Politics & Policy

In Defense of Trump Voters

Trump supporters at a rally in Minneapolis, Minn., November 6, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Voting for Trump may be wrong, but it’s not crazy.

One of the popular sports these days among Clinton supporters — and sometimes among Never Trump Republicans (of whom I am proudly one) — is bashing the people voting to make Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States. A common refrain is to list the various awful things associated with Trump — e.g., groping women, stirring up bigotry, toadying to Putin — and suggesting that anyone who votes for Trump must be embracing all of this.

A recent Pew survey found that 58 percent of Clinton supporters “have a hard time respecting someone who supports Donald Trump for president,” almost a third more than the proportion of Trump voters who view Clinton supports with similar disdain. (That figure is markedly higher among Hillary’s white supporters, and rises to 66 percent among Clinton supporters with college degrees.) Undoubtedly, Hillary Clinton’s own description of half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” has only encouraged this attitude by her own followers.

I have many grave concerns about Trump, both as a potential president and as leader of the Republican party, and intend to cast a protest vote for Evan McMullin for those reasons. And I have my own bones to pick with voters who chose Trump over better Republican candidates in the primaries, when we had a choice. But in the context of an American general election, the rancor and scorn directed at his voters is unreasonable and uncharitable, in ways the critics would never direct at themselves or (in the case of liberal criticisms) at their own allies.

There are rational arguments for supporting Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton, even if I regard those arguments as naive or blind to the realities of Trump. And there are other legitimate reasons that don’t fit neatly into polite, rational, educated debate. Let’s look first at the sophisticated, reasoned justifications offered for voting to Make America Great Again, and then at why the lower-information Trump voters might reasonably decide to support him. We will find that both are rooted, however misguidedly, firmly in defense of the American system.

The Three Best Arguments for Voting Trump

There are a variety of arguments raised in favor of voting for Donald Trump. Some of these assume that you agree with a neo-Buchananite direction for the GOP, and these make a certain amount of sense only if you start with that premise. For example, I personally don’t believe that continuing our current immigration policy presents an existential demographic threat to American culture and democratic institutions; if you do, you’re probably voting for Trump. Others are just plain delusional or require inventing a kind of Ideal Trump with little relationship to the actual man. I’ll stick to the three main arguments for why normal Republican voters would actually want to vote for Trump. Those arguments are wrong, in my view, but they’re not crazy, and they are ones that many Democrats deploy regularly to justify their own choices.

All rational arguments for voting Trump begin with the binary nature of elections. If two candidates are running for office and you see one of them as significantly worse than the other, you have a moral obligation to vote for the other one, or else you own some responsibility for the worse candidate’s winning. If you live anywhere but in Utah (and even there, the McMullin insurgency seems likely to fall short), either Trump or Clinton will win your state. In that case, a third party vote or staying home isn’t meaningless — it’s a visible statement of protest — but it effectively abdicates responsibility for the result. I’ve resisted this argument when presented as a condemnation of Never Trumpers, but I don’t disagree with the logic — it’s a weighty moral decision for an informed voter to refuse to choose between the binary choices. People who think that both Clinton and Trump are awful should vote for one of them anyway if they really believe the other is worse. My only disagreement is that I think both of them are equally bad (albeit in somewhat different ways), and thus I can’t in good conscience support either one. And as a writer, even if I was going to vote for Trump, I couldn’t compromise my integrity enough to face the daily chore of trying to defend and justify him.

All rational arguments for voting Trump begin with the binary nature of elections.

The first of the three rational arguments for Trump is the instrumental argument. This is the argument that Trump may not mean anything he says or even know what he’s talking about half the time but that electing him would still cause better public-policy results, from a conservative perspective, than electing Hillary. Maybe Trump wouldn’t keep all his promises to appoint conservative judges, but he’d appoint some, and Hillary would appoint none. Maybe Trump would do more to sign parts of Paul Ryan’s legislative and budget agenda than Hillary would. Maybe Trump would hire a lot of Steve Bannon types to work in his White House, but eventually he’d run out of those and have to staff the rest of the executive branch with normal, essentially sober Republicans. Maybe Trump’s basic laziness and lack of understanding of the workings of the system would cede power to Mike Pence, his basically conservative and fundamentally responsible vice president. Maybe, as I’ve speculated before, the Democrats would refuse to do business with Trump, leaving him no real choice but to work with the people who elected him.

