by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review
Partisan conflict is not new, nor is GOP internal dissent. What’s new is in-fighting among the elites.
The Left-Wing Trump Haters
About a third of the Democratic party (15–20 percent perhaps of the electorate?) loathes Trump, from reasons of the trivial to the fundamental.
The hard-leftist hatred is visceral; it is multidimensional; and it is unalterable.
Trump is rich, crass, showy, a white male, and 70. As the anti-Obama, he punches every progressive button in existence. A candidate like Trump was not supposed to exist any longer in the 21st-Century Age of Obama, much less should he have ruined the anticipated progressive Obama-Clinton 16-year regnum. Trump’s accent is outer-borough and seems to exemplify for Trump haters the gaucheness of the golden trump name stamped all over New York. The Europeans have utter contempt for Trump, and that embarrasses leftists especially.
Unlike some Republican politicians who wished to be admired by cultural progressives, Trump prefers baiting the Left and its media appendages, as if to remind them that he prefers to overturn the entire progressive project of the last eight years — if not on ideological grounds (Trump not so long ago voiced a number of centrist and liberal views), at least out of tit-for-tat animosity. Unlike a restrained presidential Bush or a sober Romney, the president answers in kind — and trumps — the boilerplate leftist charge of “fascist!” and “Nazi!” leveled against him.
The Trump haters dominate our media and the universities, the entertainment industries, Silicon Valley, the billionaire green classes, the foundations and the brigades of professional foot-soldier activists, identity-politics operatives, and the Bernie Sanders shock troops. They are frenzied because they think their 1,000 cuts have finally hit arteries — only to see Trump revive in Nietzschean fashion, emerging stronger for the wounds. To come so close to ending this nightmare only to realize they are at the alpha and not the omega of their efforts intensifies their hatred.
Ritually cutting off Trump’s head, blowing him up, stabbing him to death, hanging him, beating him to a pulp — these all are the rhetorical bookends of the Left’s efforts to subvert the Electoral College, the Russian-collusion mythologies, the impeachment and 25th Amendments psychodramas, and Trump’s hoped-for physical collapse under the stress of pure hatred. The calls for Trump’s assassination or maiming, if, mutatis mutandis, aimed at Obama would have earned long jail time for dozens; now assassination porn becomes an object of emulation.
Yet Trump hatred only solidifies the Trump base. It also reminds independents and wavering centrist Republicans that in a Manichean fight (and the Trump haters seem to envision the current landscape as just that), one inevitably chooses sides. If the choice is reduced to a crude rant at a public Trump rally or the rioters at Claremont, Berkeley, and Middlebury, a screaming Madonna, the “pigs in blanket” chanters of Black Lives Matter, and the masked marauders of Antifa, the Trump haters probably lose.
The Loyal Opposition, Sort Of
Mainstream Democrats in politics are bewildered as much as repelled by Trump. They find him scary because their party that professes contempt for wacky Trump supporters somehow finds conservatives in control of all the traditional levers of political power, from the local to the state to the national level. There is no more Blue Wall, and Democrats know why.
Trumpism is insidiously predatory and picks off Democratic working constituencies like wolves do wandering sheep from the herd — with nocturnal howls to fair trade, reenergized industrialization, energy production, immigration enforcement, realism aboard, and infrastructure investment.
Likewise, savvy Democrats fear Trump because they had long preached that “demography is destiny” only to learn that lots of minority bloc voting in solidly red or blue states was not as electorally potent as a riled working white class in key swing states. The knowledge that the outsider and supposed fool Trump grasped that truth while both his Republican primary rivals and Hillary Clinton did not proves especially irritating. Hillary is now reduced to daydreaming about what a tougher Hillary might have said to Trump during the debate, incoherently bragging she was not intimidated as she proves that in fact she was.
What also scares mainstream Democrats is that Trumpism may have exposed an existential vulnerability of the contemporary Democratic party, heretofore known but rarely voiced: It is now a rich man’s, bifurcated party of the two coasts. It hates the culture of the middle classes (who lack both the romance of the poor and the refinement of the rich) and cynically relies on promises of never-ending entitlements for the underclass. It offers boutique issues for the affluent who, with winks and nods, are assured that they will have the clout and money to navigate around the messy ramifications of their own policy positions. In other words, it is tailor-made to empower a figure like Trump.
