America’s political and media elites are amazed and appalled by the loyalty of Donald Trump’s core supporters. How, they wonder, can these voters continue to stand behind such a man, with all of his evident faults? To ask and answer the question actually says more about our elites than it says about Trump’s supporters.
Trump’s voters stick by him not because they are blind to his weaknesses but because they have more confidence in him than they have in the elites who oppose him—and with good reason.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump ran not only as someone outside of, but as someone actively opposed to, the members of the country’s political and media establishment. They were, he never tired of suggesting, incompetent and self-serving. For its part, this establishment not only withheld its support from Trump but did everything in its power to destroy his candidacy.
Trump won anyway. A sufficient number of voters found his critique of the establishment plausible, and they were thus willing to disregard that establishment’s dire warnings about the potential consequences of a Trump presidency. Trump’s rise, then, depended in part on a stunning collapse of confidence, on the part of many voters, in the nation’s traditional elites.
Since Trump’s election, these elites have done nothing to regain this lost confidence. On the contrary, they have acted in ways that almost seem calculated to deepen, if possible, the hostility and disdain of Trump’s voters. Each day the establishment trumpets its superior claims to govern, and each day it discredits these claims by its own behavior.
The political and media establishment presents itself as the defender of high political seriousness, in contrast to Trump’s supposed lack of seriousness and petty-mindedness. It is Trump, however, who has gone about the business of governing the country, and who has done so with tolerable success. Leaving aside the flamboyant and bruising discourse that Trump both uses and provokes in others, the country is not materially worse off under his stewardship than under that of previous presidents. On the contrary, in many ways it is better off.
Meanwhile, the establishment, the self-anointed upholders of seriousness, are preoccupied to the point of mania with anonymously sourced stories about alleged infighting within Trump’s administration. These stories always carry a veneer of real gravity, since they involve those who are entrusted with administering the government. Nevertheless, they are in substance on the level of the hallway conversation of high school sophomores: “Did you hear what A said about B to C?!” Ordinary Americans who voted for Trump can see this small-mindedness for what it is.
The establishment claims to be defending honor and integrity in public service, in contrast, they say, to Trump’s striking deficiencies in these virtues. These same anonymously sourced stories that are the establishment’s favorite reading, however, often tell a tale of political professionals who denounce the president—safely behind the veil of secrecy—and who boast about opposing his aims from within the administration. Most Americans work in, or have worked in, some kind of formal organization. They recognize the behavior of Trump’s enemies. Accepting a job from a man and then secretly working to undermine his reputation and frustrate his intentions is actually the opposite of honorable conduct.
In contrast, Trump has exerted himself strenuously to do the things that he said he would do as president, and when he thinks he has to attack someone (which admittedly is pretty often) he at least does it in the open. To this extent, Trump’s behavior is actually more honorable than that of his establishment detractors.
The country’s traditional establishment claims to defend the institutions and norms of our democracy, in opposition to Trump’s supposed efforts to undermine them. It is Trump’s enemies, however, who made a circus out of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on a nominee to the Supreme Court. Every tactic used by Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Dianne Feinstein to destroy Brett Kavanaugh is now a precedent for similar tactics to be used in the future against the nominees of a Democratic president. Such precedents would not be set by people seeking to conserve the norms and institutions necessary to the proper functioning of our government.
Finally, the elites claim to stand for the rule of law in opposition to Trump’s supposed lawlessness. The president, however, has not been charged with any crime. But Trump’s enemies certainly have committed crimes, and collaborated in the commission of crimes, in order to harm the president. The leak of the transcript of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador, and the leak of the existence of a FISA warrant on Carter Page, were unlawful disclosures of classified information done by government officials collaborating with journalists inside the Beltway.
In every case, the establishment’s pretensions to superiority are transparently groundless and self-serving. And this is why Trump can persist as a viable political phenomenon. Many voters can plausibly believe that, whatever his weaknesses, he is not as bad as his rivals for power.
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