Examining the phenomenon of voters who will never reconsider their support for President Trump no matter what he does in office, Andrew Sullivan raises a valid comparison but misses the broader point
I broadly agree with Andrew Sullivan’s assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far (i.e. that it has been a disaster characterised by one self-inflicted crisis after another), while Sullivan’s account of the last week also paints an accurate portrait of a man completely out of his depth:
The White House is barely functioning; legislation is completely stalled; next week’s trip abroad will have everyone watching from behind a couch; the FBI and CIA are reeling; there’s almost no one in the State Department; no presidential due diligence is applied to military actions; the president only reads memos when his name is mentioned in them; a not-too-smart and apparently mute 35-year-old son-in-law is supposed to solve every problem in the country and world; and the press secretary is hiding in the bushes. No one has any confidence that the president couldn’t throw us into a war or a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice. Nothing this scary has happened in my lifetime.
Sullivan then goes on to ponder why it is that Trump’s devoted base shows no real sign of re-evaluating or revoking their support for the president, and comes up with an interesting analogy:
In some ways, I think the best analogy for Trump is O.J. Simpson. Even if we all know he’s guilty as sin, even if his own supporters see the flimflam behind the claptrap, even if the evidence is staring us in the face, he’ll never lose his core support. For 35 percent of the country, he’ll never be guiltier than the system he’s challenging. The best we can hope for is a Democratic House in 2018 and a grinding, grueling attempt to minimize the already enormous harm Trump has done in the meantime. We can pursue that outcome while hoping our cold civil war doesn’t get hot — because this is beginning to feel like the 1850s.
I was too young (and living in the wrong country) to really understand what was happening or the critical context during the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995, but I have just finished re-watching the excellent FX television dramatisation “The People vs O.J. Simpson” and the longform ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” – and it seems clear to me that Andrew Sullivan is missing the key lesson from the OJ trial as it pertains to public policy.
Sullivan picks up on the obvious point – that O.J. Simpson was clearly guilty, and that even many of those who proclaimed his innocence actually knew, in their heart of hearts, that the man committed the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. So yes, if one wants to keep things superficial then we can join Sullivan in marvelling at the ability of foolish Trump supporters to similarly cast facts and reason aside, motivated by base emotion.
But the real lesson to be learned from the O.J. Simpson case is that no justice system (and by extension, no democracy) cannot function as it should when there is so much unresolved injustice – real or perceived – within the same system. The OJ murder case took place in the wake of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, which themselves took place after years of institutionalised racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. The decision to acquit O.J. Simpson was far more payback for countless previous cases of denied justice than a fair verdict based on the evidence presented at trial. Now, one can rail endlessly against the jury and their decision-making process, but it will do nothing to prevent similar unjust verdicts potentially being reached again in future.
This should be particularly worrying for all of us at the present time, with the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics in such ascendancy. With many on the political Left actively seeking to fracture society into competing special interest groups arranged into an intersectional hierarchy of victimhood – a phenomenon which has now escaped the university campus and is beginning to infect the corporate world and other institutions – there has perhaps never been a time when so many have had things so good yet felt so persecuted and oppressed despite their good fortune (just look at any college campus protest).
How will the justice system continue to function in the world of Social Justice, when advancing the interest of one’s own narrowly-defined identity group may increasingly trump the universal need for justice? When even science is forced to bend the knee to progressive gender theory (see Bill Nye the Science Guy’s promotion of Otherkin and forced orgies) what hope can there be for rationality in anything?
Andrew Sullivan is a conservative – or at least he still nominally “identifies” as a conservative. And one characteristic of conservatives is that we generally seek to engage with human beings and the world as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. Unlike the Utopian Left (who have repeatedly flirted with communism, furiously ignoring the fact that such a system inevitably results in tyrannical dictatorship), the Right tend to understand that government and economic policy must work with human nature, not against it. That’s why the Right embraces capitalism – because capitalism harnesses our natural desire for success and monetary reward (the profit motive), and feeds that desire into a system which – to the extent that it is allowed to do its job unimpeded – creates far more prosperity and material abundance for far more people than any other economic system known to man.
With a conservative’s acceptance of human nature, Sullivan should therefore understand that when any given group of people find themselves on the receiving end of perceived injustice for long enough, reason tends to go out the window to a certain degree and people become susceptible to more emotional rather than rational arguments. That’s largely why the O.J. Simpson jury voted to acquit, despite the overwhelming evidence indicating that he was guilty. That’s partly (but not exclusively) why African Americans vote Democrat in such overwhelming numbers, despite the fact that successive Democratic administrations and Congresses have delivered mixed results for them at best. And just to acknowledge that “my own side” are equally vulnerable to this aspect of human nature, it is also partly why a majority of Britons – those with less formal education and those lacking the skills required to prosper in today’s globalised economy – voted against the political elite in favour of Brexit.
