We tend to reverse-engineer our reasons for supporting candidates for public office. “Rather than choose a candidate whose views match their own, voters often change their views to align with the candidates they’ve chosen,” Emily Ekins observes in a recent issue of the magazine.
So don’t expect appeals to reason to move a friend whose commitment to a candidate is firm and established. If you challenge the reasonability of his decision, you should anticipate a response in the form of a strained gesture toward linear thought — i.e., of an argument that, though phrased to sound coherent, is overwrought or brittle. Point to where his counterargument breaks down and he’s liable to respond with a rationalization that’s more fragile yet. Continue that dance long enough and you see where you’re headed: Behold, the triumph of the will over reason.
Still, many voters this campaign season remain undecided. They’re trying to find, or to construct on their own, arguments that are accurate translations, into words and logic, of their moral intuitions, which they may feel keenly even as they struggle to articulate them. Don’t misunderstand: To start with moral intuitions and then build out the reasons to support them is not intellectual dishonesty. It’s how we think. It’s human nature. Jonathan Haidt has written a book about it.
On the question of whom to support for president, conservatives who are disgusted by both presumptive nominees of the major political parties have several answers to choose from — vote for a third-party or independent candidate, write in a name, vote for Clinton to stop Trump, vote for Trump to stop Clinton, or don’t vote. Many of the arguments for and against the various possible positions have been thoroughly rehearsed by now. For a succinct rundown and box score, as it were, see, for example, Ramesh Ponnuru in the current issue of the magazine.
Some of the reasons that underlie Never Trump sentiment have been obscured by the fog of political war, however, or have been duly identified but insufficiently studied and understood. They’re social and cultural, not narrowly political. Here are a few:
The so-called alt-right, a fusion of nationalism with anti-Semitism and white separatism, has attached itself to Trumpism. Feed the host, and you feed the parasite. I don’t think that Trump is racist or anti-Semitic, but I think he’s cynical. He has shown himself unwilling to denounce and reject a bloc of passionate, vocal supporters whose numbers are hard to estimate because they express themselves almost exclusively online and anonymously. And I don’t think that most Trump supporters are white separatists or anti-Semitic, but his campaign has had the effect of validating those who are, opening the Overton window, as one of them recently put it, to their ideas about race. One reason that conservative writers are more likely than the average conservative to be Never Trump may be that they know that the alt-right exists. They spend more time in the political corners of the Internet where that particular virus that the Trump campaign has emboldened is still largely confined. They encounter it on social media. They oppose its spread.
Which leads to a second under-examined reason that many conservatives oppose Trump’s candidacy: It has had the effect of legitimizing race-based grievance and of expanding the sphere of speech that is considered taboo, or politically incorrect. Much of the anti-conservative Right (strange-sounding expression, isn’t it?) is like the anti-conservative Left in that it has race on the brain and reflexively racializes political disputes. To racialization from the left, a segment on the right now roars back, “We can play that game, too.”
Some on the right who sympathize with their frustration have added working-class whites to the list of victim classes, which already included women and racial and sexual minorities. The result is that criticism of bad or even reprehensible ideas is now more likely to be dismissed as “elitist” — “clueless” is another common epithet — if they are perceived to have bubbled up from a white underclass. These two conflicting impulses — defying political correctness while claiming its benefits, either for oneself or on behalf of others — are baked into Trumpism. They cannot coexist indefinitely.
Trumpism reflects a degradation of American culture but also promotes it. Some of Trump’s fans thrill to his transgression of commonly accepted standards of decency and decorum. Others tolerate it, for the sake of some good they hope he might achieve. Their looking away is the cultural equivalent of abandoning broken-windows policing: “The culture is an irredeemable dump anyway,” they imply, failing to recognize that putting a stop to graffiti and public urination, or to their equivalent in public discourse, is not a distraction from the larger work to be done but a preliminary, necessary step.
A person does not improve his prospects in life by mimicking and mocking a disabled journalist or by calling a political opponent a vulgar word for female genitalia. By celebrating the mentality from which such bitterness flows like water from a spring, people debase themselves and thereby lock themselves more tightly, socially as well as psychologically, outside the mainstream. They may imagine that their collective bile can be dammed to form an alt-mainstream, or alternative ethos. Like the polluted elements of the prevailing culture that it aspires to one-up, it would be repulsive and wrong in itself. It would poison the soul of the republic until it rendered useless our Constitution, which was made — thank you, John Adams — only for a religious and moral people.