Is Nuance Still Possible in American Politics?
Damon Linker writes, "Millions of people disagree with your political views. That doesn't make them moral monsters."
Damon Linker had a post at The Week yesterday that encapsulated my frustrations commenting on this election from the standpoint of an erstwhile Republican who simultaneously thinks Donald Trump obviously unqualified for the presidency and yet finds Hillary Clinton uniquely flawed. His headline is also his thesis: “Millions of people disagree with your political views. That doesn’t make them moral monsters.”
After a setup about how he’d been called a “Fascist” back in 1991 after taking a nuanced stance on the Gulf War, he notes that it would not be the last time.
The most recent instance came a few weeks ago in response to a column titled, “What Trump gets right about immigration.” What Trump gets right, I argued, is that borders matter, citizenship matters, particularistic forms of solidarity matter — and that efforts to dissolve them will have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the hand of nationalists. Which means that the best way to contain nationalism might be to stop treating nationalism as if it’s always and everywhere morally unacceptable.
That was enough to inspire a left-wing friend of mine to momentarily lose his cool on Facebook and call me an apologist for fascism. Strangers made less restrained versions of the same claim on Twitter.
In case you had any doubts, I am not a fascist and never have been. But it doesn’t matter. In the high-stakes hothouse of the 2016 election, committed partisans on the left view any affirmation of nationalism as an expression of the most extreme, inhumane, cruel, anti-liberal form of nationalism in human history.
The same dynamic plays out in the opposite ideological direction. In recent years, libertarian-minded conservatives have frequently denounced me as a communist or a “statist” because I favor some government regulation of the economy, some redistribution of income and wealth, and some provision of social services by the state. For those who oppose nearly all such government action, a defense of a modest amount of it is indistinguishable from the most extreme, inhumane, cruel, anti-liberal form of statism in human history.
I’ve had similar experiences in the comments section here. As a longtime conservative Republican who has grown increasingly frustrated with and ultimately disowned that party in this space, I occupy that middle ground that pleases essentially no one interested enough in politics to comment on political blogs. Most recently, in a Twitter exchange a couple nights ago, I responded to the perfectly reasonable point by Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Greider, “I’d ask Republicans to think about this, too: if y’all hadn’t spent years dismissing all criticism as ‘bias’, Trump wouldn’t be your nom[inee]” by noting, “Probably true. Also: If Dems hadn’t painted the likes of Romney and Bush as stupid and racist, criticisms of Trump would be more potent.” In addition to nuanced pushback and name calling, I also got direct confirmation of my point from a “Professor Lucas,” who commented, “Trump’s no worse than either of those clowns & certainly not as dangerous as W proved to be.”
I’m amenable to arguments that Trump’s rise is at least partly rooted in the “Southern Strategy” and related attempts by previous Republican nominees to appeal to the baser instincts of disaffected rural whites. But the notion that Trump is simply Mitt Romney or George W. Bush without a filter is not only absurd it’s decidedly unhelpful in persuading Republican leaners.
As Linker explains,
This tendency of extreme naming is poisonous. It’s also deceptive, distorting political reality and intensifying the centrifugal forces that encourage the polarization of our politics. Calling me a fascist or communist, identifying the single respect in which my position shares a commonality with totalitarian ideology while ignoring the multitude of ways in which they diverge, clarifies nothing. On the contrary, it distorts the truth, making it harder to understand where I’m coming from by assimilating my views to those much more extreme than my own.
It simply isn’t true that everyone situated to your right is indistinguishable from the most extreme right-wing position. The same holds for those situated to your left.
But it’s actually worse than that. It not only fails to “clarify” it actively pushes people who might otherwise be persuaded to agree with you into a defensive corner.
This goes beyond ideology. I can assure you that it’s possible at one and the same time to be a severe critic of Hillary Clinton and to think she’s clearly a better choice for the presidency than Donald Trump. I know it’s possible because that’s my position. Why do so many liberals assume that my Clinton criticisms imply that I favor Trump? And so many conservatives that my qualified Clinton support makes me a Hillary shill?
While I get that there’s a certain “team sports” and “tribal” aspect to the whole thing, it’s a frustrating stance. And, again, a counterproductive one if your goal is to convince people who supported John Kasich and Jeb Bush but are queasy about Trump that it’s okay, just this once, to support the Democrat.
Hardest of all might be the effort to maintain a modicum of fair-mindedness about Trump and his supporters — to concede that Trump is unsuited to the presidency in all kinds of ways and that a loud faction of his admirers is clearly motivated by racial and other forms of animus while simultaneously acknowledging that the Trump phenomenon as a whole can’t be reduced to the moral status of a KKK rally.
