The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, Trump’s tweets are offensive. But there’s one big reason Republicans still stand by him.

President Trump at the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s weekend tweets have been rightly scorned and condemned. Many people will surely ask once again how so many Republicans and others can still support him. The answer: For many, there is no alternative.

It’s not that many conservatives and independents don’t see his myriad flaws; it would be impossible not to (though some conservatives have wrongly attempted to defend the president’s comments). But elections are about choices, and the choices many conservatives and Republicans face are not good ones.

There is no palatable alternative to Trump within the Republican Party unless you want to go back to the pre-Trump GOP consensus. The anti-Trump Republican commentariat essentially wants this, as it would make no concession to any of Trump’s substantive challenges to that orthodoxy. Trump is the only option unless conservatives want Paul Ryan’s economics and George W. Bush’s foreign and immigration policies.

The choice gets much starker when you face the general election. None of the leading Democrats offer any concession to Republicans who are unhappy with Trump. None offer a different, more centrist tax policy. None offer support for even the old Democratic orthodoxy on abortion, as Joe Biden’s abandonment of his decades-long support for the Hyde amendment shows. Rather than build a cross-partisan coalition to defeat Trump, Democratic candidates seek to use that dissatisfaction to force people to accept policies they would otherwise reject.

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Now add the clear antipathy that too many on the left hold toward Republicans, especially religious Republicans. It’s common among conservatives to have lost friends and acquaintances because of their vote for Trump, no matter how reluctant that vote was. The data back this up: Polls show more Democrats than Republicans have unfriended people on social media over politics in recent years. Republicans increasingly feel personally threatened by the rise of virulent progressive politics. When you feel your faith, livelihood and safety are at risk if the other side wins, you will bite the bullet and vote for Trump.

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Trump’s primary appeal to millions of people is that he protects them from something much worse. So long as that perception exists, those people will back him no matter how offensively he behaves.

He could lose that support, but only if he betrays that core appeal. If Trump started to appoint liberal judges or took positions that threatened what evangelicals perceive as religious liberty, many would start to rethink their backing for him. If he were to turn on a dime and undo many of his tax cuts, many fiscal conservatives would rethink their support. But so long as he keeps his deals, the alternatives are so unpalatable that Trump looks fine by comparison.

Those who want to defeat Trump should read the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. He said that a general should leave a route free when an enemy is surrounded. “Do not press a desperate foe too hard,” he wrote, knowing that a cornered person will fight to the death. The more people who feel cornered, the more people will disregard Trump’s statements and character to defend what they hold most dear. Until Trump’s opponents grasp this fact, nothing Trump says will do anything to weaken his support.

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