Political campaigns are supposed to kick off debates about how we should feel about the candidates. Donald Trump’s campaign has started a debate about how we should feel about the candidate’s supporters, too.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens was early in taking the fight against Trump to his fans. More recently, Gabriel Schoenfeld has written in the New York Daily News that “all Trump voters can and should be held to account” for flocking to a candidate who combines low character with hostility to constitutional freedoms. Conservatives, he said, should not address these voters “with sympathy.”
Should people even stay friends with Trump supporters? After Peter Wehner, another fierce conservative opponent of Trump, argued in the New York Times that friendship should come before political disagreements, Isaac Chotiner criticized Wehner in Slate: Trump caters to bigotry, which is worth ending a friendship over.
A lot of Trump supporters, I’d venture, already think that people who oppose Trump look down on them, and it’s one reason they are backing him. When anti-Trumpists openly announce they have no respect for Trump voters and wish to shun them, they just confirm these Trump supporters’ view and harden their resolve.
Blanket hostility to Trump supporters isn’t just counterproductive; it’s unjustified. I’ll admit it can be tempting. A lot of my online interactions with Trump supporters have consisted of racist jibes at me. Even the non-racist feedback has tended to be unreasoning, hypersensitive or just plain stupid.
Luckily, Twitter isn’t representative of the American public, and neither are website comment sections. They could be an especially bad proxy for the roughly 10 million Trump voters so far.
People who disdain Trump voters en masse are, it seems to me, confusing two questions: Should an intelligent and decent person back Trump? And can an intelligent and decent person back Trump? I’m a firm no on the first question. But the answer to the second question is yes.
Someone might think that mass immigration is lowering wages, that Trump is the only candidate who would try to do something about it, and that he should therefore be president. Or someone might think that our government has been dysfunctional for a long time, that we need someone who is not beholden to the orthodoxies of either party to fix it, and that Trump fits the bill. Or someone might think it’s important for Republicans to win the White House, and Trump has shown such surprising political strength that he is the best candidate for that.
These arguments are, I believe, seriously defective. But these are not obviously delusional or hateful reasons for supporting Trump. They are not different in kind, morally or intellectually, from the reasons tens of millions of people voted for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012.
To support Trump for these reasons requires looking away from a lot. But we should not assume that most of his voters are fully aware of all of these things, let alone that they are choosing him because of them.
Living in a democracy often means thinking millions of our fellow citizens are making a big mistake, and saying so. That doesn’t have to mean considering them our moral inferiors. To the extent my fellow anti-Trump conservatives are adopting that mindset, they are making a depressing political season even more so.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review.