The Corner

Politics & Policy

Progressive Illiberalism Had a Profound Effect on Trump Voters

In response to Eastland On Raich

In the battle over whether Donald Trump is something new and entirely different in American politics, a unique illiberal threat, consider me on Team Cooke. I agree with Charlie. He’s in large part a product of and reaction to pre-existing illiberal trends in American life. He didn’t spring up out of nowhere. In fact many millions of Americans of specifically chose him to the instrument of progressive destruction, the illiberal man who would meet force with force (unlike all those “GOPe pansies” who don’t realize you have to “punch back twice as hard.”) In other words, an awful lot of American voters surveyed the cultural and political landscape — including a wave of progressive illiberalism — from the Obama administration to campuses to corporations, and said, “You want war? Then war you shall have.”

But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that you can list and document illiberal progressive acts all day long, and some smart folks still see Trump as entirely different. His illiberalism isn’t just different in degree, but in kind. In the words of Tom Nichols, for example, there’s no line from campus intolerance to the Trump crowds chanting “lock her up.” In his view, threats to jail Hillary are “banana republic stuff.” 

We can’t forget that Trump’s crowds (and Trump) didn’t speak about jailing Hillary in a vacuum. She as under active FBI investigation, and her treatment of classified information was so reckless and careless that I’ve never in my career heard of a member of the military getting away with similar conduct. Trump shouldn’t have indicated that he’d prosecute her (presidents don’t and shouldn’t make prosecution decisions), but the made-up legal standards applied to protect Hillary from prosecution were themselves signs of the corruption of the rule of law.

Even more importantly, we can’t forget the Obama administration’s IRS/DOJ tea party targeting scandal — where the IRS systematically singled out conservative voices, conducted intrusive investigations, leaked confidential documents, and even discussed colluding with the DOJ to “piece together” prosecutions of conservative groups. The administration turned one of the federal government’s most powerful domestic agencies against ordinary citizens. 

Nor should we forget the Wisconsin “John Doe” investigations, where armed agents launched pre-dawn raids on Wisconsin conservatives, then subjected them to extraordinary gag orders, for the sake of “investigating” their constitutionally-protected issue advocacy. Can you imagine if, say, Republican prosecutors launched raids on Democratic activists — all while communicating with a Trump-led IRS? The cries of oppression in “Trump’s America” would reach the heavens. Yet that’s what happened in Obama’s America. Banana Republic indeed. 

Finally, if anyone wonders why white evangelicals gave more than 80 percent of their vote to Trump, they should walk a mile in their shoes — when they’re confronting colleges that have systematically attempted to force Christian groups off campus, systematically discriminated against Christian scholars, and then seem eager to spend Christian families’ life savings to teach their children that the faith of their fathers is mindless and bigoted. They should ponder what a conservative Christian thinks about an administration so hell-bent on implementing its social agenda that it will not only try to force nuns to facilitate access to abortifacients, it will even try to inject the federal government into the pastor-selection process. These actions, taken together, had a profound impact on conservatives — filling some with fury and frightening others into believing their fundamental freedoms would be extinguished if Hillary won.

It’s not enough to simply say that arguments about these (and other) examples of progressive illiberalism represent nothing more than “what-about-ism.” Why aren’t they examples of the exact kinds of illiberalism that people fear from Trump? Why are they insignificant by contrast with Trump’s threats? Make the argument. Don’t just assert the difference.

The tragedy of Trump is that his voters ultimately chose to fight illiberalism with their own strongman. I wish they’d chosen to fight illiberalism with constitutionalism, but a constitutional restoration will have to wait until another day (if ever). In the meantime, however, we can’t pretend that Trump’s supporters weren’t reacting to illiberalism that was very real,  very serious, and profoundly affected many American lives.