The Irrationally Divided Critics of Donald Trump

Cooperation is needed to check an unfit leader. So why are so many critics of the president-elect needlessly turning on one another?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A large cohort of Americans have reservations about the presidency of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by 2.9 million, strikes many who did vote for him as a highly flawed “lesser of two evils,” and has a dismal 37 percent approval rating. These ideologically diverse skeptics must cooperate if they hope to minimize the damage they believe the Trump Administration will do to America if left unopposed. But so far, they are easily divided. In fact, they cannot even refrain from attacking or alienating one another on matters where they are mostly in agreement.

This self-defeating approach was illustrated earlier this week when Never Trump conservatives who fully believe that Donald Trump is a bully watched Meryl Streep level that criticism. Rather than embracing a rare moment of narrow convergence with a Hollywood liberal, they let the mutual antagonism between their cultural tribes drive their reaction and wound up furiously attacking the actress over perceived hypocrisy. Doing so advanced none of their ends. It was a missed opportunity.

Another immediate example concerns the upcoming Woman’s March on Washington, D.C., where critics of Donald Trump will protest the day after his inauguration.  Here’s how a New York Times article on preparations for the event began:

Many thousands of women are expected to converge on the nation’s capital for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Jennifer Willis no longer plans to be one of them. Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election. “You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.” Stung by the tone, Ms. Willis canceled her trip.

“This is a women’s march,” she said. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”

For many, this was yet another illustration of identity politics undermining the effectiveness of leftist activism. There are discrete features of some identity politics that frustrate me too. Many manifestations of tribalism are doing dangerous harm to liberal democracy. And I certainly think it is foolish for a political organizer collaborating on a protest to tell anyone, “You don’t just get to join now because you’re scared.”

“Yes, we can!” works much better.

But I find fault with Ms. Willis, too. The wedding minister from South Carolina apparently believes that Donald Trump threatens sound policy on a host of vitally important issues, and that marching on Washington will help diminish his power to do harm.

Given those beliefs, it seems rather small to cancel her attendance because one Brooklyn activist wrote a Facebook post that she found wrongheaded. To stand up for their beliefs, Americans have defied a king by signing their names to parchment that could’ve been a death warrant, parachuted into Germany to fight fascists to the death, and braved Bull Connor’s attack dogs. Are we now too fragile to attend a march of many thousands when one of them hurts our feelings before the fact? To borrow advice that Nicholas Christakis once sagely offered, if you don’t like someone’s behavior, “look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other.” Don’t withdraw to a safe space, abandoning much that is more important than stung feelings.

The New York Times article offered more examples of intra-activist tension, then added that “no one involved with the march fears that the rancor will dampen turnout; even many of those who expressed dismay at the tone of the discussion said they still intended to join what is sure to be the largest demonstration yet against the Trump presidency.” If that is indeed the ultimate outcome it will be blessedly rational. There is no reason that people who disagree, even deeply, on the wisdom or optimal contours of intersectional feminism cannot also agree to cooperate fully in opposing Trump. Which faction is correct need not affect this cooperation.

Yet large swaths of the right and left, including extremely thoughtful, well-intentioned observers of the American scene, are behaving as if such cooperation is impossible. Even those who purport to reject all kinds of identity politics are unwittingly presuming its supremacy in their analysis. Comparing Meryl Streep, who delivered a message to a room full of Hollywood liberals who were certain to applaud it, and Mark Lilla, who published a broadside against identity politics in the New York Times that many on the left were sure to attack, Rod Dreher writes, “Meryl Streep is not a brave liberal. Michael Eric Dyson is not a brave liberal. Mark Lilla is a brave liberal.”

There’s a salvageable insight there. Only Lilla risked the ire of his own tribe, and that does require admirable traits. Still, is it more brave to suffer the zings of woke Twitter than to humiliate a famously vindictive personality poised to be the most powerful head of state on the planet? Odds are the actress and the academic will both be fine, but fearing criticism from a faction that holds most of its power on social media more than a combative leader in a world where such people sometimes keep enemies’ lists makes no sense.

Meanwhile, down in the comments of that same post, a leftist Rod Dreher reader declares that he’s glad the woman who’s no longer attending the anti-Trump rally will stay home:

No one is mourning the loss of the woman you quoted. She was never truly “on our side.” She was, very likely, the kind of too-comfortable person who was happy to go along with the removal of industrial employment and it’s replacement with poverty-wage service jobs for reasons of economic efficiency. She was likely the kind of person who was so afraid of minorities doing crimes that she was prepared to countenance the warehousing of all those surplus men in the American gulag. She is not a loss to any movement aimed at historical rectification in favor of equality.

Perhaps if this individual marches alone down the street the unprecedented purity of his demonstration will persuade all who see him that his politics are the only way forward. But I’d place my bets on a massive anti-Trump march full of hopelessly impure rogues.

There is no crisis caused by debating identity politics or anything that falls under its rubric from any direction. But a crisis will come if that debate is weighted so heavily that those on opposite sides proceed as if they could not possibly share any values, agree on any goals, retain any respect for one another, or cooperate at all, even as their shared political opponent, who exercises orders of magnitude more power than all of them combined, behaves in ways that all regard as catastrophic for the United States.

A large, diverse cohort of Americans have reservations about the presidency of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote by 2.9 million, strikes many who did vote for him as a highly flawed “lesser of two evils,” and has a dismal 37 percent approval rating. They should treat those reservations as if they matter commensurate with their gravity, breaking ingrained culture war habits that are no longer rational.