America has developed a new political ritual, one that has been repeated countless times over the last six months. It goes like this. 1) Presidential candidate Donald Trump says something outrageous. 2) Establishment conservative writers condemn him. 3) In response, his supporters defend him. 4) Finally, the establishment conservative writers claim that this defense shows that Trump’s supporters are unhinged fanatics who will defend anything their man says, no matter how deplorable; they have abandoned all sense of principle to a cult of personality. Innumerable columns based on this model have been written since Trump announced his candidacy in June.
The most recent version is based on Trump’s nice words for Vladimir Putin, in response to Putin’s praise for Trump, and Trump’s effort to brush aside Putin’s misdeeds when confronted with them by a reporter. A good specimen of the genre is Charles C.W. Cooke’s column entitled: “Trump Confesses Admiration for Strongman who Offs Journalists, Fans Applaud.”
I have argued here before that I think that the Trump phenomenon could only arise in the first place because the leadership of the Republican Party had failed to understand, or perhaps to care enough about, the issues over which its own voters are most worried. I further think that his candidacy can only persist because Republican leaders persist in their failings. They have not yet figured out how to confront Trump on his own ground but instead try to ignore him.
But I also think that columns like Cooke’s equally misunderstand what is going on with Trump’s supporters. I am sure that some Trump fans are happy to defend whatever he says, no matter how indefensible it seems. But the majority of them would probably admit that he has often said things that he should not have. Trump is drawing a large slice of the Republican electorate, and Republican voters are overwhelmingly decent, ordinary Americans. Most of them would not say many of the things that Trump has said. Therefore, when they come to his defense, they are not so much defending the thing he has said, but are instead intending to defend the continued viability of his candidacy despite his inflammatory remarks. This is pretty standard partisan behavior. Everybody on every side in politics defends their candidate by trying to minimize his or her offenses or by claiming that they are outweighed by other considerations. Most of Trump’s supporters stick with him, I suspect, not because they like every brash or reckless thing he says, but because they think he is the only candidate defending their interests or promoting their values. Since he is their only option, they defend him.
If I am correct about this, no amount of denunciation of Trump for any specific transgression will hurt him with his core voters as long as he continues to occupy the same political terrain, which almost no other candidate has chosen to occupy. Indeed, the many efforts like Cooke’s to attack Trump are probably counter-productive. This is because they are usually rather transparently hostile not only to Trump but to his whole movement, including his followers. Every time Trump explodes, the mainstream conservative critics not only condemn his words but go further and say that those words disqualify him as a candidate. But to ask his supporters to accept the second claim is to ask them to surrender what they view as the one vehicle of their political aspirations and to resign themselves to political irrelevance. Being human, they are not willing to do this.
In the end, blow-ups like the one over Trump’s words about Putin are a sideshow. Probably nobody–not even Trump’s harshest critics–really believes that he thinks it permissible to “off” journalists. As a result, everybody can see that this issue is just another club that people will use to beat Trump–people who dislike Trump for quite other reasons than this latest gaffe. Criticizing Trump on such collateral grounds will not make him go away.