As we careen toward Nov. 8, Trump’s countless critics in the media increasingly show no interest in having their race-driven narrative disrupted — and display outright hostility toward anyone who would encourage such disruption. What besides indifference or blindness toward racial injustice, they wonder, could explain the stubborn refusal of some to acknowledge that Trump’s candidacy is obviously (and just about entirely) an expression of hatred toward people of color?
This is a somewhat different kettle of fish but one that I’m also familiar with. While I supported George W. Bush in both 2000 and (with less enthusiasm) 2004, I actively opposed many of the sillier claims against Al Gore and John Kerry. The 2000 election preceded my blogging career but I frequently defended Kerry from the slanders of the Swift Boaters, the notion he somehow faked his Purple Heart injuries, and even the silliness of those calling him effete for windsurfing. In 2008, I thought Barack Obama was simply too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief but nonetheless defended him from not only the Birthers but all manner of relatively minor charges that I considered unfair. And, while I supported John McCain from early in the primaries, I earned all manner of enmity from—and drove away much of—my conservative readership by taking the early, frequent, and vigorous stance that Sarah Palin was an ignoramus who undermined McCain’s entire message. In 2012, in response to an Atlantic Council edict that the senior leadership of the organization, including myself as the managing editor, were prohibited from endorsing political candidates, I responded that, given the nature of my blogging profile here, that I would be morally required to violate said policy if the Republican Party were to nominate “any of the non-Mormons” running for their presidential nomination. Thankfully, they picked my second favorite Mormon, saving me the dilemma. (Amusingly, my preferred Mormon, Jon Huntsman, became the Council’s chairman shortly after I moved on to my current position.)
In 2012, in response to an Atlantic Council edict that the senior leadership of the organization, including myself as the managing editor, were prohibited from endorsing political candidates, I responded that, given the nature of my blogging profile here, that I would be morally required to violate said policy if the Republican Party were to nominate “any of the non-Mormons” running for their presidential nomination. Thankfully, they picked my second favorite Mormon, saving me the dilemma. (Amusingly, my preferred Mormon, Jon Huntsman, became the Council’s chairman shortly after I moved on to my current position.)
This cycle, despite having been anti-Trump from essentially the moment of his announcement—and, indeed, being in essentially the position I was in last cycle, of being unable to support any but a couple of the contenders in a very large field—I nonetheless occasionally defend Trump from silly attacks. Not because I think Trump should be president or think his many outrages are “okay if you’re a Republican” but because of my longstanding positions that 1) we should employ relative honesty in campaign debates and that 2) employing dishonest and silly arguments actually serves to undermine the legitimate ones.
Indeed, like the proverbial blind squirrel scratching for acorns, Trump occasionally stumbles onto reasonable critiques of Obama administration or longstanding bipartisan consensus policy positions. Even then, he usually does so inarticulately and perhaps without fully understanding even why he’s right. But I tend to presume the best version of the argument is what is meant and defend them on that basis. (Alas, because of vagaries of time and enthusiasm, I’m doing a lot more of that on Twitter than I am here these days. And I’m not on Twitter nearly as much as I was here in my heyday.)
At the same time, despite reluctantly concluding that a Hillary Clinton presidency is the lesser of the two available evils, I’ve nonetheless continued to argue that her use of a private email server to shield her government business from scrutiny and her use of her position as Secretary of State to leverage donations to her private foundation were unseemly. I don’t find those positions mutually incompatible.
One thing is certain: A little over a month from now, the election will be behind us. What remains to be seen is whether the centrifugal forces that have gripped us so severely throughout the past year will weaken somewhat, allowing us to back away, if only for a time, from our entrenched, polarized positions.
That’s one possibility.
Another is that our quick-tempered tendency to think the worst of those who disagree with us will continue to deepen, with everyone on the other side of the partisan divide looking ever-more like moral monsters. In that unhappy eventuality, the political contest of 2016 may soon seem tame, as our politics devolves even further into a metaphorical act of slamming doors in each other’s faces.
I’ve recently expressed similar, if darker, fears here.
Now, this isn’t purely a case of “both sides do it.” The version coming from the right—and especially from Trump and his most ardent supporters—is far more sinister and noxious than that coming from the even the Bernie Sanders die-hards, much less the relatively Establishment Clinton quarter. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t real danger in writing off Trump’s supporters as simply racists, misogynists, and morons.
Healing this divide after what I presume will be a Clinton victory a month from now will be extremely difficult. Even in an extremely polarized period, she’s an outlier in her ability to alienate. Not only does she lack her husband’s phenomenal ability to emote, she doesn’t have Barack Obama’s soaring oratory skills or even George W. Bush’s ability to relate to the ordinary Joe. She’s more akin to Bush the Elder in that regard: a competent insider who would be far better suited to be a prime minister than a president.