Many people believe that the year of Trump has revealed a troubling decline in the quality of our public life. They certainly have a point. But in order to get a full understanding of this decline, we need to try to understand Trump and the most common criticism of him more accurately.
I have followed American politics fairly closely since the late 1980s. In recent years, pondering what I have observed, I have formulated a rule of American politics that—if I may borrow some words from Machiavelli—“never or rarely fails.” The rule is this: no American politician is ever as great as his most ardent adulators say or as bad as his most vitriolic detractors say.
This rule applies to figures as diverse as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and John Kerry, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Donald Trump is an admittedly extreme case. Nevertheless, I think the rule applies to Trump as well. He is neither as great nor as bad as people on both sides so heatedly insist. And seeing this is necessary to gaining a full understanding of the political decline that his candidacy reveals.
Not as Great
In the first place, Trump is not as great as his adulators say. To Trump’s biggest fans, he is the fearless opponent of political correctness. There is some truth in this. Trump’s willingness to violate the norms of conventional political discourse has probably opened up some conversations that needed to take place but were not taking place. At the same time, however, there is not as much truth in this as Trump’s biggest fans think there is. Trump is not a pure opponent of political correctness. He is not a principled, across-the-board violator of its norms. He is both less and more than that.
On the one hand, there are some canons of political correctness that Trump will not challenge. He has shown pretty clearly, for example, that he has no desire to talk about any of the fraught topics of sexual identity that have dominated our politics over the last several years.
On the other hand, many of Trump’s outrageous remarks are not so much violations of political correctness as they are violations of ordinary decorum and decency. Take, for example, the derision he directed at Senator John McCain in the summer of 2015. Said Trump of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he got captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump cannot really be presented as challenging political correctness here. As far as I know, nobody thinks that captured servicemen deserve condemnation but are spared it because of some rule of political correctness that shields them. There is no important public issue that we cannot discuss candidly because of inhibitions against this sort of remark. In some cases, then, Trump is not being politically incorrect—just brutally insulting.
Most of Trump’s supporters back him not because of his rudeness and brutality but despite it. They think it worthwhile to pay the price of such outbursts because of other things for which they think Trump stands—say, his critique of illegal immigration, international trade agreements, or our foreign policy. Nevertheless, if these supporters are to be candid and honest, they would have to admit that their support for Trump does come at a real cost. The ruthlessly insulting style that Trump has perfected was not common before he appeared, but it is likely to be more common after he has gone. Trump’s rise is therefore inseparable from a certain decline of our political discourse.
Not as Bad
We must, however, recall the other side of the equation. All of this can be justly said against Trump. Nevertheless, he is not as bad as his most energetic detractors contend.
Trump’s enemies commonly present him as having degraded and insulted whole categories of Americans. Take, for example, one of the most infamous cases, his aforementioned trashing of John McCain. This is an episode, it is said, in which Trump “attacked” or “belittled” veterans. And from there his adversaries pass easily to the claim that Trump is the kind of man who habitually attacks and belittles veterans.
But while Trump’s conduct here is assuredly open to censure, the use made of it by his political opponents depends on a certain amount of selectivity, oversimplification, and exaggeration. Trump, after all, routinely praises veterans as “our best people” and denounces, with hot indignation, a healthcare system that has not served them well. Moreover, I suspect that if one sifts through the ample records of Trump’s public pronouncements over the years, one will find plenty of objectionable material, but will not find an example of Trump condemning veterans—even captured veterans—in general just for the sake of it.
Trump did not just stalk into the public square and begin denouncing veterans. He was rather responding—with inappropriate vitriol—to an attack on him and his supporters by John McCain, who claimed that Trump was “fir[ing] up the crazies.” Here, an impartial assessment of the situation would require us to see that Trump’s common defense of himself is not persuasive, but, at the same time, that the condemnations of him are also somewhat inaccurate.
