Stop Bending the Knee to Donald Trump

The 2016 election is over. Voters no longer face a binary choice. So why are the president’s supporters still pledging their fealty?

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

In Westeros, the fictional realm where Game of Thrones is set, common men and women are expected to bend the knee to kings, queens, lords, and ladies, pledging their fealty “from this day till my last day.”

Americans are citizens, not servile subjects. After voting for a public servant, there is no obligation of abiding loyalty. Indeed, the right to critique all shortcomings is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. I’ve always felt that a good citizen exercises that right.

Circa 2008, I favored Barack Obama in his bid to become president. Thereafter, I never thought John McCain and Sarah Palin would’ve been better. Nevertheless, I wrote dozens of articles during Obama’s first term inveighing against his drone strikes, his expansions of executive power, his efforts to punish whistleblowers, the illegal war he waged in Libya, and journalists who voted for him, then went easy on him when he was in office, even when he was breaking campaign promises.

The relative merits of McCain and Mitt Romney never mattered. Once a presidential election is over, only the winner matters.

Unfortunately, many Americans impose an obligation of loyalty to presidents on themselves. Today, Donald Trump supporters are more likely to behave like the servile loyalists of a monarch than like citizens with the right—and the ongoing responsibility—to hold their leader accountable.

That’s fine for those who believe that Trump is an exemplary president. But it won’t do for the subset who cannot and do not deny the man’s significant shortcomings, yet justify their ongoing support with the irrelevant claim that Trump is better than would be Hillary Clinton—his opponent in an election that was held nearly two years ago.

The “lesser of two evils” logic was defensible in November 2016, when voters faced what was effectively a binary choice. But today, “Trump is better than Clinton” is a dodge for people who can’t otherwise justify their abiding support for Trump. I often argue on this site that Trump voters ought to withdraw their support from the president due to one egregious flaw or another. The most common dissenting reply I receive is that they grant the indictment, but much prefer Trump to Hillary.

Why don’t such supporters understand that the 2016 election is over? A Trump supporter illustrates the mindset. He emailed me this last week:

I voted for Trump in the general election because Hillary Clinton and her entire cabal are a horrible bunch of lying criminals. She and her crew are vicious, no good pieces of trash. I am no Trump fan, but he is better than Clinton and her crew every day of the week, and twice on Sundays … Might they be disingenuous and hypocritical? Yes. Is hypocrisy the tribute that vice pays to virtue? Yes again.

Would I rather have a sort of ridiculous hypocrite as President than a vicious, lying piece of shit like Hillary Clinton? Yes again. Do I wish we all had better choices?

Yes again.

A person can believe, without contradiction, that Trump was “the lesser of two evils” in the 2016 election and that he is so flawed a president as to warrant opposition (whether in the form of speaking out against him rather than for him, or in electing a Congress that will probe his wrongdoing, or even in impeaching him in favor of Mike Pence).

Yet this correspondent justified current, ongoing support for a president he judges to be a ridiculous, disingenuous hypocrite by invoking a long since defeated rival who will never, ever be president.

So many Trump supporters tell me, when challenged on their loyalties, that they “wish we all had better choices.” If that’s an earnest belief rather than a dodge, they ought to be advocating for a 2020 primary challenger to Trump who will offer a better choice. Yet I almost never encounter the “Trump is bad, but Hillary was worse” argument from someone who is opposing the president right now, or laying the groundwork to replace him with someone more fit to lead.

Lavishing excessive loyalty on a charismatic politician who doesn’t deserve it is hardly unusual in the annals of U.S. politics. But Trump supporters should be clear about the bipartisan tradition in which they’re participating: The swamp grew deep and fetid precisely because a faction in every bygone era stopped being skeptical about those in power, as if their side winning turned them into credulous sycophants.

Today, Trump is in power, and as a result, the credulous sycophants enabling abuses of power with excessive loyalty are Trump supporters. Under the next president, the sycophants will be the supporters of a new boss.

The damage that Trump will do with the support he retains by virtue of inertia from the 2016 election and the mental error of judging him against Hillary Clinton depends on how many “lesser of two evils” voters snap out of it and begin to counteract Trump “True Believers”—that is, people who tell pollsters that they trust Trump, a serial liar if ever there was one, more than their own friends and family.

Those Trump supporters resemble deluded cult members who now trust their leader more than the people who care about them most. And that makes it more important for those who voted for him but recognize his flaws to adopt a posture of targeted opposition to his worst qualities. Reflexively supporting him with the Hillary dodge is weak.