Sneer­ing at Trump won’t help

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - MICHAEL GERSON

For those of us con­vinced that Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­fects of char­ac­ter, lack of knowl­edge, en­cour­age­ment of so­cial divi­sion and dis­re­gard for demo­cratic norms out­weigh any good he may do — the rough def­i­ni­tion of be­ing #Nev­erTrump — th­ese are con­fus­ing and chal­leng­ing times.

Trump’s solid ba­sis of sup­port is rel­a­tively ho­mo­ge­neous. It is fed up with foreigners, with for­eign en­tan­gle­ments and with the po­lit­i­cal class as a whole. Its worst temp­ta­tion is de­hu­man­iza­tion — re­duc­ing mi­grants, refugees and Mus­lims to threat­en­ing types.

Trump op­po­nents, in con­trast, could hardly be more ide­o­log­i­cally di­verse — from con­ser­va­tives (like me), to lib­er­tar­i­ans, to the hard­est of the hard left. We have lit­tle in com­mon but a hash­tag. And our worst temp­ta­tion is also de­hu­man­iza­tion — turn­ing Trump sup­port­ers into threat­en­ing types. It is a habit of mind that may help con­sol­i­date Trump’s con­trol of the GOP and thus his prospects for re­elec­tion.

Apro­pos is a re­cent, ex­cel­lent ar­ti­cle by Caitlin Flana­gan in the At­lantic, ar­gu­ing that the tone and ap­proach of lib­eral, late-night tele­vi­sion are in­vad­ing and dis­cred­it­ing a se­ri­ous Trump cri­tique. The typ­i­cal mono­logue, as Flana­gan de­scribes, is an “ex­co­ri­at­ing, pro­fan­ity-strewn, ad hominem tirade against the pres­i­dent (and by ex­ten­sion against any­one who might agree, in any small mea­sure, with his ac­tions).”

Flana­gan re­counts how latenight per­son­al­ity Sa­man­tha Bee set up and ridiculed a young Trump sup­porter (for which Bee later apol­o­gized). “Trump and Bee,” Flana­gan ar­gues, “are on dif­fer­ent sides po­lit­i­cally, but cul­tur­ally they are drink­ing from the same cup, one filled with the poi­sonous nec­tar of re­al­ity TV and its base­less val­ues. . . . Trump and Bee share a pen­chant for ver­bal cru­elty and a will­ing­ness to mock the de­fense­less.”

It is far more con­se­quen­tial, of course, when Trump does the mock­ing. But Flana­gan is cor­rect that the at­ti­tude of late-night tele­vi­sion gets mixed up in the pub­lic mind with the main­stream me­dia and ap­pears to many as a mono­lith of cruel, es­tab­lish­ment bias.

On the whole, peo­ple can bet­ter tol­er­ate be­ing shouted at than be­ing sneered at. And the sneer of the knowl­edge class was clearly a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for many Trump vot­ers. They felt con­de­scen­sion from the com­mand­ing heights of the cul­ture and set out to storm its high­est point. The pose of latenight tele­vi­sion — du­pli­cated by many on the left — is a con­tin­u­ing provo­ca­tion. It is the gen­eral, ob­nox­ious at­ti­tude in which it is some­how per­mis­si­ble for the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee to hawk a T-shirt on its web­site say­ing, “Democrats give a sh*t about peo­ple.”

This leads to a sec­ond, di­vi­sive and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive ten­dency among anti-Trump forces. For many on the left, the en­ergy of op­po­si­tion to the pres­i­dent is use­ful only to drive an ex­ist­ing agenda — and to drive the Demo­cratic Party left­ward. When women marched on the day af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, their plat­form in­cluded “open ac­cess to safe, le­gal, af­ford­able abor­tion” — as though this was the nat­u­ral po­si­tion for all who have deep con­cerns about the pres­i­dent. Some talk of grow­ing dis­con­tent as a “left-wing tea party” — as though this were fi­nally the chance for MoveOn.org and the Oc­cupy move­ment to com­plete their Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion in the Demo­cratic Party.

Warns former Barack Obama of­fi­cial Michael Wear: “The Demo­cratic Party should view Don­ald Trump’s takeover of the GOP as an op­por­tu­nity to build a last­ing ma­jor­ity. In­stead, they view Trump as of­fer­ing li­cense to move fur­ther to the left on pol­icy and still win.”

Con­sider where trends might take us. At the pres­i­den­tial level, there is cur­rently no cen­ter-right party in the United States. With the as­cen­dancy of its El­iz­a­beth War­ren-Bernie San­ders wing, there would be no cen­ter-left party in the coun­try. The ide­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural sort­ing of the two par­ties would be com­plete, and nearly ev­ery is­sue would be­come a cul­ture-war bat­tle.

It is safe to say that many re­cent pres­i­dents have been saved by the rad­i­cal­ism, overreach and fool­ish­ness of their op­po­si­tion. Some on the right went a bridge too far in im­peach­ing Bill Clin­ton and dis­cred­ited them­selves with con­spir­a­to­rial ac­cu­sa­tions about the death of Vince Fos­ter. Some on the left were off-puttingly fever­ish in their pre­sen­ta­tion of Ge­orge W. Bush as an elec­tion-steal­ing cowboy who may have been com­plicit in the 9/11 at­tacks. Some on the right used over­heated rhetoric against Obama’s sup­posed so­cial­ism and ob­sessed over his birth cer­tifi­cate.

A sub­stan­tive, cen­trist re­sponse to Trump has a chance of re­leas­ing his hold on the GOP and the coun­try. A sneer­ing, dis­mis­sive, de­hu­man­iz­ing, con­spir­a­to­rial, hard left-re­sponse to Trump is his fond­est hope.

MARY ALTAFFER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

De­mon­stra­tors in New York de­mand that Pres­i­dent Trump re­lease his tax re­turns.

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