Even before he entered the political arena, it was evident to most anyone with eyes that Donald Trump was a moral disgrace.
Philandering, misogyny, fraud, bankruptcy and tackiness were almost synonyms for his name. To all that, as a candidate for the presidency, Trump has added serial lying, racism, religious bigotry, slander and the outright encouragement of violence, with threats of more violence should he be deprived of the delegates needed to clinch his party’s nomination.Yet many people with eyes — millions of them, in fact — have cast their votes for this creature from the cesspool. What are we to make of these fellow Americans?
For obvious reasons, they are being treated by Trump’s rivals with tender solicitude. Trump’s followers remain important players in the ongoing battle for votes in the Republican primaries that remain. And whoever ends up as the Republican nominee will need them to show up at the polls in November to defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
What is harder to excuse is the fact that more than a few conservative commentators, including many who revile Trump himself, have addressed his supporters with sympathy. The conservative columnist and Cruz supporter David Limbaugh has appealed to Trump’s followers as “patriots,” telling them, “I understand and share your frustration” as he implores them not to vote for their candidate of choice.
To Peggy Noonan, Trump’s supporters are “are earnest and full of concern for America”; they are the “unprotected,” full of “legitimate anger” at the “protected” class that misgoverns them.
Going one step further is the commentator Dennis Saffran, writing in the American Spectator, who hastens to defend Trump’s supporters from their critics, calling them victims of “blatant class bigotry.”
It is inarguable that many Trump supporters are beleaguered economically and have been denigrated by America’s elites. In the face of globalization, de-industrialization and profound cultural shifts, they have been left behind. It is equally incontrovertible that they remain a critical voting bloc that Republican candidates hoping for success will want to court.
Yet however much Trump voters have grievances, this does not absolve any one of them of personal responsibility for their political choice. We are not only speaking here of those who engage in violence or shout vicious chants at Trump rallies, or the innumerable others who spew anti-Semitic and racist bile across the Internet.
All Trump voters can and should be held to account for embracing a candidate whose character is so dubious, and whose plans for the country — among them, singling out a religious group for a ban on an entry to the United States — amount to an assault on the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.
Followers of notorious dictators of the past also no doubt had legitimate grievances, yet this hardly spares them from the condemnation history has rightly heaped on them.
It is particularly rich to attack critics of Trump supporters as “condescending intellectual snots” — Saffran’s words — when Trump himself flagrantly treats his acolytes with condescension and contempt. He has exulted in their low attainments, declaring after his victory in one primary that “I love the poorly educated.” Remarking on his disciples’ mindless loyalty, he has said that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Ave. and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
As a practical matter, Republican political candidates may need to court Trump voters. As a moral matter, the rest of us should not close our eyes to the fact that those who pine for a strongman, and who would have us all follow Trump into the abyss, are in the best case willfully ignorant, and in the worst case knowingly endorsing a dangerous demagogue.
Schoenfeld is author of “A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account.”