You can rail against this human nature all you want – and Andrew Sullivan, having identified that the “O.J. Simpson Factor” is in play appears willing simply to do that – but if you actually want to achieve a different outcome then it is necessary to acknowledge this aspect of human nature and work with it, rather than against it. And in the case of Donald Trump, this will necessarily involve America’s elites actually having to to atone for their manifold failures, which are responsible for giving us President Trump in the first place.
Editor of The American Conservative, Robert Merry, sums it up perfectly:
When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem. We’re talking here about the elites of both parties. Think of those who gave the country Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee—a woman who sought to avoid accountability as secretary of state by employing a private email server, contrary to propriety and good sense; who attached herself to a vast nonprofit “good works” institution that actually was a corrupt political machine designed to get the Clintons back into the White House while making them rich; who ran for president, and almost won, without addressing the fundamental problems of the nation and while denigrating large numbers of frustrated and beleaguered Americans as “deplorables.” The unseemliness in all this was out in plain sight for everyone to see, and yet Democratic elites blithely went about the task of awarding her the nomination, even to the point of employing underhanded techniques to thwart an upstart challenger who was connecting more effectively with Democratic voters.
At least Republican elites resisted the emergence of Trump for as long as they could. Some even attacked him vociferously. But, unlike in the Democratic Party, the Republican candidate who most effectively captured the underlying sentiment of GOP voters ended up with the nomination. The Republican elites had to give way. Why? Because Republican voters fundamentally favor vulgar, ill-mannered, tawdry politicians? No, because the elite-generated society of America had become so bad in their view that they turned to the man who most clamorously rebelled against it.
These two paragraphs alone do not really do Merry’s piece justice, and I encourage people to read the whole thing, together with Rod Dreher’s follow-up piece.
There seems to exist within the American political and media elite a belief that it will be possible to force Donald Trump from office, either through impeachment, 25th Amendment remedies or coerced resignation, and then simply resume governing in the style to which they are accustomed. This is ludicrous. Donald Trump’s supporters will not take the thwarting of their democratic choice lying down. Trump may be all but guaranteed to fail these people, even if he serves a full two terms as president, but for the Washington elite to effectively engineer a coup against Trump for mere incompetence (smoking gun evidence of direct Russian collusion is another matter, of course) would be to set the social fabric of America, already smouldering, on fire.
In order to put an end to civil unrest and prevent more miscarriages of justice like the O.J. Simpson verdict, the LAPD had to admit to some of their past failings and go through a fairly tortured process to ensure that bad practices and individuals were weeded out of the force. The Christopher Commission (formed in 1991 after the Rodney King beating, but whose effects had not fully taken hold by the time of the OJ murders) was a significant part of this process.
But right now, much of the American elite and political establishment believe that no similar process of atonement and change is necessary. They believe that because Trump is so bad, so unprecedented, that they can agitate for his removal and pick up running the country right where they left off without undergoing any kind of positive reform. And frankly, that notion is absurd.
If one wishes to ensure that the American people never again elect as president somebody with the character, temperament and personal history as Donald Trump, then one must tackle some of the root causes of Trump’s victory. And no, I don’t mean Russian hacking, though Russian influence may have played some as-yet unspecified part.
Rather, the political elite must finally show a degree of empathy for those people whose boats have been submerged rather than lifted by the rising tide of globalisation, and those who hold political, social and religious views which differ from progressive orthodoxy and suddenly find themselves ostracised and labelled “deplorable” as a result. But more than merely paying lip service to these issues, the Washington elite must devise tangible and realistic policies to help these struggling voter constituencies, and demonstrate a plausible commitment to following through with those policies. Only then – if the political elite are willing to take this harsh medicine – can some of the poison finally be drained from American politics.
But Andrew Sullivan doesn’t quite seem to have gotten to this point, still stuck in the phase of scratching his head wondering how Trump’s voter base can possibly be so stupid. This phase is unhelpful, and becomes actively damaging the longer it persists. Nobody behaves entirely rationally all the time, and the phenomenon is by no means restricted to Trump supporters – after all, there is no rationality to be found in that stubborn clique who persist in believing that Hillary Clinton was a wonderful presidential candidate, or those who feel that the European Union is an unquestionably beneficient organisation. We all have our blind spots.
But expecting the country to spurn Trump and accept a return to leadership by the same elites who have presided over such American carnage (yes) in forgotten and unloved parts of the country is to demand that those who have the least make all the accommodations and do all the sacrificing while those who tend to have more are asked to do nothing, give nothing and change nothing.
Donald Trump’s presidency is lurching toward failure, but thus far the dethroned American political elite have done nothing to rehabilitate their standing in the public’s eye; nor have most of them even acknowledged the need to do so.
OJ Simpson had a rock-solid core of support inside the jury room and outside the courtroom for a very clear, identifiable reason which had to be acknowledged and grudgingly tackled by the police and criminal justice system before the racial divide in Los Angeles could even begin to heal. The American political elite are deluding themselves if they believe that they can return to power, normality and stability without going through a similar reckoning of their own.
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