By Jonah Goldberg
Friday, July 21, 2017
There is a riddle before us. Back in that simpler time, i.e., the GOP primaries, many people assured me that conservatives could trust Donald Trump because Senator Jeff Sessions trusted him. With varying degrees of rage, snark, and dudgeon (which I think is the official law firm of Hogwarts), these people would say to me: “Do you think Jeff Sessions isn’t a real conservative?”
On at least one occasion, I recall a finger being poked in my chest to fortify the point in ways reason could not.
My response isn’t really relevant (but it was something along the lines of “Sure, but even conservatives make mistakes”). What I find fascinating, however, is how the transitive property now runs the other way. A year ago, I was supposed to trust Trump because Sessions trusted Trump. Now, I’m supposed to distrust Sessions because Trump distrusts Sessions. Okay, then.
The Mind of the EverTrumper
I am not a big fan of psychologizing. But since I am subjected every day to a barrage of claims based upon what people think my thinking is, I feel compelled to turn the tables and offer a bit of mind-reading of my own.
This Jeff Sessions conundrum is all part of a larger trend unfolding right before our eyes. I wrote about it a bit on the Corner earlier this week. The Grand Old Party, at least for some, is now a New Party of One. When conservatives criticize Trump, the common response is “support your party!” or “RINO!” But when the interests of the party and the personality diverge, the same people tend to lambaste the party on the “principle” that Trump demands the greater loyalty.
I’ve been using the phrase “Cult of Personality” a lot because that’s what this dynamic often seems like. But, the more I think about it, a Cult of Personality is a far grander thing than what we have here. That concept enlists phrases like “divinization” and “secular religion,” and we could spend years talking about Marx and Weber and what they had to say, never mind all that Stalin stuff. People forget that the actual title of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” exposing Stalin was actually “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” Moreover, contrary to what some of Trump’s biggest critics on the left and his biggest fans on the swampier right may think, Trump is no Stalin.
While it’s certainly true that there are people sufficiently enthralled with Trump to open themselves up to the charge of being cultists, I don’t think the blind worship of “Cult 45” explains as much as it once did. I mean, sure, if you’re still convinced that everything Trump has done has been brilliant and farsighted, if you can read the president’s New York Times interview and push back from the table with the deep satisfaction that once again the master has out-thought his foes, if you still think his “I alone can fix it!” vow was anything other than the kind of bluster that traditionally leaves you with cider in your ear, then you might as well lead your herd of 50 bulls down to Trump Tower and sacrifice them to your Latter Day Baal.
But let’s be honest, the chances that Donald Trump will be a great president — never mind capital-G Great in the historical sense — are now only slightly better than my chances of getting a Super Bowl ring. I say “slightly better” because he is president after all, and historical greatness shares some things in common with the real-estate business and show business: Location and simply showing up matter a lot.
Who knows what events might bring? Perhaps we will be visited by orange-hued hostile aliens who speak the language of condo salesmen?
Rationalization Be My Guide
Anyway, I think there’s a different dynamic at work, at least for some people. I wrote about it in a column last March, after Trump gave a good speech before a joint session of Congress.
For those Republicans who are not sold on Trump the man and are nervous about all the distractions and unforced political errors of his first weeks in office, the address was a massive relief. Finally, one heard from nearly all quarters of the skeptical-but-hopeful right, he’s getting his act together.
It’s a bit like when a loved one has a drinking problem or some other pathology. When they get their act together, even for a day or two, parents and siblings take heart and say, “This is the first day of the rest of his life.” Or “Now things are going to be different.”
It’s an understandable response. But both the head-in-the-sand denial from the left and the “We’re cooking with gas now!” cheerleading from the right encourage people to ignore the substance.
That I could have written the exact same thing in the wake of the president’s speeches in Warsaw or Riyadh simply underscores that this has become something of a permanent dynamic of the Trump presidency.
But note: The father who doesn’t want to see his son’s faults or the wife who can’t bring herself to see that her husband’s abusiveness isn’t a bug but a feature aren’t worshipful. They’re guilt-ridden and in denial. And in the process, they rationalize vices into virtues.
Rationalization, explains professor Wikipedia,
encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings and often involves ad hoc hypothesizing. This process ranges from fully conscious (e.g. to present an external defense against ridicule from others) to mostly unconscious (e.g. to create a block against internal feelings of guilt or shame). People rationalize for various reasons — sometimes when we think we know ourselves better than we do.
Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.
Ben Shapiro argues that Trump has liberated some people who deep down have felt this way all along:
All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends. So we’ve constructed a backwards logic to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.
I’m sure that’s true for some. But I think for many more the dynamic works the other way around. Otherwise — or formerly — decent people find it so unthinkable to admit that Trump is in over his head and not a good person that they simply engage in the fallacy of ad hoc hypothesizing. Again Dr. Wikipedia:
In science and philosophy, an ad hoc hypothesis is a hypothesis added to a theory in order to save it from being falsified. Often, ad hoc hypothesizing is employed to compensate for anomalies not anticipated by the theory in its unmodified form.
