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How Long Can Real Conservatives Make Excuses for Trump?

How Long Can Real Conservatives Make Excuses for Trump?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., front right, together with, from left, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, President Donald Trump and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., during a ceremony welcoming the 2018 college football playoff National Champion Clemson Tigers to the White House on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

By Wednesday, 31 July 2019 12:20 PM Current | Bio | Archive

During each week of the Donald Trump presidency, but especially the last few, liberals and conservatives have been splitting further apart on race. This polarization is based on differences that precede Trump — but also on the nature of the bargain many conservatives have made with him.

Nearly everyone agrees that racism is evil. But liberals and conservatives have different thresholds for what constitutes it. So liberals think that conservatives are insensitive to it at best, or actually bigoted at worst. Conservatives think liberals are oversensitive to it at best, or cynically exploiting the charge at worst. And this difference in perception is self-reinforcing, as each new racial controversy appears to confirm each side’s assumptions about the other.

The thresholds are not stable over time, either.

White liberal attitudes about race appear to have become markedly more progressive in recent years. It seems unlikely that liberals in the 1990s would have found it racist to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American heritage by calling her "Pocahontas." To the extent liberals acknowledge their shift, they doubtless see it as a testament of their moral and intellectual progress.

Conservative views change, too.

Over the span of decades, our whole society, conservatives included, have become less tolerant of racist jokes. At the moment, though, conservatives seem to be moving in the other direction. Support for Trump and opposition to his critics are making them less willing to condemn behavior as racist and more inclined to dismiss accusations of racism as moves in a political game.

Just compare the way Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., used to talk about Trump and race to the way he talks about it today.

Or read some conservative intellectuals.

If you had posed the hypothetical question to him a few years ago, a conservative man of letters might have agreed that a president who told a nonwhite member of Congress to go back to the hellhole she came from instead of criticizing him was saying something racist — attacking someone in terms he would never use against a white person. Turn the hypothetical into one of today’s live partisan disputes, however, and see how readily and plentifully the defenses come forth:

Maybe it was juvenile, but it wasn’t racist. Only a small fringe of extremists is racist. It’s offensive to say he’s racist. Are you calling 62 million Americans who voted for him racist? The president’s policies have done a lot of good for black people. Trump criticizes white people too! He was making a point about the gratitude immigrants owe America. (Never mind that three of the four members of Congress he targeted were born here.) He was talking about socialism.

Each apparent provocation has an innocent explanation.

When Trump said that Rep. Elijah Cummings’s Baltimore congressional district was a land of filth and misery, he was . . . standing up for the poor misgoverned people of that city!

When he said that a federal judge could not be fair to him because he was "Mexican," Trump was . . . making a profound, nay Lincolnian, point about identity politics.

There is certainly no pattern to see here, save that of his being plain-spoken and his critics reading him uncharitably.

It is logically possible to approve of many things Trump has done, and even to have voted for him and to intend to vote for him again, while being clear-eyed about his grave faults. This is the transactional case for Trump that many conservatives have made.

But some who made the transaction did not appreciate the full cost.

It turns out to be psychologically difficult to maintain the transactional stance.

The temptation to minimize the flaws of one’s champion is too great. (It is of course also true that a politician’s opponents have the opposite temptation.) The pull of party unity is only stronger now that Trump is president — and has largely stuck with an agenda Republicans favored before he came along, while angering liberals every day.

Because our culture has defined racism as wholly unacceptable, very few people are willing to step forward and say, "The president keeps making racist comments, but what’s more important is that he is delivering on taxes and judges and regulation." (Kris Kobach waffled rather than say it.) The evidence of his bigotry has to be ignored, wished away, re-interpreted. If Republicans refuse to fit their standards around the president — if, like former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., they occasionally condemn the bigotry — it means they were weaklings all along.

A generation ago, Democrats confronted a similar dilemma and solved it the same way. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem infamously excused Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual harassment of a grieving widow seeking a job from him on the ground that he eventually took no for an answer.

The journalist Marjorie Williams called her out on what came to be called the "one free grope" rule.

What Williams wrote about her fellow feminists then, conservatives could say to one another now, "We’ve just lowered the bar."

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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A generation ago, Democrats confronted a similar dilemma and solved it the same way. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem infamously excused Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual harassment of a widow seeking a job from him on the ground that he eventually took no for an answer.
liberals, conservatives, clinton, steinem
Wednesday, 31 July 2019 12:20 PM
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