I want you to stop supporting Trump. Seriously. Stop it right now.
You can like the president. You can love the president. You can agree with the president’s judicial and cabinet appointments, his handling of the economy, foreign affairs, domestic policies, and the like. Heck, you can even adore his outlandish, brash tweets both before and after becoming president. But, for the love of all that is good and holy, please stop supporting the president!
“Support” no longer means what it meant
I suppose I could understand how someone who agrees with what the president is doing would say they “support” him, just as someone who disagrees would say they “oppose” him. But—to be honest—it’s never really crossed my mind to support or oppose Trump. Quite frankly, I believe doing either is a dangerous oversimplification of our civic duty.
Perhaps you’re thinking I’m getting all hung up on some trivial semantic. What difference does it make? Well, there was a time when expressing support of a president would have simply been understood to mean one supported the president’s agenda as it was currently understood and would likely vote for them again; but that does not appear to be a valid option in today’s political climate.
Words and their meanings do evolve over time. We no longer presume that someone described as “gay” refers to their jolly disposition. Calling someone a “liberal” today means something quite different than it did in the early days of the American republic, when “liberal” referred to support for natural rights and government of the people over authoritarian monarchy.
And in the context of our current political climate it is extremely important we discern what being a “Trump supporter” actually means. I don’t mean that it’s meaningless to support the president; but I do mean that the way in which that word is commonly used today carries with it two dangerous connotations:
1 - "Support” isn’t specific enough
If you’ve followed much of this blog, you’ve learned by now that words and phrases that don’t mean anything specific can be used to mean everything in general. If a clear understanding of “support” is up for grabs, so are its implications. When “I support the president’s decision in this particular matter” evolves into “I support all policies the president is pursuing” and then melds into “I believe whenever Trump says something shocking or seemingly inept he’s actually playing eighth-dimensional chess,” we have a problem. Unless one takes care to discern between these radically different ideas of “support” we may soon come to believe one necessarily leads to the other. Which brings us to the second dangerous connotation.
2 - “Support” means unquestioning fealty
For some, “support” has come to mean Trump embodies the very essence of conservatism and the Christian faith. Conservatives who fought for free trade in the 90s are now required to pretend that the “conservative” position has evolved into opposing free trade because Trump has declared it to be so. Evangelicals who insisted “character counts” in the 90s are now convinced Trump’s infidelity and immorality in his private life doesn’t mean he’d be untrustworthy or immoral in his public life.
Past presidents never demanded this kind of “support”
This evolving understanding of what it means to support the president is remarkably fresh. For those readers who are older than the rest of us millennials, can you ever recall a time when the Republican party was so obsessed with “supporting” past presidents? Was Reagan convinced that the Iran-Contra investigation was a concerted effort by the Deep State to bring him down? Richard Nixon was arguably the most paranoid president of the modern era. Was there widespread pressure during the Watergate scandal that Republicans had to stand by their man through think and thin?
Since I’m on the older end of the millennial generation, I do recall what calls for support were like when George Bush was president. There were certainly calls for solidarity in the party for support of the president when the War on Terror began to take an ugly turn. Democrats referred to the situation in Iraq as a quagmire and sought to blame the Bush administration for what was quickly becoming a very unpopular war. As support for the war effort diminished, American discontent grew to outrage to the point Bush was booed and jeered as he left the White House for the last time.
Many conservatives stood by the president through it all in a manner that might be call “support.” Some would quibble with the handling of the war or some of the goofier efforts at establishing a thriving democracy in the center of the Middle East, but it was generally understood he was “one of us” in some sense and it would have been counterproductive to the conservative cause to abandon him when things appeared to be falling apart. In this sense we might say that there was a charge to support the president.
But times have changed, and so has an understanding of the language we used at the time. I don’t recall conservatives ever heralding some of Bush’s squishier policies such as Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind as somehow akin to conservative values. When Bush was wrong on some policy conservatives had no qualms saying so. There was more of a reluctant sense of this is the best we’ve got for now that took the good with the bad, but never lost sight of what parts were good and what parts were bad. To be sure, there wasn’t widespread vocal dissent among conservatives for fear Democrats would capitalize on an already unpopular presidency. But I can’t recall a single instance amongst my conservative friends in which someone’s faithfulness to the conservative worldview was denounced because they dared to identify some aspect of the Bush presidency they didn’t fully support.
The president sets the tone for the party, to say nothing of the tone of the national conversation. Whereas past presidents spoke of support for some cause, national project, or political endeavor, Trump calls for support of Trump. Trump invites us to believe that he alone can fix what ails our nation. He praises supporters as the smartest, strongest, most hard working and most loyal in history and attacks anyone who doesn’t “support” him.
There is no middle ground; those representatives and senators who vote for Trump’s policy initiatives but have never bent the knee are denounced, just as those who’ve spent much of their career working against the policies he advocates but have nothing but praise for him are described as great, strong, and smart. Who is great? A senatorial candidate from Alabama who sexually molested underage women and supports Trump. Who is strong? Oppressive strongmen such as Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Who is smart? Kanye West.
Time and again Trump reshapes in the minds of the average American what it means to support the president. In this series I hope to show how “support” in this sense is not only different from how it’s been used in the past, but is powerfully destructive to a free republic and in complete opposition to our civic duty. In Part 2 we’ll discuss whether Trump’s Supreme court picks of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh means it’s time for conservatives to get around to supporting the president.