Published October 28, 2020
“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” —Robert Heinlein
Among many lessons learned over the last excruciating four years is this: Partisanship is a more potent drug than heroin. I consider myself to be in recovery, but by no means cured. The urge to curate information to suit your own prejudices is nearly impossible to conquer—even when you’ve switched sides. (Especially then, if the examples of David Horowitz and Sohrab Ahmari are any guide.)
I haven’t become a Democrat, but for the purposes of the 2020 election, I have a side, and it’s the one I was against most of my life. Yet I am as committed, no more committed, to seeing a Democratic victory this year than I ever was to supporting a Republican, and that partisanship, even a temporary partisanship, is shaping my thinking. A small example: I find myself scanning polls showing the state of the race and skipping quickly over the ones that show surprising Trump strength, then forcing myself to double back. It is almost physically painful even to acknowledge the possibility that he might be reelected. How often, in the past, did I skip over liberal arguments or facts that supported the opposing side? I can’t honestly say. I tried to be open-minded and fair. But I’m aware now of how often I probably wasn’t, and am not still, and if you don’t mind my saying so, you probably aren’t either.
Many on my former side cannot understand my anti-Trump vehemence, so perhaps the best way to make a closing argument is to examine some of the rationalizations I see coming from people who seemed, in 2016, to be as adamantly opposed to Trump as any, but have since accommodated themselves to the party’s drift.
Ben Shapiro has changed his mind. In 2016, he made a cogent case against Trump. He said he was committed to a conservatism that was “not racist, not sexist, not bigoted… not vulgar and vile to women and the disabled,” in short, not the caricature of what every leftist believed about conservatives. Trump, Shapiro argued, would irreparably tarnish the conservative brand. Accordingly, he would never vote for him.
Until 2020. He explains that he was wrong about where Trump would land on policy, and that he has governed in a more conservative fashion than Shapiro expected. He cites judges, leaving the Paris climate accord, ending the Iran deal, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, “crushing” ISIS, and cutting taxes.
Many conservatives believe that these are conservative accomplishments. The appointment of conservative judges (leaving aside the norm-shredding manner in which two Supreme Court vacancies were handled) tops every Republican’s list. But this is a hollow victory. It comes at the hands of an administration that has treated the law like bird cage liner. The Trump presidency has undermined the law in a thousand ways.
You cannot proclaim the administration’s commitment to law when the chief executive repeatedly instructed officials to break the law in exchange for pardons, engaged in witness tampering, encouraged vigilantism, stoked domestic terrorism by winking at the attempted kidnappings of governors, paid hush money to a porn actress, unlawfully diverted funds to his illusory border wall, illegally withheld aid to an ally in an attempt to extort a damaging story about his opponent, treated Congressional subpoenas with contempt, and abused his commander-in-chief authority to use military force against peaceful demonstrators across from the White House, among innumerable other violations.
Trump has declared that Article II of the Constitution (a written document and therefore unfamiliar to the president) gives him authority to do whatever he wants. He has encouraged his followers to distrust the courts, the bureaucracy, the press, scientific experts, and, most dangerously, the elections, so please don’t tell us that because he’s appointed conservative judges he has achieved a victory for the rule of law. Weighed against his thorough disdain for law, and the disrespect he has encouraged among the people, the judges, however impressive, do not even the scales.
Conservatives used to regard the rule of law as sacred. I’m old enough to remember when they (we) excoriated Barack Obama for rewriting the ACA by fiat and changing immigration policy with a wave of his hand. Without rule of law, this country becomes indistinguishable from unstable and dangerous places around the globe. Without trust in the sanctity of law, minority rights are endangered and everything becomes a matter of sheer power—a chilling prospect in a nation with 400 million guns. But apparently, respect for law is like believing that Supreme Court seats should never be filled in an election year…
Conservatives also used to say that character mattered, and some still struggle with this. Shapiro’s solution is to suggest that, while Trump’s moral example is terrible, all of the damage that can be done on that front is already done, and will not be augmented by another four years.
Not so. Millions of children are maturing in a nation whose chief executive models the sort of behavior it has required centuries to anathematize. They watch and learn. Every decent parent, teacher, coach, priest, rabbi, and minister, must attempt to countermand the message that deceit, enmity, cruelty, and recklessness pay off.
