Rationalizing Away the Imperative of Deliberative Self-Governance

Clive Crook of Bloomberg News recently wrote an opinion essay entitled “Why People Still Support Trump” in which he argued he was dispirited by President Donald Trump’s public embrace of racism and bigotry in his response to the tragedy in Charlottesville. Crook also was troubled by Trump’s pardon, of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who, while in office, systematically denied hundreds of individuals their civil liberties on the basis of their national origin or skin color.[1] Crook nonetheless suggested that those who supported Trump in these instances were being unfairly maligned by Democrats, intellectuals and many in the mass media. He framed his contention by suggesting that Trump supporters are generally understood by these groups in either of two ways. He first states:

There are two main theories of Trump's support. One is that a large minority of Americans—40% [N.B. actually approximately 34%] percent, give or take—are racist idiots. This theory is at least tacitly endorsed by the Democratic Party and the mainstream liberal media. The other is that a large majority of this large minority are good citizens with intelligible and legitimate opinions, who so resent being regarded as racist idiots that they'll back Trump almost regardless. They may not admire the man, but he's on their side, he vents their frustration, he afflicts the people who think so little of them—and that's good enough.[2]

            I confess I do not understand this argument. First, it is unclear to me that all who criticize Trump’s supporters suggest they are racists or idiots. In fact, many analysts critical of those citizens offer a much subtler portrait of their beliefs and views than Crook’s caricature suggests. Apart from this empirical reality, it is nevertheless difficult to understand why “good citizens” who do not “admire” Trump would back him out of angst that others may disagree with their views. But Crook goes still further in his criticism than this unintelligible position:

The second theory—the correct theory—is a terrible indictment of the Democratic Party and much of the media. Why aren't the intelligible and legitimate opinions of that large minority given a hearing? Why must their views be bundled reflexively into packages labelled ‘bigotry’ and ‘stupidity’? Why can't this large minority of the American people be accorded something other than pity or scorn?[3]

A bit further in his argument he suggests: “In fact, this automatic attribution of stupidity and bad faith is just another kind of bigotry.”[4]

I am even more confused by these contentions than those I quoted above. First, Crook would have it that a third of Americans are willing actively to support an individual whom they do not admire and whom he argues has adopted reprehensible positions, and then argue that their stance is a consequence of others not being willing to like and respect them enough, or of those others considering their behavior or beliefs in simplistic terms. That is, in Crook’s view, Trump’s supporters’ individual and collective awareness of that tendency causes them to be willing to normalize and rationalize the President’s attacks on the civil and human rights of immigrants, women, gay individuals and many other groups, and on the press. It is that concern, too, presumably, that brings many of them not only to countenance, but also to celebrate, Trump’s persistent lies on multiple topics, including press reporting of his activities, the views of his opponents, conditions in the nation and more. It strikes me that reality is much more complex than Crook avers.

Leaving this matter aside, Crook nonetheless goes still further to contend that since Democrats and the media are to blame for pushing these Americans to support Trump and to rationalize his anti-democratic and demagogic behaviors and positions, all will be made well if these individuals will just “respect” Trump’s supporters more. Here is how he put the case:

Democracies that work make space for disagreement. You can disagree with somebody in the strongest terms, believing your opponents to be profoundly or even dangerously mistaken. But that doesn't oblige you to ignore them, scorn them, or pity them. Deeming somebody's opinions illegitimate should be a last resort, not a first resort. Refusing to engage, except to mock and condescend, is both anti-democratic and tactically counterproductive. Proof of that last point is the dispiriting tenacity of Trump's support.[5]

Now, we reach the essential point: a vigorous debate is underway in this nation concerning two points and deeper principles that Crook’s “analysis” does not reach. First, is the question of whether it is reasonable to assume that Trump is venting his supporters’ or anyone’s frustration in anything like a reasoned and civil way. The issue is not, as Crook would have it, whether one admires fiscal conservatism or loathes it, wants the federal government to do more or less, or would like capitalist values to play a still larger role in our culture or a lesser one. It is whether Trump is embracing any of those positions or instead simply is mobilizing voters to vote for him and to venerate him on the basis of fear and loathing of “others,” including the institutions that help to maintain their freedom. To debate this point is not to mischaracterize Trump’s enthusiasts, but to ask what the implications of their backing for Trump’s actions and behavior may be for the regime and for self-governance, a decidedly different concern. Second, it is unclear whether ANY democratic citizen should be making policy or political choices on the basis of Crook’s equivalent of immature schoolyard praise: “I like him because he degrades that person I do not like.” This is not so much an argument as a carte blanche rationalization for Americans to embrace Trump no matter what he does and, absent any reasoned limits or thoughtful debate concerning the same, one that opens the door in principle to the undoing of democracy itself, a scenario Crook would presumably abhor.

And that is precisely the larger concern at stake here. Democracies cannot be sustained by citizens who believe and act on the lies of leaders who tell them that certain of their number are “less than” because they are the wrong gender, creed, color or any other characteristic. And citizens should certainly not be applauded for doing so on the basis of a supposed resentment that others are not respecting them enough. Nor, should such individuals be informed that an appropriate response to their perception when they confront such a situation, is to provide full-throated support to appeals to bigotry and fear by a President they “may not admire.” There are no limits to this sort of rationalization in principle, and it bars the possibility for a dialogue concerning the implications of such behavior for civil and human rights and for self-governance by labeling it a debate over partisan preference.

In my view, it is none of these things, but is instead an appropriate discourse concerning the necessity of prudence and deliberation for self-governance. Asserting that a share of the population cannot be called upon to consider thoughtfully the positions and claims of those they support because they are upset that others do not respect them sufficiently strikes me as both a specious and dangerous contention. It is dangerous because Crook’s reasoning allows him to rationalize virtually any behavior evidenced by the President’s supporters or, in theory at least, by his opponents as well, to whom the same contentions could presumably apply. One can say that those “others” made them think or believe as they did and then defend any stance they might take on that basis. This is a recipe for tyranny and not vigorous self-governance, and it is profoundly anti-democratic, the very criticism Crook levels at individuals and entities who do not support the positions adopted by Trump’s supporters as “intelligible and legitimate.” Crook’s comments not only do not support democratic governance, they go much further and open the door to an excused and unfettered nihilism.

A democratic people must hold one another and their leaders accountable for their actions against their shared aspirations for freedom and equality. Crook does not, and this sort of “analysis” should be held up accordingly as the sort of claims-making likely to undo our regime, rather than support it. Not all debate about governance is simply partisan, and there must be an ongoing exchange of perspectives among Americans about the implications of their nation’s policy-making and discourse for the health of their democracy. This should not be a conversation about whether some citizens support demagoguery out of resentment for being stereotyped, but a deeper debate about why anyone of any partisan persuasion would imagine such a position could support their continued enjoyment of freedom.

References

[1] Crook, Clive, “Why People Still Support Trump: It’s Not all about Bigotry and Ignorance,” Bloomberg News, August 28, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/why-people-still-support-trump Accessed August 28, 2017.

[2] Crook, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/why-people-still-support-trump

[3] Crook, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/why-people-still-support-trump

[4] Crook, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/why-people-still-support-trump

[5] Crook, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/why-people-still-support-trump