That’s a lot of maybes, and a lot of faith placed in a guy who is so renowned for being beyond anyone’s control or influence that the RNC is reduced to arguing in court filings that it literally can’t control Trump when he ignores a consent decree placed on the party years ago. It’s a lot of hope for conservative outcomes from a 70-year-old con man whose instincts have always been those of a big-government statist and social libertine, and who seems to delight in humiliating those who support him. And it underestimates the extent to which weighty foreign-policy decisions are often made by the president almost alone, with little input from Congress and less from the courts.

But for more than a few conservatives, the risks of Trump outweigh the certainties of Hillary. That’s not irrational. Neither is the decision of some conservatives to support Hillary, having made the assessment that the risks of Trump to national security are just too high — although given how terrible Hillary’s foreign-policy record is, I can’t agree with them either. The past few decades have taught us that control of the Supreme Court carries vastly more power over how we are governed than the political branches do; that accumulation of power has been driven mainly by social-issue liberalism, so liberals can’t really blame anyone but themselves for convincing voters that no price in the degradation of the elected branches is too much to pay in order to claim that prize.

Democrats may pour scorn on Trump voters for the things they are willing to swallow in order to support a candidate they agree with on public-policy issues, but what would it take for those Democrats to vote for a conservative Republican for president? Democrats make the instrumental argument for ignoring their own side’s scandals and faults on Election Day all the time. The people ranting about Trump’s mistreatment of women spent the 1990s lecturing us about the irrelevance of any kind of sexual misconduct to public-policy debates, and many of them are now arguing that even Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of sensitive national security information should be ignored, or at any rate outweighed, by the instrumental arguments for her — as the subtitle of a Matt Yglesias piece at Vox puts it, “If you agree with her on policy, vote with a clear conscience about the server.” That’s exactly what Trump’s instrumental voters are doing: They think they agree with him more on policy than with her, and they are casting their ballots accordingly. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily embracing everything about Trump, any more than Hillary’s voters are.

The structural argument is that Trump might be as bad as Hillary or even worse but that he’ be a less serious threat to do harm because the vast, nominally non-partisan apparatus of official Washington.

The second rational argument for voting Trump, advanced most forcefully by Glenn Reynolds, is the structural argument. The structural argument is that, sure, Trump might be as bad as Hillary or even worse but that he’d actually be a much less serious threat to do harm because the vast and nominally non-partisan apparatus of official Washington — the bureaucracy and civil service, the courts, the press — would come together to thwart him at every turn, whereas they would be force multipliers that amplify all of Hillary’s misdeeds and bad policy ideas. Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru have explored in detail in NR how Hillary’s liberalism presents a mortal threat to our democratic institutions, a threat that is all the more insidious because it is incremental, mainstreamed, and normalized by our elites, and painted in bland tones in contrast to Trump’s carnival barking. One of the great frustrations of a lot of Trump supporters is that Trump gets lacerated in the press for saying things bluntly that Democrats have been saying and doing for years, but in the polite language of the legal profession and the Beltway insider. In its extreme version, the structural argument asserts that if Trump is really that bad, he can always just be impeached and removed from office by bipartisan consensus.

Of all the arguments for Trump, this is the one that tempts me the most. Its diagnosis of how D.C. operates is, in fact, a big part of why I argued in the primaries that Trump wouldn’t be effective at “burning it all down.” It doesn’t outweigh the other reasons for opposing him, and indeed it relies on a mechanism that is both dangerous and defeatist for conservatives: the empowerment of an official Washington unified to undermine an elected president on a scale previously unprecedented. We have seen how this game plays out before. Ever since Watergate and Vietnam, the media have used their roles in those controversies to justify a more aggressively partisan and ideological right to decide what the public should be told. Ever since the civil-rights era, liberals have used its necessary expansions of federal power to justify permanent expansions of federal power in every walk of life. Media that have become more openly biased against Trump — because he deserves it — already won’t easily put that genie back in the bottle. The structural argument goes a way toward explaining how some people have reasonably rationalized voting for Trump, but it carries a whirlwind all its own.