Further, those in Trump’s orbit, and that includes the entire Republican party with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney, must adjust their own moral standards. In 2016, after Trump disparaged the judge in the Trump University case as biased because the Indiana-born Gonzalo Curiel was “a Mexican,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan rebuked him for “textbook racism.” Ryan was expressing the common sentiments of the Republican party and the nation. Three years later, when the president lead chants of “Send her back” about an African-American member of congress, Paul Ryan was gone and the Republican party was silent. In 2018, when the administration’s child separation policy became public, a few Republicans objected. Sen. Susan Collins told CBS that she favored increased border security, but:
What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you. That’s traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.
Collins was not alone. Sen. Orrin Hatch and a dozen other Republican senators lobbied Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse the policy. Pope Francis weighed in. And the policy was ended (though not the tragic consequences).
But being the Trump party requires that uncomfortable pangs of conscience be quieted. The morally flexible Federalist has hailed the child separation as the only moral approach. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh, who acknowledged that the family separations were “regrettable” nonetheless maintained that
The fact is it’s not as simple as you make it sound or Joe Biden made it sound on the stage last night to locate the parents who are in other countries. And when they do locate them, it has been DHS’ experience that in many cases the parents do not want the children returned.
Maybe, just maybe, if we have tortured these families by forcibly separating even nursing babies from their mothers, we might just make partial amends by allowing those parents to be reunited with their children here?
Contra Shapiro, it can and will get worse. Being a part of Team Trump, aka a Republican, requires dulling one’s conscience and rationalizing the indefensible.
There’s another theme that surfaces in Trump-friendly precincts. Sometimes it’s presented as analysis, and at other times as reporting, but it goes like this: The folks who like Trump are simply resorting to the only available option to express their defiance of the “woke” elites. Rich Lowry writes, “If Trump manages to pull off an upset in 2020, it will be as a gigantic rude gesture directed at the commanding heights of American culture.” And Tim Carney describes a Trump rally in central Pennsylvania this way: “The farmers, coal miners, gun-owners, and bikers have had their share of sand kicked in their faces, but for now, they feel like they’re winners. And it’s because of Trump.”
This is the technique we’ve grown accustomed to in the Trump era—if you aren’t pro-Trump you are disrespecting working class people or gun-owners or farmers. You represent the snobbish “elites” who kicked sand in their faces, and who can blame them for giving you the finger in the form of the Bad Orange Man?
Who exactly is really disrespecting working class people? Do you need a college degree to find mocking the handicapped disgusting? Must you be a professional to despise selfishness and cruelty? Do working class people not have a stake in the rule of law and protection of minority rights?
If someone lies to you flagrantly, is that a sign of respect or contempt?
Finally, a word about the Democrats. Any number of Republicans justify their heretofore unimaginable support for Trump by reference to the “radicalism” of the Democrats. The Democrats are going to destroy your suburban idyll, confiscate your guns, upend the economy with the Green New Deal, and invite either MS-13 or Cory Booker (perhaps both!) to move in next door. Does this obvious claptrap really require refutation?
I’m no fan of increasing taxes, but Biden’s proposed tax increase will at least begin to address the gargantuan deficits of the Trump era. Reduced spending would be preferable, but let’s be honest, a tax increase isn’t the end of the world. After all, our economy withstood the Trump tax increases. What, you haven’t heard about those? That’s because they’re filed under tariffs and Trump claims China paid them. But that’s a lie. We paid them.
There will be no gun confiscations, no open borders, and no destruction of the suburbs. Those are the shrill bleats of a dying campaign. Will there be policies conservatives will dislike? Assuredly, yes. But there is no reason for hysterical fear.
In fact, Joe Biden, institutionalist to his core, is about the best Democrat we could have gotten in 2020.
Take a moment to consider how lucky we are. When one party goes nuts, as the Republican party did in 2016, the normal response of the other side is not to embrace sweet reason but to stampede toward equal and opposite radicalism. Some figures in the Democratic party did just that. The 2020 election could so easily have devolved into a death match between radical right and radical left.
But the Democratic party chose Biden, a centrist who has emphasized from day one how much he longs to unite a fractured nation. In Biden they’ve chosen such an institutionalist that even in the face of severe Republican provocation he has refused to endorse court packing.
Despite opportunities to respond in kind to Trump’s savagery, Biden has stuck to his essential decency.
Trump’s closing message is a raised middle finger. Here is Biden’s, spoken at Warm Springs, Georgia on October 27:
Time and again throughout our history we’ve seen charlatans, con men and phony populists who sought to play on our fears and appeal to our worst appetites and pick at our oldest scabs for their own political gain. They appear when the nation has been hit the hardest and when we’re at our most vulnerable…
I’m running as a proud Democrat but I’ll govern as an American president. I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me, as for those who do.
Biden is a fine politician of the old school. After the last four years, that feels like Pericles.
Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.