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Can Decent People Be Republican Anymore?

President Trump listens as the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Trump listens as the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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Is it possible for decent people to be Republican?

With members of the Grand Old Party more robust in supporting Donald Trump than Democrats or independents, the question inevitably bleeds into another: Can anyone besides an ethical eunuch support our increasingly radioactive president? We’re getting some counter-intuitive responses along the political spectrum.

Diane Hessan, a researcher for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, sympathizes with Trump voters. She talks regularly with them as part of a reconciliation project. For example, she says that they were as appalled as anyone at the racist violence in Charlottesville, but they feel that the media obsessed over Trump’s wan condemnation of white supremacy, ignoring more pressing national problems.

While Hessan gazes benignly on the voters who spurned her candidate, conservative columnist David Brooks glowers. He suggests that some portion of the GOP  “has become more of a white ethnic party, ethnic nationalist party,” adding that if the party becomes “aligned with bigotry in some overt  way or in any way, you can’t be a Republican and try to be a decent person and be a part of it.”

As a Republican myself, I find it impossible to dispute Brooks. The barnacles among the electorate who still defend anything Trump does can only be called “decent” under a dumbed-down definition of decency.

That’s only more apparent with Trump's decision last week to kill, absent congressional intervention, the DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to stay. The economics of expulsion are suicidally dumb for the nation, leaving what few open-minded supporters Trump still claims appalled by an action that would decrease the nonwhite population to appease the dregs of the president’s base.

The barnacles among the electorate who still defend anything Trump does can only be called “decent” under a dumbed-down definition of decency.

Long before DACA, Trump rode bigotry to the GOP nomination last year. One study found that prejudice was an important motivator of many Trump voters. Another discovered higher racial resentment among Trump primary voters than among those who’d cast ballots for the previous two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain.

A third of Trump’s South Carolina supporters last year favored denying entry to the country to gay people, something even the candidate didn’t embrace, and a similar percentage were avowed white supremacists.

Those numbers and Hessan’s interviews show that many Trump supporters don’t hold such abhorrent views. But her interviewees’ insistence that we focus on “issues” means that they don’t see lingering racism, or the president’s misguided reaction to it, as issues. You needn’t subscribe to identity politics to find this view peculiar.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, third from right, listens during a news conference with President Trump and Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 7. Also listening is Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Evan Vucci/AP)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, third from right, listens during a news conference with President Trump and Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 7. Also listening is Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Non-bigoted Trumpeters are, at a minimum, willing to overlook their man’s denigration of Mexican immigrants as rapists; his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries that lower courts have deemed unconstitutional; his serial falsehoods; his playing footsie with white supremacists, to the point of pardoning an undeniably racist and law-defying sheriff; and allegations (all denied) of fraud, screwing over workers and groping women.

And now, his DACA call. Would decent, or even thoughtful people, stand by such a man? If they do so out of party loyalty, would decent, thoughtful people put party above country?

If they do so because they’re evangelicals and relish Trump’s bashing the elites who scorn religion — as the trenchant evangelical columnist Michael Gerson says — then, as Gerson writes, they’ve “associated their faith with exclusion and bias.” Would decent, thoughtful people do that?

Some say the white working class excuses Trump’s behavior because the economy has made desperate throwaways out of them. That perception of his voters’ financial straits was always exaggerated. Even if you buy it, anyone who did their homework during the campaign knew that the ill-informed Trump had little to say about solving the working class’ plight. After seven-plus months of anti-worker governance, misapprehending the fact takes — there’s no polite way to say it — willful stupidity.

Perhaps Hessan would find that judgment unforgiving. Yet it’s simply untrue that Trumpeters are too desperate or uneducated to catch wise to the man’s shortcomings. A Pew survey suggests growing numbers of white workers disapprove of the president’s conduct.

Would decent, or even thoughtful people, stand by such a man? If they do so out of party loyalty, would decent, thoughtful people put party above country?

That leaves a base of Trump diehards who won’t peel away, suggesting that they’re blind to the distinction between decent people and the president offered by presidential biographer Michael D’Antonio. Social science suggests racism infests just about every human, he says (indeed, Gerson suggests evangelicals forgive Trump because they know that all of us are sinners). But sinners with functioning consciences recognize and struggle against their prejudice, D’Antonio observes. Trump indulges his. Would decent, thoughtful people excuse that?

The left shouldn’t be smug. Twelve percent of Bernie Sanders’ primary voters defected to Trump last November, showing that, ethically and intellectually, they too are a few anchovies short of a Caesar salad.

So while I’d be happy to have a Brooks Republican over for coffee, I’d think twice about inviting a Trump Republican. Even the best of them are, to steal a word, deplorable in some sense: deplorably unempathetic toward the people insulted and marginalized by Trump’s words. Deplorably hypocritical for demanding empathy for themselves.

And deplorably ignorant of history, which teaches that even leaders who accomplish good — Richard Nixon comes to mind — don’t deserve unconditional loyalty when they demonstrate a fatally-flawed character.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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