The third rational argument for voting Trump is the moral-hygiene argument, also known as “throw the bums out” or “drain the swamp.” This is specific to the current Clinton scandals involving Hillary’s e-mail server and the Clinton Foundation, but also more broadly to the Clintons’ long career of scandal as well as the general air of immunity and insulation from popular accountability that has grown around official Washington under President Obama. This is the argument that Democrats and liberal elites have basically reached the point where they feel confident being above the law, eroding longstanding norms of democracy, and getting away with almost anything, and that nothing would shock them out of that complacency quite like the voters electing an obviously unqualified blowhard whose main selling point is that he’s not an acceptable member of the club. Like everyone elected on a “throw the bums out” ticket, Trump can always be thrown out himself later.

This, too, is a strong argument for voting against Hillary, and an emotionally tempting one for voting Trump. But it is counterbalanced by the cost in moral hygiene in rewarding Trump’s own behavior, encouraging similar candidates in the future, and encouraging those in our society who would imitate Trump by rehabilitating open racial bigotry and adding to our society’s sexual crassness. Trump could humble the Democrats for a while, and maybe even accelerate their own internal tensions toward a crackup, but in victory he would do almost certainly permanent damage to the Republican party (if he hasn’t already) as a vehicle for any kind of conservative principle.

In the end, reasonable people can differ on which of the two sides of each of these three coins presents the more serious threat; you don’t have to ignore the cost of one to value the other. It should not be that hard for critics of Trump’s voters to understand that every choice in this election is a fraught one, and that Republicans who end up pulling the lever for the Donald are not necessarily indifferent to the costs; they just see tradeoffs with other evils of great gravity differently.

The Standard-Bearer

All of that is why informed, rational political actors might end up making a different choice from that of Never Trumpers. But for many voters, the answer is even simpler, even if their votes reflect the same essential calculus, and we should resist the urge to sneer at them.

The simple reality of democracy is that lots of voters are a lot less well informed about political issues and candidates than the typical pundit or political junkie. Those voters process the information they do receive quite differently from people who consume a lot more news, and they’re also going to rely on the party-line identification of a candidate to deliver information about the candidate that they’re not personally committed to gathering. Inevitably, such voters will sometimes cast party-line votes for candidates who are individually horrible people.

This is not limited to voters who are stupid and/or ignorant, although there will always be more than a few of those around. (A candidate who wins all the voters with below-average intelligence starts off with 50 percent of the vote.) It also includes voters (ranging from surgeons to soldiers in war zones to mothers with a bunch of small children) who may just be busy with other things, or elderly, or not proficient in English. Some of these people probably shouldn’t vote — but if they choose to, their choices are just as legitimate as anyone else’s. Indeed, there’s an entire body of political-science research dedicated to arguing that voters may choose to be rationally ignorant about a lot of things that are a waste of their time to learn.

Consider the “birther” story. If you paid close attention to the reported facts, it was ridiculous to believe that Barack Obama’s mother, a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii in 1961, made a secret trip to Kenya just to give birth to him and then conspired with the local authorities to cover up the location of his birth. National Review laid out those facts in an editorial on the topic back in 2009. It’s fair to argue that prominent people who pushed birtherism, and voters who studied the topic obsessively without changing their minds, were crazy, racist, or both — Donald Trump included.

But not everybody devotes that much attention to these things. If you were an ordinary citizen who didn’t spend a ton of your daily routine reading the national news, and you knew that Obama’s father was Kenyan, and that Obama spent much of his formative years outside the United States, it’s not that big a leap to think that maybe the guy was born somewhere else. If you were cynical about politicians in general and Chicago Democrats in particular, it’s also not that big a leap to think he was hiding his real birth certificate. Obama’s own book publisher, relying solely on information provided by Obama himself, listed him as Kenyan-born on promotional materials back in the early 1990s. Things that may seem insane to believe or disbelieve if you know all the facts may not be all that illogical if you simply have a few of the key facts wrong. That makes you uninformed on the topic; it doesn’t make you a racist loon.

