump veterans banging the drums, and maybe some will become vocal as the election nears.  As it stands, however, Matthews is notable for standing up when few others will.

Even so, Matthews did work for Trump in the first place.  Why?  Was she a super-MAGA true believer who drew the line at insurrection?  Was she a reluctant Trump supporter who could not bear to do anything other than support and work for a nominal Republican?  By her telling, no and no.  Her reasoning, if one can call it that, was simply jaw-dropping.  In the interview (starting at the 2:11 mark), she said this:

I think I knew full well what kind of man he was when I went to go work for him, and I didn't necessarily agree with everything he said or did.  But I knew that he needed people of good character to staff his administration, and so that's why I agreed to join.

Look, I didn't vote for Donald Trump in 2016.  And that's not something I think I've even said publicly -- this might be the first time I've said that, but I did not vote for him in 2016, because he did not win my vote over, because I didn't like the character of the man.

But then, as we got into the Administration, I saw the policies and the people he surrounded himself with.  Then, I was more OK with the idea of supporting him, and then when the opportunity came around, obviously I jumped at it.

To be clear, this is hardly the first time a disaffected Republican has trotted out the idea that "Trump's policies were so great that it's a shame that I can't support him."  This is one of those tropes that interviewers let slide, and the person who says them is thus allowed to sound like they have ideas and principles.  These people purport to be living in a world in which we have two parties that are pursuing serious policy agendas about which reasonable people can disagree.  That might once have been true, but even before the shocking 2016 election result, it was obviously never going to be true of anything having to do with Trump.

Note that Matthews does not directly say it out loud, but the implication here is that she did in fact vote for Trump in 2020.  This would mean that she experienced the utter chaos of the Trump Administration, including its latest, craziest stages, and told herself that "the policies and the people" were enough to support Trump.  To the extent that people changed their minds about Trump from 2016 to 2020, it was overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, with many Republicans leaving Congress in disgust.  Matthews somehow saw more to like as the disaster unfolded.

All of which forces me to ask: What exactly are those policies that made her "OK with the idea of supporting" Trump?  Was it the kids in cages on the border?  The wall (and misappropriating funds to pay for it)?  Trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with "something great," to be revealed “two weeks from now” in perpetuity?  The extremely regressive 2017 tax bill -- the only major legislation that Trump signed, and which was created by Republicans on the fly without even the most minimal hearings or review?  (Even John McCain was happy to violate "regular order" to make that happen.)  Kissing up to Putin and Kim?  Starting a trade war with China?  Or how about firing James Comey, strong-arming Ukraine, and undermining NATO?

Or was it the relentless attack on safety regulations that put more lead in the air and water, made workplaces more dangerous, and allowed companies to sell dangerous products to children?  That was in some ways the most insidious, relentless aspect of Trump's years in Washington -- and it will only become worse if he is ever there again.

Yes, people can honestly favor some of those things, I suppose.  But we cannot and must not act as if those are just "policy differences" that are analogous to disagreeing about, say, how much money to spend on public transportation.  Someone who says that they were fine with Trump-era policies -- again, someone who did not in fact support him in the first instance -- is saying something rather shocking, even if she says it earnestly.  The Trump era was largely not about policy, but to the extent that it was, it was about extreme policies that were not popular with the vast majority of the American people.  (Abortions restricted, guns unrestricted.)

And who are those great "people that he surrounded himself with"?  Betsy DeVos?  Rick Perry?  Jeff Sessions?  Ben Carson?  How about Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller?  And as Trump's term continued, he started putting even crazier people in charge.  We went from Sessions to Bill Barr, with an acting guy in between who ran a toilet scam.  The list of buffoons, cranks, and corrupt actors seems endless.

If a person holds themselves out as being something other than a Trump cultist but then argues that his presidency was acceptable because of the good policies and people, how can that person not be mocked mercilessly?

All of this reminds me of the two-step that happened between Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign and his 1984 reelection effort.  In the earlier election, his supporters admitted that Reagan was obviously a confused simpleton but said that he would be surrounded by the very best people, so it was all going to be fine.  After four years of scandal after scandal among Reagan's top people, all of a sudden the argument was that it was fine for there to be so many bad people in the White House because Reagan was such a reliably stable and wise leader.

With Trump, people started by saying that he would "grow in the office" and understand the gravitas of it all, with the suggestion that he would quickly learn that the border wall was a nonsensical idea and that governing was in fact a full-time job for serious people.  When that did not happen, however, magical thinking allowed some people to say that it was "the policies and the people" that caused them to support the madman.

I do not think that any of the people who say what Matthews said (including Matthews herself) would defend more than a handful (at most) of the policies that I listed above, and they would most likely try to mention people whose reputations were not entirely sullied (Mattis, Kelly, maybe a few others) without noting that they were all fired.

But that is the point.  "It's about the policies and the people" is not in fact meant to say that it is about the policies or the people.  That sounds good in the abstract, like being in favor of "problem solving" or something, so people who do not want to admit what they are doing (or what they did) use it as a cover story.

Even so, this is beyond laughable.  As noted above, what Matthews and others like her are doing now is a great service to the country, so much so that perhaps they deserve some slack.  But sometimes it is necessary to call out absurdly self-absolving nonsense for what it is.