Trump defends his brutal remarks by contending that he is only a “counter-puncher,” that he only responds to attacks launched by those who oppose him. This appears to be true in many cases, but it is not an adequate defense. After all, Trump could have found any number of effective ways of responding to McCain without attacking the latter’s war record.
At the same time, it is pretty obvious that Trump’s aim was not really to belittle veterans, but rather to belittle John McCain. The same thing could be said in response to the common claim that Trump is a misogynist who habitually degrades women. Trump seems full of praise for certain women, and he has employed women in positions of high responsibility in his business and in his presidential campaign. This is not an excuse for his many savage attacks on certain women. It is only to point out that it seems more accurate to say not that Trump degrades women, but that he degrades any woman, and any person, who crosses him.
Trump, then, is not so much a bigot as a brawler. When people attack him, he attacks them back, and he regularly goes too far. For such excesses, he is open to a just censure. Nevertheless, it is an exaggeration of his defects to claim that in these outbursts his purpose is to attack the categories of people represented by the specific individuals at whom he directs his fire.
Politicians Should Respond to Trump’s Policies—Not Just His Character
The exaggerated criticism of Trump, often substituted for a more reasonable criticism, points to another aspect of decline in our politics.
Many good people find Trump appalling precisely because of his brawling approach to politics. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that Trump is opposed most vigorously—is found to be utterly repulsive and unacceptable—mainly by the bipartisan political elite that has managed the nation’s affairs for the last twenty-five years. These, of course, are the people who also happen to be prime objects of Trump’s disdain and that of his followers.
It is becoming more clear every day that the political elite’s key argument against Trump is that he is unfit to be president because of his verbal abusiveness, which, they suggest, reveals a basic defect of character. As I have suggested above, this argument has real merit, although it is also exaggerated. What is so troubling, however, is not that our political elite would exaggerate its arguments in pursuit of a given political goal. That is an ordinary human weakness and one that commonly shows itself in our politics.
What is troubling is that our governing elites are making this critique of Trump’s character the cornerstone of their argument against him and even, perhaps, the whole argument against him. They are arguing as if Trump’s verbal abusiveness is the whole significance of his campaign, while this is certainly not the case. And in making this argument alone, while avoiding the other issues that Trump’s campaign raises, they are doing a disservice to the country that they have had the privilege to lead and that they still aspire to lead.
Trump is going around the country every day, telling large audiences of Americans that the country’s trade, immigration, and foreign policies have been foolish and weak, harmful to the country in general and to ordinary working people in particular. These claims are either correct or incorrect. Either way, the elites that have been responsible for them owe the country some kind of response.
On the one hand, if Trump is wrong about all this, then a responsible political elite would be obligated to refute him in detail and as vigorously as possible. After all, if they believe that these policies are the fruit of wise and enlightened leadership, that they have in fact been advantageous for the country and for working people, then our elites would have an obligation to defend them. Every day that Trump goes unrefuted on these issues, he saps the ability of the nation to support such policies. Defeating him only on the basis of a criticism of his character will not solve this problem.
On the other hand, if Trump is right in his critique of these policies, or if his critique has some limited merit, then our elites would have an obligation to admit it. If Trump’s complaints have some justification, then the good of the country requires that our policies be modified to some extent—and a governing elite that has the country’s best interests at heart would admit this.
This is actually not such a hard thing to do. The voters are not philosophers or even policy experts. They are, however, sophisticated enough to follow an argument that contends that Trump is, on the one hand, personally not suited to the presidency, but has, on the other, identified some problems that need to be addressed.
Our governing elites, however, are making neither of these arguments, because they are endeavoring to engage Trump on policy as little as possible. The game instead is to defeat Trump on the basis of his temperament. This approach suggests that our elites are either too timid to defend policies that they think are beneficial for the country or too insecure to admit that their custodianship of the country’s interests has been imperfect.
In either case, they do a disservice to the country and raise questions about their own worthiness to govern it. And thus we see that Trump’s rise reveals a certain lowering of standards not only among the voters who support him but also in the elites who oppose him.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.