Is Trump inconsistent in his views, and mostly self-interested? Has he treated women as disposable sex objects? Has he said irresponsible things and played on people’s racial and cultural resentments? Does he sometimes bluster his way through things when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Has he played the system to get rich? Or has he been falsely or unfairly accused of some of those things? To a lot of Americans, you could say much of the same about most politicians.

It’s enormously frustrating to get people to accept that Trump is different in the scale and degree of these things, but if you talk to people who think the whole political system is a racket full of terrible people (and it’s not crazy to think of it that way), you can see why many of them just tune a lot of the negatives out. They see the things that people like Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy got away with for years — and were defended for — and write off the predations of powerful men on women as a part of the system. They see Barack Obama embrace Al Sharpton and bend his knee at a preacher who denounced America in nasty racial terms, and they figure what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. They remember, if they are old enough, open segregationists being a routine part of the Democratic party. They hear every Republican candidate of their lifetimes denounced as racists, and they tune that stuff out — ask literally anyone in Republican politics how often they’ve heard “they say that about everybody” raised as a defense of Trump in the past 18 months. Trump’s crude, blunderbuss rhetoric strikes a lot of people as “straight talk” simply because he’s doing bluntly what people have seen politicians of both parties doing obliquely for years. To lawyers and political insiders, he’s crossed a lot of lines — but a lot of voters don’t see the lines, or think they are drawn to keep ordinary people out of the conversation.

Partisan tribalism on the part of the less-informed segments of the electorate is a component of how a rational democracy functions.

A significant number of people will vote for Donald Trump for president because they’ve come to the conclusion that the Republican party is more on their side than the Democrats are, or because they think it’s due time to change parties controlling the White House, or because they think it’s worth trying a political outsider in the presidency, or because Trump is a really rich guy who seems to get his way a lot and must therefore be a strong leader, and they’ve tuned out the bad stuff because experience has taught them cynicism about our political class. Voting for a bad man for those reasons doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them ordinary people who were offered only bad choices.

Malice toward Few, Charity toward Most

Trump does, of course, have some very noisy supporters who are indeed deplorable, by any use of the term. The “alt-right” white “nationalists” he’s attracted to his banner are a blot on his campaign and a problem for the Republican party so long as he’s associated with the party. But we should not be so eager to use them to disparage some 60 million people, and we should recognize that Democratic partisans are doing so mainly out of opportunism.

There’s a cottage industry these days of maligning Republican voters for late-night TV laughs and Twitter snark based on the party’s most ignorant, resentful, or bigoted supporters. Yet there are large contingents of voters in the Democratic party, too, who are some or all of those things, and who don’t much distinguish between honorable public servants and corrupt, inept, and abusive hacks so long as they have a D after their names. Who do you think voted to send Alvin Greene to the Senate or make truck driver Robert Gray the governor of Mississippi? Voters who will vote for literally anyone they see as on their side. Attention to these voters is asymmetrical for a bunch of reasons, ranging from liberals’ inability to see their own sides’ prejudices to the fact that it’s more politically acceptable to make fun of ignorant and resentful white people (who are likelier to be Republicans) than ignorant and resentful black people (who are likelier to be Democrats). Educated white liberals consider it a virtue to share a party with the poor, ignorant, and resentful — but only if it’s their voters.

Some of what Trump represents is white voters embracing (or re-embracing) racial-identity politics of precisely the type we’ve long seen in municipalities and congressional districts with overwhelmingly African-American electorates, jurisdictions that are frequently notorious for reelecting corrupt and ignorant politicians (a dynamic common to racial and ethnic enclaves that vote on identity-politics lines, and by no means exclusive to black communities). That’s a bad thing and not to be encouraged on either side of the partisan or racial divides, but liberals are hasty to be more charitable to the people who keep sending Maxine Waters and Sheila Jackson Lee and Hank Johnson and Charlie Rangel back to Congress, and electing even worse people as their mayors. The liberal critics of Trump voters certainly don’t accept willingly the idea that the most ignorant elements of the Democratic party represent all of its voters.

Trump himself and his true deplorables deserve no mercy from anyone, and there are many recriminations still due over how he got nominated. But many millions of Trump’s general-election voters don’t deserve to be lumped in that same basket. In general, the American family could use a lot less malice and a little more charity toward our fellow voters all around.

Dan McLaughlin — Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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