Ethics & Public Policy Center

Why We Shouldn’t Fight Dirty

Published in Commentary Magazine on May 2, 2016



If you want an insight into the mindset of a good number of Donald Trump supporters, you simply need to listen to them. And you could hardly do better than to take in the words of a longtime Rush Limbaugh listener, Sean in Philadelphia, who called Limbaugh a few days ago.

According to Sean, who is clearly a conservative, he supports Donald Trump despite disagreeing with him on the vast majority of the issues. “It’s not about conservatism,” Sean admits. “I know he’s not a conservative. The fact is, to put it simply: Trump will fight. Not only will he fight, he’ll fight dirty. And the thing is, we have to have someone who will fight in the mud, because that’s where our opponents [Democrats] are.”

Sean went on to argue that Republicans won’t fight, as evidenced by the fact that they didn’t repeal Obamacare. He went on to say this:

We’re sick and tired of fighting with people who won’t fight, and when it comes to down to Cruz, you know, my instincts with Cruz is that, yeah, he’s a nice guy. And don’t get me wrong, if he magically wins this nomination, of course I’ll support him. But the problem is, I suspect he won’t fight.

Three days ago there was an article in Breitbart where he’s being interviewed and he said, “You know, if I’m elected, “he said something to that effect of, “I’m not gonna get personal.  This is gonna be about issues.” Okay, great.  You just handed them the election, ’cause you know what they’re gonna do? They’re gonna make it personal against you and you’re gonna be like the new George Bush just sitting up there like Jeb.  You won’t fight. You’ll just sit there and take it and we’re gonna lose again. And the thing is, Trump, you know what?  I disagree with probably 80% of the stuff that he believes in, or he purports to.  But the thing is, I think we’re facing an existential crisis.  It comes down to immigration, illegal immigration and Obamacare.

Set aside the fact that Sean is simply wrong when it comes to defunding the Affordable Care Act. (Shutting down the federal government can defund discretionary programs but not entitlement programs, which is what Obamacare is.) Or that Trump has praised a single-payer health care system, including this year, and in 2012 was criticizing Mitt Romney for being too harsh toward illegal immigrants. Set aside, too, the silly assertion that Ted Cruz is too nice and “won’t fight.” (The main rap against Cruz is that he is deeply disliked in part because he will fight on behalf of hopeless and unpopular causes in order to further his own ambition.)

What I want to focus on is the fact that Sean is willing to support Trump despite disagreeing with him on 80 percent of the issues because of how Trump practices politics. Because he is cruel and vulgar and mean-spirited. Because he will fight dirty.

The following day Rush praised Sean, saying, “If Trump’s the nominee and if he does unload on Hillary Clinton as he’s promising to do, let me just tell you something: You do not know how many gazillion Americans are going to be delirious and orgasmic with delight and support.” He added, “If Trump hits her and criticizes her like the Clintons haven’t been, you’re gonna have people on that basis alone vote for [Trump], in my opinion, ’cause I don’t think people understand how pent up the frustration and the opposition to the Clintons at what they have seemingly gotten away with all of these years.”

So there, in a nutshell, is the case for Trump by those who are supportive or at least sympathetic to him. He’ll fight dirty, and in doing so he’ll win over a “gazillion” Americans.

The latter proposition is dubious, given that Mr. Trump’s negatives – and the intensity of his negatives — are unprecedented. Despite facing a very weak opponent in Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump is positioning himself to be crushed. But it’s the celebration of Trump’s style of politics that ought to most worry us. The very thing that ought to disqualify Trump is what commends him to many.

Before Democrats pat themselves on the back for being paradigms of civility and decency, let’s recall that the Clintons have shown they are well practiced in the politics of personal destruction, whether it means savaging and threatening women Bill Clinton has had affairs with or those, like Ken Starr, who were appointed to investigate him. Trump is at least as skilled at this game, which means the 2016 presidential election, assuming both Clinton and Trump are the nominees, may well be the ugliest and most vicious election many of us will have ever seen.

There’s no easy or quick way out of this. It will require some large number of Americans to re-think how we are to engage in politics in this era of rage and polarization. Toward that end John Inazu, an associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, has written Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.

Professor Inazu’s book explores, in an honest and realistic way, how we can live together peaceably despite our deep differences. He concedes we lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing. But this is hardly the first time. (To take just one example, America in 1860 was far more riven than it is today.)

What is needed is to reclaim what Inazu calls three “civic aspirations” – tolerance, humility and patience. The goal here isn’t to pretend our deep differences don’t exist; rather, it’s to approach politics in ways that takes into account our constitutional commitments (including allowing individuals to form and gather in groups of their choosing) and civic practices. It is to give people space to live their lives and think about things in different ways. It means accepting our disagreements without degrading and imbruting those with whom we disagree. It obligates us, in other words, to understand what pluralism requires of others and of us. (The requirements we place on others is the easy part; the requirements we place on ourselves is the more challenging part.)

This all may sound hopelessly high-minded to you, eliciting a dismissive roll of the eyes. It’s so unfashionable, so unrealistic, so out of touch. It’s chic to be cynical. Except for this: Disagreeing with others, even passionately disagreeing with others, without rhetorically vaporizing them is actually part of what it means to live as citizens in a republic. (Once upon a time this was part of civics education.) The choice is co-existence with some degree of mutual respect — or the politics of resentment and disaffection, the politics of hate and de-humanization.

Right now, it appears an awful lot of people are embracing the politics of hate and de-humanization.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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