I’m often incredulous at Republican servility to Donald Trump. I’ve struggled to understand how people who’ve spent a lifetime chest-beating about patriotism can be so willing to burn liberal democracy to the ground to protect a man they wouldn’t trust to sell them a used car. So I’ve tried to envision a situation in which I might be tempted to do the same.
There’s no left-wing analogue to Trump in American life, but it’s possible to imagine such a figure. Picture an amalgam of Marianne Williamson and Hugo Chávez, a charismatic ideologue able to speak to the spiritual hunger of lonely, atomized masses. She enters the Democratic primary to elite mockery, but her rallies are huge and rapturous, and she holds crowds spellbound promising to cleanse America of its demonic legacy of racism and sexism. Her pronouncements are at once shocking and thrilling. She pledges to expropriate investment banks and to turn Mar-a-Lago into a homeless shelter.
At first Democrats freak out — her movement seems like a cult — but she wins the primary, and then the presidency, perhaps with an assist from China. Then she sets about trying to make progressive dreams come true. Stacey Abrams becomes attorney general. Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney and an icon of criminal justice reform, replaces Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. Declaring a national health emergency, the president takes $3.6 billion from the military and gives it to Planned Parenthood. She orders the government not to do business with any company that advertises on Fox News.
It’s obvious to all but true believers that the president is unhinged; there’s an increasingly messianic, Jim Jones quality to the revival-like rallies she presides over. She spends a third of her time at her network of wellness centers, bringing much of the government with her and putting tens of millions of dollars into her family’s company. Conservatives scream that she’s a self-dealing demagogue. Deep down, liberals agree, but they love her appointments and don’t want to be tarred as privileged reactionaries. When the president announces a plan to unilaterally naturalize every DACA recipient, what progressive wants to be the one carping about executive overreach?
I like to hope that in this (admittedly absurd) scenario I would still speak up against corruption and for the rule of law, but I don’t think it would be easy. That’s one reason I’ve come to believe that anti-Trump Republicans — the people Trump called “human scum” last week — deserve more credit than the left typically gives them.
In recent days, as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has staked out a lonely role as Trump’s most prominent Republican critic, many progressives have rolled their eyes. He’s been widely mocked for the once-secret Twitter account he kept under the pseudonym Pierre Delecto, which he used to like anti-Trump tweets that he’d probably never endorse publicly. Democrats, said a recent NBC News report, “tend to dismiss Romney as ineffectual because he has stopped short of calling for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.”
Former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who gave up his political career to speak out against Trump, was similarly dismissed. Even ex-Republicans who do call for Trump’s impeachment and removal are regularly pilloried on the left.
I agree with progressives who argue that Trump is the apotheosis of the modern Republican Party, not a departure from it. Everyone who helped build that party bears some responsibility for him. But apostate conservatives also deserve admiration for the sacrifices they’re making. It must be painful to have the movement that’s defined your life turn against you.
“You’re giving up personal relationships, which are some of the most important things psychologically for any human being,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the center-right Niskanen Center, who holds regular meetings of anti-Trump Republicans. “If you spend decades of your life circulating with a certain group of friends and colleagues and associates and business partners and political allies,” it’s no small thing to break with them.
Take George Conway, the conservative lawyer and impeachment supporter married to top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Obviously, I’d split with my beloved husband in a second if he backed Trump. But if he worked for a lunatic whose policies I liked? I’d find it a lot harder to publicly distance myself.
“You have to find entirely new social networks in your life,” said Taylor. “That in a sense is probably the biggest obstacle for a lot of people.”
Those of us who regard Trump as an existential threat to the Republic should try to make it easier for wavering conservatives to make the leap. I don’t mean we should nominate a bland centrist for president, just that we should recognize when people show courage, even if we wished they’d show more.
Last week, I interviewed Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth, an expert on nonviolent social movements, about whether mass protests could create momentum for impeachment. One key, she said, was attracting defectors.
“It’s basically a process where people who would be surprising allies of these calls for impeachment start to appear visibly in support of it,” she said. “That usually indicates that the status quo supporters are starting to shift their sense of what their own interests are.”
People like Romney shouldn’t be jeered for their inner Pierre Delectos. They should be urged to set them free.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.