This trait is hardly unique to Trump. When it’s unseasonably cold in summer, when it rains too much or too little in California, never mind when satellite data refuse to cooperate, global-warming alarmists race to bend the facts to the theory by modifying the theory. When George W. Bush would butcher syntax like it was a wayward traveler in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, his defenders — who once worshipped the Gipper’s skill as The Great Communicator — would leap to explain he was “speaking American.” And don’t even get me started with the rationalizations that sustained the Obama presidency.
A year ago, Donald Trump was the only man who could beat the dishonest Left and the unfair media at their own game because he was a media-master and genius dealmaker. He could appeal to Democrats and independents because his vaunted “flexibility” wasn’t locked into True Conservatism or Conservatism, Inc. Now his failures to make deals, his inability to break out of a base-only strategy that is only embraced by the very conservatives he scorned, and his Kelvin-range approval among independents and Democrats all invite a cascade of new hypotheses to place blame everywhere but on the man who, according to the original theory, was supposed to be the one leader capable of overcoming all that. Much of the writing at the blog American Greatness seems to be dedicated to the crafting of new hypotheses to keep the myth of the original theory alive.
Even now, you can hear the wheels turning to explain that with poor Sean Spicer now securely under the bus, the true Trump will emerge.
You F’d Up, You Trusted Him
It’s always hard to admit you were wrong about something in which you invested a lot of energy and emotion. And for some people, admitting that Mr. Only I Can Fix It really had no idea what he was talking about most of the time is too bitter a pill to swallow. It’s even harder when you were warned at the time that you were being conned. As Kevin Williamson wrote in May of 2016:
Americans and Republicans, remember: You asked for this. Given the choice between a dozen solid conservatives and one Clinton-supporting con artist and game-show host, you chose the con artist. You chose him freely. Nobody made you do it.
Of course, there are conventional political reasons why many people don’t want to admit the error of their ways. Pragmatically, what good would it do? You only have one president at a time. “Of course he’s a hot mess. But he is getting some important things done,” goes this argument, “and if Republicans and conservatives support him, he can get so many more important things done.” This is the argument I hear most from readers, congressmen, denizens of the Fox News green room, and fellow conservative journalists. And it has some merit, particularly when liberals screech that agreeing with Trump on conservative policies is a kind of appeasement.
For instance, James Fallows heaps scorn on Senator Ben Sasse because “he leads all senators in his thoughtful, scholarly ‘concern’ about the norms Donald Trump is breaking — and then lines up and votes with Trump 95 percent of the time.” As Ramesh demonstrates with his typically Vulcan economy of language, this is absurd. Ramesh writes:
Take that 95 percent figure mentioned by Fallows. Was Senator Lindsey Graham really supposed to vote to keep regulations he considered unwise on the books because he opposes Vladimir Putin? Was Senator John McCain really supposed to vote against confirming Alex Acosta as Labor secretary because the president tweets like a maladjusted 12-year-old?
Fallows’s position is a mirror image of the Trump cultists. For the member of Cult 45, Trump is a demigod and whatever he says must be right. For the anti-Trump cultist, Trump is a demon, and whatever Trump does or says must be evil and wrong. Both positions are delusional. This points to why I have such admiration for National Review and other traditional conservative outlets which have managed to keep their heads. For instance, David French and Andy McCarthy have offered full-throated praise of Trump when they thought he deserved it and they have offered full-throated criticism when they felt it warranted. That this approach is denounced by the Manichean extremists on both sides tells you how deep the fever of tribalism has become.
Trump, Party of One
I have few illusions about my ability to talk anyone out of their delusions, particularly liberals. But it is part of my job description to try, particularly with conservatives. To say I have failed — largely true — is not an argument against making the effort.
If you’re a cultist, the only thing that will snap you out of it is Trump himself. At some point, he will do something that will cause the worshippers — or at least most of them — to recognize he was a false god all along. It will be like that scene in The Man Who Would be King, when the girl bites Sean Connery on the cheek. When he bleeds, the faithful realize he is but a mortal.
But in the meantime, horrible damage is being done, because the rationalizations and tribalism are being institutionalized. Clicks-from-cultists media outlets strive to justify and rationalize every failure as a success and every setback as part of the master plan. If you don’t see it, you’re part of the establishment, a globalist, or an elitist. The RNC is reportedly refusing to support Republican candidates who criticized Donald Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood video. “[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” an anonymous RNC insider explained.
This is sickening madness. If this is true, then the logical inference is that the GOP as a party believes that there was nothing wrong with the president’s conduct, even though he was a Democrat at the time. Or, perhaps, that there is nothing so wrong with what he said — and what he claimed he did — that it can justify breaking faith in the Leader.
That is moral rot on an institutional scale and the people aiding and abetting it should be ashamed of themselves. The party needs to support the president, to be sure. But it must support other things — decency, principles, truth — even more. When it ceases to do that, it ceases to be the Grand Old Party and becomes a Venal New Party.