Why Do Conservatives Tolerate Trump?

German soldiers parading through Lübeck in the days leading up to World War I.

© Darrell Arnold– (Reprinted with Permission)

Oh, the times they have a’ changed, but not for the good. As Jonathon Freedland has noted in an opinion piece in the Guardian, the recording released in late July by Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, speaking to Trump about the need to pay hush money to Karen McDougal, would have likely been enough to undo any recent presidency, including Clinton’s. It implicates the president not only in the sordid affair but in possible campaign finance breeches.

Yet, the fact is that hardcore Trump supporters are simply unswayed by traditional moral argument. The “moral realm” they inhabit is one in which any act by Trump, however brazen, is justifiable as long as it keeps Democrats out of office — because the greatest moral threat to the country, in their view, comes not from the daily lies, the sexually predatory behavior or even the threat to our global political alliances of the president but from Democratic policies.

Some of them see this great threat to consist in the Democratic Party’s cultural policies, which support gay marriage and abortion, promote equal pay for women, and support diversity in education and the workplace and a more generous immigration policy. Each of these policies is thought to threaten traditional ways of life.

But the hostility extends toward social programs to alleviate the poor, to provide medical care for all, to increase debt relief for students, and to regulate corporations. Insofar as these are connected with tax increases, much of Trump’s base rejects them — even if those tax increases are only for the wealthiest Americans. In the positive light in which Trump supporters see this, their own policy choices reflect the value of self-reliance. Everyone is to take care of themselves. Policies that require solidarity are to be rejected — even if when we look around the world we see that they pay off in higher life expectancies, greater literacy rates, lower infant mortality rates and a host of other quality of life issues.

Much of this is tied to a hyper-masculinity. The cultural policies outlined threaten the dominance of white males in America. The fiscal policies noted require empathy and point to a sense of community responsibility, both of which are rejected by the hyper-masculine, who live in a world where each takes care of himself, and there is no acknowledgement of the social character of the self, but an illusion is cultivated that each of us is self-made, not a product of our own decisions against the backdrop of cultural and social forces that were not of our choosing.

So Trump can do what he wills. He will suffer no repercussions from his staunch base because that base has a quasi-religious ideological entrenchment. When it comes down to it, many of them will chalk up the political dispute to cultural values. Of primary importance to many of them is a cultural war, in which they see themselves as the preserver of traditional values and, as startlingly mad as it may seem, view Trump as the champion of these values. Because Trump at times talks with respect about traditions they value (even while invoking prejudice and sexism), is willing to make promises about them that he cannot keep and fights against a world that makes his base feel uneasy, his greatest sins are forgivable. The Democrats, by contrast, threaten Trump’s base with an openness to new cultural mores and with the support of policies that require, as Obama put it, quoting scripture, that we acknowledge that we are each our brothers (and sisters) keeper.

It does not appear that this will change. In fact, the more frightened the Trump supporters become, and the more who join them in the fear, the less open these voters will be to policies that reflect openness and challenge us to social solidarity.

For now, we find ourselves in a strange, topsy-turvy world where a base strongly supports the least moral president in our lifetime at least in part for reasons that many of them find morally imperative.

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8 thoughts on “Why Do Conservatives Tolerate Trump?

  1. I wish that Democrats would back off on their support for LGBT. Yes, we all want to see further progress, but this stuff hugely reinforces the right-wing fears while helping a small number of people. I argue for prioritizing our political agendas, and I put environmentalism and peace (as in healthy geopolitical relationships) at the top of my list. Below that I put education and health care. We have already made great progress with LGBT rights; I think it’s time to put that issue at a priority level lower than the four above.

  2. I understand your reasoning, and appreciate your comments as always, but disagree. LGBT individuals are suffering more under Trump and any concessions we make to the right never help. But this is a close call so I do understand a difference of opinion here. JGM

  3. Michael Cohen’s recording implicating the president not only in the sordid affair but in possible campaign finance “breeches” is a wonderful slip.

    Expect sordid news of britches – er, breaches – once more, dear friends, at least once more… the game’s afoot!

  4. Hmmm. Yes, Cari B. that was a slip. Thanks for pointing it out, as I’m enjoying the laugh.

    Chris: Tactically, I understand what you are saying. The Trump campaign may hope for a cultural war, in which, instead of focusing on cuts to social security or other programs that will be planned to pay for our deficit, the emphasis will be on LGBT issues or other similar cultural issues. But I also don’t think the Republicans will win that fight. The key to the midterms will be in turning out the vote. And for that, you want the enthusiasm of the base. The changing attitudes on same-sex marriage in the states, especially among the young, are remarkable. Even 40% of Republicans are now in favor of same sex marriage. The transgender issue has less traction. But besides simply being kinder and more aligned with the values of personal liberty, a tactical advantage of taking up the LBGT cause is that is also helps solidify the youth enthusiasm. I would follow a contemporary understanding of John Stuart Mill’s “no harm” principle here. Individual freedom is preferred, especially when it comes to personal decisions about who to love or how to live out one’s sexual life. These private decisions do not cause a social harm that such that we would be justified in legislating restrictions on these issues. I’m pleased that more and more young people also find that to be the case. I hope that the alignment of the Democratic Party with progressive values that many young people share helps to solidify it as the party of the future. Here’s a link to a Pew poll on the issue of same-sex marriage. If the link won’t open, you can copy and past it. http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/

  5. I hastily concede that my proposal is a cold-blooded calculation that sacrifices the perfect for the good. Yes, there’s always something shameful about implicitly conceding something that we know is right. But I am fairly confident that concentration on LGBT issues loses net votes.

    You’re quite right in observing that such concern brings out more young voters. But young voters are a fickle bunch; they seldom turn out in numbers great enough to make much difference. They certainly poured out in great numbers for Obama 2008, but they were not as important in 2012. Examine Figure 1 in this document:


    It’s really quite depressing. And it clearly shows the power of the older voters. They lean Republican, and let’s face it: emphasis on LGBT will bring them out in droves.

    To summarize: emphasis on LGBT issues won’t bring out more older voters (Republicans) than younger voters (Democrats).

  6. Chris: You make some good points. I do think that the Democrats should emphasize that they are truly the voice for the interests of those working class voters who flipped for Trump. Trump has conned them. And I hope they increasingly understand that.

  7. Young people are too sincere for our disingenuous politics. Voting Bernie/Liz is sincere– but if either are elected president the Right will tear them to pieces. The US would have to evolve so much more than it has, for Bernie or Liz to become president.
    We are where Scandinavia was a century or so ago.

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