Progressives do not mind being called starry-eyed, utopian, impractical, or even socialist; they do fear being tagged as elitists by populists and economic nationalists, especially by a Manhattan billionaire. Trump has leveled that charge as no other Republican has since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Like addicts who know that their fix is both killing them and yet cannot be kicked, so too Democratic establishmentarians fear that their own identity politics are feeding Trump’s rise. Nevertheless, they would rather lose elections than forfeit a decade’s worth of race and gender investments. For now, they fool themselves into thinking that the latest Trump outrage is the longed-for final straw that crushes the presidential back.
Ten to 15 percent of the electorate are pure pragmatists. In general, they like neither politics nor controversies. They have enough moral figures in their lives without requiring their president to be an ethical icon. Their idea of a good president is one rarely seen or heard, but evident on autopilot when we have a robust economy, quietude overseas, and unity at home. Independents liked Obama’s last year when he vanished from view and let candidates duke it out — as the abstract idea of Obama was always preferable to the reality.
Yet independents also notice that an incompetent and haughty Obama left havoc in his wake, though they nod that at least he was “presidential,” which means presentable to elites abroad. If American under Trump hits a 3 percent rate of GDP annual growth, unemployment dips below 4 percent, a soaring stock market does not crash, and the administration makes some progress on lowering the deficit, carefully raising interest rates, and reducing taxes, the fence-sitters become Trumpers. If not, they are loud anti-Trumpers repulsed by his tweets and Make American Great Again rallies. Right now, they sense — but are not quite convinced — that it is more likely for a while that Trump’s negatives will be overshadowed by good economic and foreign-policy news.
The Republican Never Trumpers
About 10 percent of Republicans — overrepresented among the coastal intellectual, political, and affluent strata — despise Trump every bit as much as do their hard-core progressive counterparts.
For some, to be fair, the loathing is entirely principled: After damning progressives for being uncouth, reckless in their personal lives, loose in speech and behavior, how can they now excuse Trump, the messenger, just because his message is often convenient?
This species of Never Trumpers sees support for Trump as abject ethical treason. They would even rather live with a Clinton Supreme Court for 30 years than be stained by Trumpian enablement and hypocrisy (“wrong with Hillary is preferable to right with Trump”). They prefer catharsis to governance with Trump and dream that they will be ready to rebuild the party of George H. W. Bush and Paul Ryan after the fires of such ritual cleansing have incinerated the Trump yahoos.
Other sorts of Never Trumpers are schizophrenic and even somewhat remorseful. After a bad Trump week, they exuberantly brag to friends or write “I told you so” columns. When good Trump news lingers for a few days or so, they grow sullen in fear not merely that others are fooled by Trump and amoral in their utilitarianism, but that they might be fooled as well: They hate Trump the man, in the abstract, while they’re relieved that Trump the message, alongside his concrete actions, is almost what they wanted.
A final Never Trump cadre is neither ideological nor political, but more careerist. They had bet that the outrageous Trump candidacy was a joke that had no chance of winning, and so they made the necessary careerist adjustments. They wrote him off and bet their reputations for wisdom on their opposition to Trump, and in some cases they even ventured to support the sure-thing Clinton administration. After November, they became orphaned for their wrong-headed wagers, without a constituency among their own, and increasingly deemed less useful by the Left, MSNBC, or NPR. When Trump won, they doubled down and swore that he would implode from sheer incompetence or crudity, or would finally reveal his Manhattan liberalism, in league with Senate Democrats.
When that prognosis proved flawed, they overworked their thesauruses, and rewrote or rephrased the same “I despise Trump” mantra for the thousandth time. They are invested career-wise in Trump’s failure, and at this juncture, apparently nothing short of it will redeem them (at least in their own eyes) and restore them to the grandees who not long ago sought out their guidance and advice. They are wandering Odysseuses, but without either a ten-year limit to their meanderings or a home to return to.
For this small subset of Never Trumpers, Hell is not eight 16 years of Obama-Clinton, but rather being ignored by television, shut out of White House councils, and relegated to D-list dinners. The more admirable of this subset of Never Trumpers ask no quarter and voice no regrets as they flit in the shadows. In contrast, the more opportunistic cannot hide their own motivations, glimpsed in inadvertent written and verbal tics about lost speaking engagements and White House snubs.
