It’s become trendy to chide liberals for unwittingly egging on Donald Trump’s supporters: Lamenting the president’s hold on a sizable chunk of the electorate, #NeverTrump Republican Tom Nichols last week tweeted that “hyper-privileged college students pissing on the Constitution and whining about their fellow students is a big part of how we ended up in this mess in the first place.”
The Atlantic’s firing of conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson “is how you got Trump,” according to the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. Per Shapiro, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeting Tuesday that “Roseanne” was canceled because “she far too authentically represented the actual worldview of a significant chunk of the Trump base” is also “how you got Trump.”
A recent New York Times essay by the University of Virginia’s Gerard Alexander headlined “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think” posits that liberal self-righteousness makes Trump’s re-election all the more likely.
Reprimanding liberals isn’t new. Indeed, it’s something of a time-honored tradition: Alexander made a similar argument for The Washington Post in 2010, asking, “Why are liberals so condescending?” The New York Post’s Salena Zito put her own twist on it last year, assessing that the coastal media’s response to Trump is “the exact kind of sneering condescension that provoked the election’s anti-elitism backlash.” What’s new is how the critique has morphed into a kind of ransom demand: Stop being elitists, or Trump’s supporters will vote for him again.
It’s a way to attack liberals while simultaneously absolving Trump voters for choosing a president who tweets like a petulant teenager, routinely peddles half-truths and outright lies, has shown himself to be out of depth on every major policy issue of the day, calls other nations “s---hole” countries, and whose administration separates parents from kids at the border. We were forced to vote for him because liberals are mean to us, the thinking seems to go. But if liberal condescension was what animated Trump’s win, and, presumably, what might fuel his re-election, then that’s a tacit admission that there isn’t much of an affirmative case to make for him.
As I wrote following his election, Trump cleverly waged war against “political correctness,” facilitating an unlikely bond between a jet-setting New York billionaire and middle-American conservatives who feel besieged by coastal elites. It’s true, Trump stretched the term well beyond its actual meaning to serve as a shield against literally any liberal critique. But he did hone in on a real phenomenon, one I wrote a book about: the tendency of some on the left to silence the views of those with whom they disagree, whether it’s conservatives or, for that matter, liberals who challenge their core beliefs.
Still, it’s one thing to be upset about political correctness. It’s another to make it your singular reason for voting for a boorish, transparently unqualified president. Where I saw liberal condescension as one factor among many that drew Republicans to Trump, it’s astonishing to see some on the right assert that conservatives are so triggered by liberals that it caused them to run headlong into Trump’s arms. If that’s true, then Trump conservatives should reflect on what it says about them that they pulled the lever for Trump simply because they don’t like how liberals treat them.
After all, the economy, already strong when Trump took office, has stayed strong; the world, already chaotic when Trump took office, still is. So far, Trump has delivered a tax cut of dubious economic benefit at the cost of a significant deficit hike, and a debasement of his office with a corresponding deepening of our societal divisions. Trump’s marquee achievement has been selecting Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court — a pick any garden-variety Republican would have made, and a tactical win that really belongs to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Trump supporters, then, are left with a vote to settle an already overstated grievance about liberal condescension, coupled with a cosigning of all the president’s words and deeds. They may relish the way the president comports himself, but they’re also willing participants in an even greater condescension — going along with everyone who has defined them down to snowflakes whose issue positions can be sold to the highest bidder.
During his presidential run, Trump supporters told pollsters that Trump “tells it like it is” — that he sounds like everyday people. But earlier this month, the Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey reported that White House staff “intentionally employ suspect grammar and staccato syntax” when composing the president’s tweets to tweak liberals and to “fortify the belief within his base that he has the common touch.” Turns out, liberals aren’t the only ones talking down to Trump voters.
Eighty percent of white Evangelical Christian voters - and many high-profile Evangelical leaders - voted for, and continue to support, Trump despite his bragging about grabbing women “by the p----,” publicly ridiculing his own appointees, thousands of false or misleading claims, and his campaign-trail declaration that he’d never had to ask God for forgiveness. After lambasting liberals for decades for their postmodern moral relativism, Trump Evangelicals were silent when Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, claimed “truth is relative.”
The same people who claimed that Bill Clinton’s affair was proof that he wasn’t fit to be president because “character matters” now stand resolutely by Trump’s side as playmates and porn stars recount sexual encounters with a very married Trump: In an interview with the Associated Press this month, Franklin Graham said Trump’s alleged philandering is “nobody’s business” and that “when the country went after President Clinton,” that was “a great mistake that should never have happened.” But in 1998, he wrote a stinging op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Clinton’s Sins Aren’t Private.”
The FBI, like all law enforcement, has traditionally been revered by Republican voters. It’s not hard to imagine what many Trump voters would have said if President Barack Obama had relentlessly attacked the top law enforcement agency in the country — “un-American” would have been one of the nicer things they’d have said about him. Yet Trump works daily to discredit the FBI and any institution or individual that serves as a check on him: In 2015, a Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of Republicans approved of the FBI; in a 2018 SurveyMonkey poll, that number dropped to 38 percent.
In the Republican National Committee’s 2013 post-election “autopsy,” the GOP averred that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” and pledged to change this perception, posthaste. But when 2016 came around, Trump voters threw their support to a Republican candidate who had maintained, for years, that the first African American president wasn’t born in America. They supported the same candidate who launched his campaign referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and who, at one point, called for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the country. They support a president who goes silent when a white gunman is the suspect in the killing of four people of color at a Waffle House but can’t get to Twitter fast enough when terror suspects are of Middle Eastern descent.
Over and over, Trump voters contort their own purported beliefs to justify their support. Their hypocritical, enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend devotion to the president is akin to the obsequious, uncritical loyalty of his staff — think of former press secretary Sean Spicer’s infamous crowd-size briefing and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stating she was “not aware” of the finding that Russians tried to help Trump in 2016, made just days after the Senate intelligence committee found just that.
You can say liberals are smug or out of touch — sometimes, they are — but if liberal myopia is all it takes to cause self-described conservatives to abandon their beliefs, then it’s doubtful those beliefs were held very firmly in the first place.
There was a time conservative and Republican voters made intellectual arguments — however much liberals and Democrats may have disagreed with them — that were issue-based and ideologically coherent. In the Trump era, that’s been replaced by a cult of personality and grievance.
You can’t blame liberals for that.
Powers is a USA Today columnist, a CNN political analyst, author of “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech” and co-host of the podcast, “The Faith Angle: A Survival Guide for the Faithful in Trump’s America.”