The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump’s Problem Isn’t How He Talks but What He Says

I don’t mean to keep piling on Dennis Prager, who got a battery of responses here yesterday for making arguments that less honorable people have aired unchallenged. But Prager’s column made one more point that has been a common thread in “Never Trump”-bashing rhetoric from Trump supporters and that deserves a little further reflection:

There is also a cultural divide. Anti-Trump conservatives are a very refined group of people. Trump doesn’t talk like them. Moreover, the cultural milieu in which the vast majority of anti-Trump conservatives live and/or work means that to support Trump is to render oneself contemptible at all elite dinner parties.

Now, I don’t pretend to be any sort of “very refined” person, and I don’t get many invites to “elite dinner parties”; I’m just a guy who grew up in a middle class Catholic household in the suburbs, the son of a New York City cop, did well enough in school to spend the last two decades busting my tail practicing law, and got my start writing on the Internet because a college friend had a regional Boston sports blog back in 2000, and grew my political audience writing at RedState. (Apologies if a lot of this post is about me, but this is an ad hominem argument, which requires a response in that vein, and in any event, I think my experience is probably common enough to be worth generalizing).

But I grew up with Ronald Reagan, and I confess that, all things being equal, I’d prefer that my party be led by someone who (like Reagan) talks like an educated and informed person who pays attention to political arguments; the sort who reads National Review (always be closing!). In fact, we all belong to our own tribes large and small, and it is useful to be aware of your own tendencies. The largest of those tribes, for those of us who’ve been active for years in the conservative movement and/or Republican politics, is the people who have been there at our side in the trenches through one battle after another — something that is very conspicuously not true of Donald Trump, who at least as often as not in his 70 years has been on the other side, cozying up to the people we were fighting. It’s only natural that this leaves a legacy of mistrust, one that has nothing to do with refined dinner parties and everything to do with the job Trump was hired to do. If anything, a lot of us in the movement resent Trump precisely because he spent years trying to ingratiate himself at Manhattan soirées and being too embarrassed to associate with pro-lifers and others who have been openly and proudly conservative since Trump was a mere lad of 50.

At a more basic level, I have my regional tribe (the Northeast), my religious tribe (Catholics), my ethnic tribes (the Irish and Scottish), and my professional tribe (lawyers). All things being equal, yes, I tend to prefer political candidates from one or more of those tribes. The two strongest tribal associations I have these days, after watching the GOP roll out a seemingly endless string of older and to-the-manor-born presidential nominees from 1988 to 2016, is that I’d like for once to support a leader who is (1) from my generation (born in the heart of Generation X between the mid-60s and late 70s and raised, like me, with Reagan as their political hero) and (2) not born or raised to wealth or political influence — a “Striver,” who had to earn his or her way in the world by working hard and being good at his or her job. As it happens, the Republican party has a bumper crop of those people: Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, and Cory Gardner, to name a few. That is my tribe, and unsurprisingly I tend to find myself politically more in tune with them than with other segments of the party.

Trump, by contrast, may be from my regional tribe (bridge-and-tunnel New Yorkers from the outer boroughs and suburbs), and we may have a vague similarity in our educational paths (all-male high school to Catholic college to Ivy League university), but I confess that I can’t identify with his wealthy upbringing, his three marriages, his lack of religious conviction, or his general disregard for knowledge.

But in a political coalition, we all have to support people outside our immediate tribes if we want results. For my part, I’ve done that plenty of times. Sure, Trump doesn’t talk like Reagan or Lincoln or Justice Scalia, but I supported and defended George W. Bush for eight years, and I defended Sarah Palin in 2008, and I backed Rick Perry in the 2012 primaries, and had things shaken out a little differently, I was prepared to get behind Scott Walker in the 2016 primaries. None of those people talked like intellectuals, but then, the presidency (unlike the Supreme Court) is not an intellectual job. I could get behind a guy like Perry or Walker because their track record as a government executive pursuing conservative policy was more important than eloquence or lawyerly precision.

But here’s the bigger problem with how Trump talks: He says stuff literally all the time that isn’t true. This is not a matter of not advertising book-learning; it’s a matter of constantly getting the facts wrong about his job and his record and his promises. And at some point, it ceases to matter how much of that is intentional untruth and how much is ignorance. If you want to get at why writers and pundits on the Right, even those who tried to put the acrimony of the election behind them, keep finding themselves criticizing Trump, it’s not his grammar; it’s the fact that he is just constantly saying things that aren’t so, or picking fights that benefit nobody but himself, or alienating people for no good reason. I get why some people can live with all the lies and the ignorance — not defend them, but put them in perspective on the theory that deeds are more important than words — but it should not be any great mystery why people who make arguments for a living find it exhausting and demoralizing to be asked to make that trade.

Ronald Reagan, like Abe Lincoln, was a man of simple background and simple tastes who made himself into a smart, principled spokesman for his ideas. While it’s not elitist to aspire to that, not everybody has to be a Reagan or a Lincoln. But you can be a “salt of the earth” kind of talker without being constantly wrong about stuff. Would you hire a plumber who kept telling you obviously wrong things about how toilets work? Maybe so, if he reliably fixed them anyway, but you’d certainly be nervous that one day you’d wake up with nothing to show for hiring him but the contents of the toilet all over your floor.


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