Republican establishmentarians logically might thank Trump’s movement, given that they now control the majorities of the state legislatures, governorships, and all the branches of the federal government. Yet they still feel that saying “I voted for and support Donald J. Trump” is almost not worth the political price. They believe that Trump is unsteady and dangerous (and they may be right), but they concede that 90 percent of Republicans (no less than in 2008 and 2016) voted for the Republican nominee.
For all their skepticism of Trump, they are quietly relieved by the excellence of his appointments, the boldness of his proposals, and (so far) the obvious conservativism of most of his agenda items. They wish only that he would cease tweeting, stop attacking Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, cancel campaign rallies, and end the impromptu news conferences.
And yet they are not quite sure that Trump’s in-your-face aggression is not the source of his support, and so they worry that if he were more like they are, he might lose his ability to empower them. They are more plentiful than, but not unlike, the few old congressional Democratic blue dogs who were not so silly as to deny that Obama’s obnoxious but winning radicalism was to their own political benefit.
The Trump Base
About 20–25 percent of voters will not abandon Trump for two reasons — but they would for one.
First, his conservatism is populist and aimed at the working rather than managerial, professional, and intellectual classes.
Two, to paraphrase Lincoln’s assessment of the rumored drinking of Grant (akin to Trump’s tweeting) during the Shiloh ordeal: “He fights.” For his base, Trump’s rants and impromptu attacks are not proof that he is unhinged but reassurance that he would eye-gouge and bite off the ear of the Left to the bitter end — and do it authentically and passionately, the same way that they do too in their own workplace or at the bowling alley. They feel that the real obscenity is not Trump’s howling in Phoenix, but the suited commentators whose intellectual dishonesty and overt bias cannot be hidden by a thin veneer of journalese and blown-dry snark.
Had Trump been nominated in 2008, the Reverend Wright would have been front and center of the case against a divisive Obama (who had told the Chicago Sun-Times that he had regularly attended Wright’s unpalatable services). Or, in 2012, Trump might have grabbed moderator Candy Crawley’s mic and cut her off for subverting a presidential debate by her own rank partisanship.
Trump’s appeal to his base is predicated not just on a reaction to Obama’s radicalism, but also to Obama’s past sermonizing and his condescension — the high-horse lectures on race, religion, and values that targeted globalization’s losers as if they were somehow privileged in rural Pennsylvania or southern Ohio in the way they are in Chevy Chase, Menlo Park, or the Upper West Side.
What would collapse the Trump base would be not just a Trump move to the center, but adoption of a conciliatory comportment and measured speech akin to other politicians’ — proof, in other words, of a mushy Republicanism in which success is defined as being tolerated by the intellectual Left and slowing down, now and then, the fated progressive trajectory.
Trump’s base does not see Trump’s rants or rhetorical meanderings as proof of being unfit, but at the worst as a very natural human response to a stacked media deck, and at best as a nihilism that takes hits in order to score wins against a corrupt coastal liberal establishment.
It is said that Trump’s base is white and thus static. But reports that Trump may have exceeded McCain’s and Romney’s percentage of the minority vote suggest that that his earthiness and chain-saw manner of addressing problems have some wider appeal, especially to minorities who are increasingly irritated by the nasal-sounding pajama boys who claim they are their political saviors.
Trump’s base is as loyal as was Obama’s. Obama’s puerile cluelessness (the Malvinas are the Falklands, 57 states, corpse-men), his divisiveness (get in their faces, take a gun to a knife fight, punish our enemies), and his venom (high-horse Christians, stereotyping police, bitter clingers, etc.) could never erode the Obama foundation, as long as he offered his faux-southern-accent act, quoted arc-of-history banalities, talked Final Four, and caricatured the rich, the businessman, and the successful. So too the Trump voter will stay to the bitter end with Trump — if he stays with them.
Finally, it is said that that the Never Trump group of conservatives marks a novel development. Perhaps that is accurate if it’s defined in the sense that a Republican president is struggling to find conservative editorial support, seasoned Republican appointees, and kitchen cabinets. But in terms of fratricide, 2008 and 2012 saw lots of Never McCain and Never Romney blue-collar Republicans and Reagan Democrats who stayed home. Unlike in 2016, both absent groups cost Republican nominees the elections.
What is new is not party civil war, but rather elite in-fighting, whose importance is calibrated by noise rather than numbers and votes.