This is Donald J. Trump’s last campaign in which his name will appear on the ballot. Those voters who have supported him but disagree with his techniques (and there are many) need to maintain a distance if he wins a second term—an unshakable distance.
An intense opposition has developed during Trump’s first term. Predictably it is made up of those who identify as Democrats. But there is a layer who opposes him not so much on policy, but leadership style. At some level, leadership style is policy, not just tactics.
Over a lifetime of watching, often close up, politics and politicians, I have become increasingly allergic to categorization. To me, being a Never-Trumper would have required dissent from all that he has done. Most recently, I agreed with his choice of Amy Coney Barrett to join the Supreme Court.
But I adamantly disagree with his exclusionary, self-obsessed political tactics. He is corrupting democracy—his tactics are policy. Every norm is somehow illegitimate if he finds it an obstacle to his adoration. Here is a too-short summary:
- Free speech is fake if it doesn’t conform to his views or actions.
- Opponents, by the mere fact of criticism, are corrupt or mentally disabled.
- Institutions, for example, health agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or National Institutes of Health (NIH), are burdened by incompetent bureaucrats when their views don’t comport with his.
- Election rules that are regarded as opening doors to unfriendly voters are likewise corrupt.
I could go on; the list of bad faith institutions and actions in Trump’s telling seems infinite.
America, indeed democracy, requires some level of trust. We don’t have hundreds of thousands of secret police because most Americans go along with government rules and await the next election or go to the courts in an effort to overturn them.
To give muscle to trust, we have checks and balances; they are called States, the press, elections, and courts. Every President finds himself checked by Governors with different points of view. Every President is two years from Congressional elections that often turn on how the voters perceive the quality of Presidential leadership.
In China, or Russia, or Iran, incumbent rulers do everything necessary to quash dissent. You trust the government or keep quiet. You parrot the state-directed media or keep quiet. If an order comes down requiring you to stay in your house during a pandemic, you stay in your house or go to jail.
America’s protected freedoms preclude the kind of authoritarianism we claim to abhor. But, freedom’s protectors must be credible, or trust breaks down. When the President either wittingly or unwittingly undermines the Center for Disease Control, public health is compromised. When the President excoriates election rules, he takes on the constitution, which gives State authority over election procedures. And with elections on our mind, he says to his followers, “if I don’t win, it will be because the election is stolen.” Election integrity is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.
If the President wins another term, his thoughtful supporters should draw lines and take action. They should help protect American freedoms from careless and self-serving demonization. Laughing it off with that is just “Trump being Trump” will not do. We all have a stake in our freedoms. Criticizing opponents is the lingua franca of politics, but when demonizing America’s basic structures becomes the default choice, countervailing actions are essential.