The vast majority of commentary about Donald Trump’s tweets centers on Trump: What do they say about his state of mind? Do they signal a change in American policy? Will he follow through on his threats? Is he a master media manipulator or just angry? Is he playing nine-dimensional chess or is he simply undisciplined and impulsive?
I want to focus on another question entirely: What are Trump’s tweets doing to the political character of his Republican supporters?
I focus on his tweets because they’re the primary way he communicates directly to America.
Yes, Trump has some set-piece speeches, and yes he still holds the occasional rally, but he stubbornly clings to his smartphone as a direct line to voters. His tweets reach beyond the relatively small slice of Americans who read political Twitter. They’re reproduced in hundreds of news articles, they dominate cable news, and their substance spreads across America in countless debates and arguments. In short, they define our national political conversation.
They are also often absurd and unhinged.
Take yesterday, for example, when he launched yet another series of tweets against the “fake news” media, culminating with a direct threat:
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
On a vast scale, members of the Republican base are defending behavior from Trump that would shock and appall them if it came from a Democratic president. There is of course always a measure of hypocrisy in politics — partisanship can at least partially blind us all. But the scale here beggars belief. Republicans never would tolerate a Democratic president’s firing an FBI director who was investigating the president’s close aides and then misleading the American people about the reason for that firing. They would never tolerate a Democratic president’s specifically calling for unconstitutional reprisals against his political enemies. They would look at similar chaos and confusion in a Democratic White House and fear a catastrophe.
Even worse, Republicans are — to borrow my friend Greg Lukianoff’s excellent phrase — “unlearning liberty.” For example, for many years conservatives focused on ways to protect free speech, an essential liberty under attack from intolerant campus leftists and a larger progressive establishment that labeled dissent as “phobic” or bigoted. Now? Republicans defend Trump’s demands for terminations and economic boycotts against football players who engage in speech he doesn’t like. “Well, it’s not technically illegal,” they say, knowing full well the chilling effect such language will have and knowing full well that they would be howling in anger if President Obama had ever expressed a similar desire to squelch, say, Tim Tebow’s prayers. They know full well that they condemn progressive corporations who use their economic power to squelch dissent. Republicans even defend direct calls for unconstitutional reprisals against members of the press.
“He fights,” they say. And they relish the liberal tears.
It’s been said countless times because it’s true: Politics and law are downstream from culture. For the sake of short-term political victories — for the sake of protecting a single American president — Republicans have shown themselves willing to help change the culture to one that declares, with one voice (Left and Right), “Free speech for me, but not for thee.” Unless the GOP base changes course — there’s still time, by the way — and demands that its president embody the constitutional values that are supposed to define the party, the degradation of our culture and of long-standing respect for the Constitution will outlive even the memory of any given political debate.
News cycles come and go. Presidents come and go. The Constitution — and the culture of liberty it is supposed to protect — must remain. Is it worth unlearning liberty to defend Trump’s tweets? Millions seem to think so. Millions are wrong.