You should not be mystified that politicians and media figures who “should know better” promote or enable Donald Trump, despite ample evidence of his bigotry, dishonesty and contempt for democratic values. The anti-#NeverTrump forces, if you will, come in different varieties but all fail to see the inherit danger in bolstering a figure like Trump.
First, there are the shameless opportunists, for which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the poster boy. These are the soulless men and women who figure they have something to gain from Trump’s rise. They crave being close to power and fancy themselves as the tutors, advisers and appointees of a future president. Some may even identify with him, seeing in him a more successful version of themselves.
We find it unsurprising, for example, that Newt Gingrich now carries water for Trump. (“Trump’s shift toward inclusiveness, team effort and unity was vitally important,” he tweeted. “He has to build a Reagan like inclusiveness to win this fall.”) Gingrich is a narcissist who never let personal morality stand in the way of ambition. Trump sets off no alarm bells, but rather seems like a kindred soul. The chance to play Svengali to Trump must be tempting for someone like Gingrich who considers himself to be an important political thinker.
In the opportunist camp one must include the fleet of TV executives and cable TV hosts who crave ratings the way others crave liquor or cigarettes. Les Moonves says, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Charming. CNN gooses its ratings with 24/7 Trump coverage, treating him like just another disaster story (missing airlines, cruise ships adrift, etc.). Add in the radio talk show hosts, the bloggers and the magazine editors who might know Trump is selling snake oil but nevertheless want to keep up with the mob as it surges toward the newest provocateur.
There are the K Street lobbyists, economic pundits and business gurus with an economic agenda. They are convinced that they can literally do business with Trump. They excuse or ignore his fascistic sentiments, speculating maybe there is a tax bill to be passed or a trade deal to be finagled. It never dawns on them that they may be the victim of Trump’s ire or that there is more at stake than the next tax bill. There are, sadly, the religious hucksters as well who would lend their name to Trump’s cause for visibility, influence or even a hefty donation.
Moving on from the opportunists we find the marionettes, the dutiful party men who care not one whit for the content of what their side is advocating. They lack the moral insight to elevate moral principles and patriotism over sheer partisanship. They come up with elaborate rationales for backing Trump. Either because they crave the certainty of party preference — no need to think, just check for the “R” or the “D” — and cannot fathom that “their side” can be worse than their traditional political adversaries. They are the ultimate go-along-ers, incapable of breaking with authority. In this group are the Republican National Committee functionaries, the Conservative Political Action Conference organizers and the party affiliates all marching along in lock step, convinced it is not their job to raise their voices in protest.
And finally, there are the nativists, authoritarians and misogynists who have previously trimmed their sails just enough to remain in polite company, but who admire Trump’s “candor” and lack of restraint. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), rabidly anti-immigrant activists, economic know-nothings and aggrieved right-wingers who are convinced that unseen elites have conspired against them find in Trump someone who shares their beliefs and intensifies their commitment to bad causes.
To be clear, the category of “should know better” Trump apologists is distinct from those ordinary Americans, remarkably, who are still unaware of Trump’s most malicious beliefs and personal defects. They are voters — millions of them — who still (believe it or not) have not heard of “Trump University” or his plans to wage war on the free press and his political enemies or his scheme to cut deals with vile dictators. Yes, there are voters who do not know or care to know more than Trump’s self-puffery and declared intention to “Make America great again.”
Put the camp of opportunists/party men/ideological soulmates together with the swath of less-educated, lower-class voters with real or imagined grievances and you have a deadly combination. It is a familiar one to students of history; it is the means by which dangerous, manipulative leaders attain power and use it for their own ends. Characters like Trump prey on fears, ignorance and resentment, but they could not achieve their aims without the opportunists/party men/ideological soulmates. The #NeverTrump movement must call out, shame and shun the opportunists/party men/ideological soulmates contingent while it simultaneously tries to educate and appeal to the better angels of the Trump voters’ natures.
Will it work? We have always assumed that figures like Trump could not succeed in the United States, unlike Europe. It comes as a shock, a grave disappointment that Trump has gotten this far. All the #NeverTrump forces can do is fight like mad, for the consequences of failure and of Trump’s success are enormous. We would like to think the opportunists/party men/ideological soulmates will pay the price, but they rarely do. The goal then is not to seek the downfall of the opportunists/party men/ideological soulmates, however appealing as that may be, but to separate them from Trump and to reach out to the voters, shake them by the shoulders and bring them to their moral senses. It’s possible still, but the window of opportunity to head off the impending disaster is closing.