Meet the Trumpverstehers

We know about the president’s most vocal supporters. But what about his more discreet following?

Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, in May 2018
Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, in May 2018 (Leah Millis / Reuters)

A few years ago, the Germans created one of the compound nouns in which their language excels. The Russlandverstehers—literally, “Russia understanders”—were those who while not openly supporting Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea expressed sympathetic acceptance of it. They would never openly endorse the stealing of elections or the assassination of journalists, of course, but they understood the circumstances that lead to such unfortunate things, and the larger impulse to rough behavior to restore Russian national pride and enhance Russian prestige.

I propose the term Trumpverstehers in a similar spirit. These are not the mass of his supporters who fear the loss of jobs to global trade or automation; they are not the rural white Americans who feel threatened by immigration, ravaged by the opioid epidemic, and treated contemptuously by a bicoastal elite. In fact, by background, income, and employment, they are actually members of that elite.

I have some archetypical individuals in mind—a few eminent scholars, some former senior officials (both political appointees and career civil servants), several wealthy businessmen. They are the products of excellent colleges and universities, and in most cases hold advanced degrees. All of them are well off; none fears losing their job to a Chinese robot or a Honduran border crosser; they may gnash their teeth at The Washington Post or The New York Times but trust them more than they do Breitbart. They are not bigots, racists, misogynists, or homophobes.

Most of them are partly closeted Trumpverstehers. That is, they are judicious about to whom and how they divulge their views. But they have said enough to me that I can reconstruct their arguments for being more hostile to President Donald Trump’s critics than to him; for being unwilling to criticize him more than faintly, if at all; and in some cases, for taking an unabashedly positive view of some of his accomplishments.

One of the great fallacies in debate is tu quoque, “you too.” In its contemporary form we call it “whataboutism,” and some of the Trumpverstehers employ that in their insistence on the real and imagined follies and crimes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But this is more than a debating tactic or polemical tic. It goes to the core of the Trumpversteher world view.

That view holds that the Obama presidency represented the culmination of an intrusive, controlling, and in some ways oppressive liberal politics of the last half century or more. Hillary Clinton, in their view, was not merely so corrupt as to outweigh Donald Trump’s peccadilloes—she represented a downright menace to the republic. In their own way, the Trumpverstehers support Steve Bannon’s program of “deconstructing the administrative state,” a governmental system that culminated in the Obama–Clinton ideological program.

They want to shatter the rule of left-leaning bureaucrats reinforced by high-tech Silicon Valley geekery. The Trump agenda of business deregulation appeals to them, but so too does the political neutering of social scientists seeking to “nudge” people into the behavior they think is good for them. The scholars among this group are either refugees from the university world or internal exiles, but all share a vigorous contempt for professors and for the social sciences and humanities, which they view as being purveyors of malign nonsense that subverts patriotism at home and sober realism abroad. Their picture of academic life is one in which it is not Trump but outrageously coddled students aided and abetted by liberal administrators who instill intolerance and attempt to suppress free speech, and whose menace spills beyond the ivied walls.

The verstehers figure that Trump is an astringent antidote to all that, even if a temporary one. To use another German word, they are immersed in Kulturpessimismus, the notion that American society has been going to hell since the end of the Cold War, and that it cannot be quite rebuiltthe reverse of “Making America Great Again.” Like Roman aristocrats crouched in their embattled villas, witnessing a 50-year war on the frontier, they view with relief the victory of one crude and buffoonish barbarian chief over a much larger and more sinister tribal confederation. In a corrupt state, at least a wrecker like Trump may do some useful work of creative destruction.

The Trumpverstehers have given up on character in politics. None of them likes Trump, although they will use words such as vulgarian to characterize him, not liar, or bully, or scoundrel. They disregard his cruelty, too. When pressed, they claim that he may be an ignoramus and a rascal, but that that does not matter: only his policies do. In some ways, this reflects their belief in the strength of institutional constraints on the presidency, and in others their view that Trump is a blowhard who lacks the nerve to actually try, for example, to shut down hostile news media or incite large-scale violence. As long as the lines of his policy are reasonable in their eyes, they will ignore behavior that 20 years ago would have outraged them. They now consider qualities such as probity, thrift, magnanimity, and fidelity to be private virtues: From public figures, we cannot and should not expect them.

And words do not matter, either. The Trumpverstehers brush off the torrent of the president’s outrageous lies with statements like, “I care about what he does, not what he says.” They seem, in some ways, no longer to view honest public speech and rigorous argument as central to free government. Trump is, by and large, doing the right thing, they believe, and his obnoxious, false, and semiliterate pronouncements are mere bait to outrage overly sensitive souls and cause them to overreact. It is another remarkable departure for people, many of them admirers of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, whose careers were built on careful and precise use of language in the public good.

Finally, the Trumpverstehers usually focus on a few issues—the Iran deal, deregulation, stronger border enforcement—and come back to those as justifications for supporting him. They judge him by those particular areas where he is more or less in harmony with their views. An argument that the whole is more important than the parts they find unconvincing. They like the obvious big moves—a larger defense budget, moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem, getting hostages back from North Korea—and dismiss as less consequential the alienation of European allies, trade war with Canada, anger in Mexico, or the worries of the Japanese about being sold out. To some extent, they buy Trump’s argument that most of the allies are freeloaders who would benefit from a good slapping around.

I understand these points and even faintly sympathize with some, but the above are in no way conservative arguments. The example of the Trumpverstehers suggests that Peter Wehner was correct in saying that we are seeing American conservatism evolve into the American Right, a very different and more disturbing thing.

There is, however, one thing I do not comprehend about the Trumpverstehers. I do not understand how the cries of an infant torn from its immigrant mother’s arms now fail to rend the hearts of people who, in other settings, I once knew to be upright, generous, and kind.