July 1, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
What Anti-Trumpers Don’t Understand
You can't malign your allies and expect hugs in return.
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The president has concluded an overseas trip during which he schmoozed with a killer (Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman), sucked up to a crime boss (Russia’s Vladimir Putin) and palled around with a dictator (North Korea’s Kim Jong Un).
In being the first president to transect the demilitarized zone, Donald Trump recognized a murderous regime as a legitimate international player, something the Kim dynasty has long desired. What did the United States get in return? Zilch.
Around the same time, Democratic candidates concluded two rounds of debate. While common sense would suggest the president and his disgraceful behavior are the appropriate context for understanding where the Democratic Party is going, and the policy issues it thinks are important, some people refuse to use their common sense.
You can’t, that is, with any reasonable expectation that you’re among political allies.
I’m not going to call them “principled conservatives,” as the Washington Post’s Max Boot and others have insisted, because so much of what these pundits do is contrary to any ordinary definition of “principled.” As for “conservative,” truthfully, I’m not sure what that word means anymore, except perhaps for a kind of authoritarianism-lite.
Such pundits are typically focused on international relations. You’d think their commentaries about the Democratic Party’s debates would have an eye on Trump’s travels. You’d think they’d be so frightened by a president dismantling the American-led postwar order that anything the Democratic Party did would be good enough. Or, at least, that the Democratic Party would be worth defending. But that does not appear to be the case. The Anti-Trumpers, as I’ll call them, have an argument, and that argument depends frequently on expressing contempt for the Democratic Party.
Take, for instance, Bret Stephens. The Times columnist wrote a piece over the weekend that lit up Twitter. While there’s plenty to say about the column’s white supremacist conception of reality—Stephens actually framed the Democratic debates as between “us” and “them,” meaning immigrants—let’s focus on his thesis, which is that the Democrats should not alienate “centrists” like him with policy proposals veering too far to the left. That might be a workable thesis (it’s certainly a familiar one) except that Stephens undermines his effort with bad faith, hyperbole, distortion and falsehood.
Stephens says in an aside that the Democrats are bent on “destroying the coal industry.” That’s false, but worse, it presumes malign intent on the part of people trying to do something about climate change. Politics is about choices. Choices have outcomes. Outcomes aren’t going to please everyone. If addressing climate change means a coal industry in decline, that’s something Democrats mostly accept. That, however, does not mean the party “is committed to destroying the coal industry.”
There’s more. Speaking Spanish, as some of the candidates did, was not meant, in Stephens’ reading, to reach voters who might want to know that a candidate speaks the language. No, that’s a sign of pandering, Stephens said, and that’s bad, as if pandering is not something every single presidential candidate in American history has done in one way or another. OK, fine. I’ll trust that it was bad Spanish. But so what? Bad Spanish is only a problem to Anti-Trumpers who see malign intent.
Then there’s Stephens’ hyperbole, distortion and falsehood. No, the Democratic Party is not “promising access to health insurance for north of 11 million undocumented immigrants.” One candidate, Kamala Harris, said she would include non-citizens in a plan to create universal health care. Stephens said he “kept wondering if any of the leading candidates would speak to Americans beyond the Democratic base.” Why would they? These are Democratic debates. It’s not just unfair to accuse them of failing to broaden their appeal at this point in the process. It’s, you know, kind of stupid.
Then there’s this stunning statement: “The Democratic Party we saw this week did even less to appeal beyond its base than the president,” the Times columnist wrote. Um, am I missing something? Donald Trump has never been popular. He humiliates himself and us every day. He pursues domestic policies few like. What little he has done is destructive or sadistic or both. Yet debating the ins and outs of universal health care, to Stephens, appeals only to Democratic voters and not, you know, everyone.
Tom Nichols, another Anti-Trumper, averred this morning that Stephens—along with Max Boot, Charles Sykes and David Brooks—is precisely the kind of person that the Democrats should be working hard to attract and keep. I think that’s an entirely reasonable claim, though I don’t agree, and that’s something the Democrats are arguing about if only Anti-Trumpers were listening. But that’s not the real problem.
The real problem is that Anti-Trumpers do not see the consequences of their own behavior. It’s fair to question whether the party is “moving too far left,” whether universal health care is a good idea, whether border crossing (a misdemeanor) should be decriminalized, whether these and other issues are important or not. The party is a big tent. Many Democrats have the same concerns that the Anti-Trumpers have.
But if you are going to claim, as Nichols does, that Anti-Trumpers are part of “a new coalition” standing in opposition to Donald Trump, and if you’re going to claim, as all the Anti-Trumpers claim, that this coalition must hold in order to defeat Trump, you can’t malign intentions, distort facts and otherwise treat Democrats with contempt.
You can’t, that is, with any reasonable expectation that you’re among political allies. People are going to have a problem with that, naturally, and their having a problem with that is not a sign of partisan extremism. It’s a sign of morality and decency.
This isn’t hard, but Anti-Trumpers can’t see it.
My question is and has been: Why?
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
Great piece, John. Problem is that anti-Trumpers are looking for a centrism that doesn’t exist because they moved with the Overton Window. Let’s put it this way, if Trump’s policy approach to the environment, reproductive rights, workplace fairness, civil rights, SCOTUS appointments, gerrymandering, and so on and so forth were being implemented by a Mike Pence, would they object? Of course not. They’re all on board with Trump’s scorched earth (literally) approach to judge selection, climate change denial, vote caging and every other policy.
Stephens is a false anti-Trumper. How do we know? Because a true anti-Trumper would object so vehemently to Trump’s illegal behavior and authoritarian tendencies, etc., that she would vote for a Democrat as a corrective and then hope that moderation would come in that vote’s wake (i.e., by, say, voting the Republican ticket elsewhere as that constraint).
But Stephens does not object enough to Trump to swallow this bitter pill. Instead, he’s still looking for a Democrat that should appeal to his Neanderthalish version of “conservativism.” Meh. He should know better, but he doesn’t (or does and so writes opinion pieces like these hoping he can change a conversation that is long beyond his urge to troll).
If I were a political consultant reading Bret Stephen, here’s what I’d be telling my candidate. “This man is not anti-Trump. He says he is, but you gotta wonder. He knows what our party stands for, where it’s trending, along with popular opinion. If I were you, I wouldn’t waste resources wooing his vote. Better to turn out more of the Democratic base and register new voters. As for those Bret Stephens-types, they’re more likely to vote Trump anyway and use Democrats as their excuse, even if our candidate were Joe Biden. No pitch will really appeal to them. The best case scenario is to encourage them to write in someone else or not check the presidential box.”