The Rise of the Anti-Anti-Trumpians
The Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously postulated five emotional stages following a death or profound loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Conservatives for much of the summer and fall have been attempting to come to terms with the reality of Donald Trump’s candidacy and the depth of division between the Trumpians and the Anti-Trumps. First came denial. (This guy? Are you kidding?) Then came anger. (Seriously, this guy?!)
Now winter is here, a new year is upon us, Trump remains the Republican frontrunner (despite the growing likelihood he will come up short in Iowa). And so we’ve arrived at the bargaining stage and with it, the emergence of the Anti-Anti-Trumpians.
William Voegeli, senior editor of the indispensable Claremont Review of Books (disclosure: I was managing editor of the CRB over a decade ago and Voegeli is a friend), explains why he is “Anti-Anti-Trump”:
The fact that Trump has become a credible contender despite, or even because of, his obvious faults argues, however, for taking his followers’ concerns seriously rather than dismissing them. It is not, in fact, particularly difficult to explain the emergence of Trumpismo in terms of legitimate concerns not addressed, and important duties not discharged. That such a flawed contender could be a front-runner tells us more about what’s wrong with the country than about what’s wrong with his followers. People have every reason to expect that their government will take its most basic responsibilities seriously, and every reason to be angry when, instead, it proves more feckless than conscientious. Governments are instituted among men to secure their inalienable rights, according to the Declaration of Independence. This means that when we and our rights are left avoidably insecure, government has failed in its central mission.
In short, Trump supporters’ anger is a righteous anger that should be understood and harnessed, rather than treated with contempt and dismissed. Voegeli continues:
The problem, in any case, is not so much that we are governed by idiots as that we are governed by idealists, who proudly follow the Kennedy brothers’ exhortation to disdain seeing things as they are in favor of dreaming dreams that never were. Because no such dream would incorporate a nightmare like ISIS, idealists have preferred to dwell on more congenial matters.
Adding insult to injury, we are governed by idealists who think we’re idiots for not appreciating the bang-up job they’re doing.
Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.
Voegeli is hardly alone among the Anti-Anti-Trumpians. Peter Lawler at NRO’s Postmodern Conservative blog has been making the case for months, almost to the point of exasperation. Nor have the Anti-Antis escaped criticism, though mostly from the left. Damon Linker at The Week recently published a fairly scathing column on the “unbearable lameness” of Anti-Anti-Trump Republicans, which amounted to “you reap what you sow.”
Perhaps. On the other hand, it isn’t as if the Republicans have a monopoly on populist discontent. Bernie Sanders trails Hillary Clinton in national polls, but he could very well win in New Hampshire. Trump and Sanders have substantial support among independent voters in the Granite State. And as the New York Times reports, Trump’s strongest supporters are “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats.”
The trouble with the Anti-Anti-Trumpian argument is that it’s not entirely clear that “competent, serious governance” is what Trump’s supporters really want. (Check out this unrepresentative sample of Trump voters responding to a question from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. Trump contains multitudes.) We know what they don’t want: More of the same. But, let’s face it, that’s likely what they’re going to get.