How can you de­fend a pres­i­dent who en­dan­gers the democ­racy he swore to pro­tect?

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

WASH­ING­TON – A friend just re­turned from some time with a group of wealthy con­ser­va­tive donors. “They were am­biva­lent about Don­ald Trump two years ago,” he said. “Now they are vo­cif­er­ously pro-Trump. There’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal study to be done here.”

Those in and around Repub­li­can pol­i­tics have seen this dy­namic at work. In spite of past mis­giv­ings, most GOP par­ti­sans seem to have ac­cepted the idea that Trump is their guy in the broader cul­ture/po­lit­i­cal war. They have ral­lied to his de­fense in a way rem­i­nis­cent of how Democrats ral­lied to Bill Clin­ton dur­ing his scan­dal and im­peach­ment.

The prob­lem, of course, is that Trump – un­like Bill Clin­ton – is in­ca­pable of ef­fec­tive out­reach to less par­ti­san vot­ers. To the con­trary, he has con­firmed pub­lic sus­pi­cions about his un­fit­ness and in­sta­bil­ity. There is no mea­sur­able sense in which Trump has grown into the of­fice he holds. He re­mains de­fi­antly na­tivist, in­stinc­tu­ally di­vi­sive, ha­bit­u­ally of­fen­sive. A sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the voting pub­lic has gone from am­biva­lence about Trump to alarm, hos­til­ity and dis­dain.

So, in the 2018 midterm election, Trump tried to na­tion­al­ize the election on is­sues that mo­ti­vate his party – ap­peal­ing to those vot­ers who are ex­cited by ex­clu­sion. And GOP par­ti­sans re­sponded by turn­ing out in large num­bers. But it was not nearly enough to coun­ter­act greater pub­lic fears.

In other words, the pol­i­tics of par­ti­san mo­bi­liza­tion works only if you don’t scare the rest of Amer­ica to death. Repub­li­cans have come to the de­fense of a man who is in­ca­pable of widen­ing his ap­peal. And this has opened up a re­al­ity gap be­tween the GOP and the rest of our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

The rift be­tween Repub­li­can per­cep­tions of the pres­i­dent and the view of the broader pub­lic has grown into a chasm. This is now the main po­lit­i­cal con­text of the 2020 campaign.

Why have Repub­li­cans fallen in line with a politi­cian who has some­times tar­geted their own party and lead­ers for pop­ulist dis­dain? Why have con­ser­va­tives come to the de­fense of a leader with de­cid­edly un­con­ser­va­tive views on trade and for­eign pol­icy? Why have re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives em­braced the liv­ing, breath­ing em­bod­i­ment of defin­ing de­viancy down?

This phe­nom­e­non would ben­e­fit from a psy­cho­log­i­cal study. Those who vi­o­late their own be­liefs for po­lit­i­cal gain – el­e­vat­ing the ends of pol­i­tics over the means of char­ac­ter – be­come men­tally in­vested in their choice. Ad­mit­ting that Trump is a chaotic and de­struc­tive force in Amer­i­cans pol­i­tics would re­quire self­judg­ment. There is a rea­son that en­ablers en­able – be­cause a more ob­jec­tive self-assess­ment would bring guilt and pain.

At one level, the re­al­ity is not com­plex. Trump is a pop­ulist dem­a­gogue who gains per­mis­sion for his brand of pol­i­tics by giv­ing fa­vored groups cer­tain ide­o­log­i­cal ben­e­fits – par­tic­u­larly a tax cut, reg­u­la­tory relief and con­ser­va­tive judges. I hap­pen to agree with some of those de­ci­sions. But they are part of a sys­tem or struc­ture that was cre­ated to pro­vide le­git­i­macy for a gen­eral low­er­ing of po­lit­i­cal and moral stan­dards.

At the level of raw pol­i­tics, this deal has worked. A pres­i­dent who pan­ders to the re­li­gious right may end up be­ing more re­li­able than a leader who is ac­tu­ally a re­li­gious con­ser­va­tive and thinks for him­self or her­self. Pan­der­ing is ut­terly pre­dictable. Con­science makes dis­tinc­tions.

But there is a down­side to the deal. This par­tic­u­lar dem­a­gogue re­quires not just con­sent but ap­proval. And not just ap­proval but obei­sance. So re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives end up bless­ing what Pete But­tigieg mem­o­rably called “the porn-star pres­i­dency.” Deficit hawks vote for mas­sive in­creases in debt. Eco­nomic con­ser­va­tives ac­com­mo­date the in­stincts of an eco­nom­i­cally il­lit­er­ate leader.

Mil­i­tary hawks en­dorse a for­eign pol­icy that re­sem­bles Barack Obama’s, ex­cept with more praise of dic­ta­tors and less back­bone.

To en­sure the po­lit­i­cal tri­umph of their views, these par­ti­sans must pub­licly di­lute and dis­credit those views. Trump of­fers true be­liev­ers an un­com­fort­able ar­range­ment: What you would save you must first de­file.

The his­tor­i­cal judg­ment on that deal de­pends on how de­struc­tive Trump ends up be­ing to our pub­lic or­der. Mak­ing the case for Trump re­quires his ad­vo­cates to con­sis­tently min­i­mize his vices. Rather than con­ced­ing Trump’s de­mo­li­tion of pub­lic stan­dards of hon­esty and de­cency, his sup­port­ers pro­nounce him a lit­tle rough around the edges. His racial bias is dis­missed as straight talk or rhetor­i­cal ex­cess. His test­ing of con­sti­tu­tional bound­aries is an ex­cess of zeal. His cruelty and cru­dity are, when you get used to them, just part of the show.

But if, as I sus­pect, Trump’s de­cep­tion, in­de­cency, racism, vi­cious­ness and law­less­ness are uniquely dan­ger­ous to our democ­racy, his en­ablers will find their deal more dif­fi­cult to ex­plain.

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