When Deplorability Is No Longer a Dealbreaker

A case study in the political right’s capitulation to Trump, and the threat it poses to its political future.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Last month, Mollie Hemingway, the Fox News contributor and senior editor at The Federalist, declared herself a Donald Trump supporter for the first time. “I wasn’t a Trump supporter,” the headline of her Washington Post op-ed stated. “I am now.”

She cited his actions on judicial nominees, climate policy, regulatory reform, tax cuts, guidelines on how colleges should adjudicate sexual assault, and foreign policy.

Large swaths of the Republican Party and the conservative movement have now reconciled themselves to supporting President Trump, including figures far more famous, powerful, and influential than any journalist. A strong case could be made that this particular endorsement didn’t really change anything, especially since its author was already openly anti-anti-Trump in her orientation.

Still, if the GOP loses the ability to win elections during the next decade because its leadership has lost the trust of too many people in too many groups—Latinos, blacks, Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants, anti-racists, anti-sexists, citizens who worry about the minimum civic virtues a republic requires to thrive—I will recall her endorsement as an illustration of how it happened.

None of the beliefs she affirmatively endorses is deplorable. Indeed, if all Americans were like Mollie Hemingway, neither racism nor sexism would be a problem in America. But it matters that thought-leaders like her no longer consider deplorability a dealbreaker. They can no longer be trusted to oppose racism or sexism. With a civic arsonist in the White House, they decline to summon the fire department.

In short, they have become irresponsible citizens.

Were Hemingway oblivious to Trump’s least defensible qualities, or the damage that his comportment does to America’s civic fabric—matters to which many enthusiastic Trump supporters are oblivious—her posture would be less damning. Who can blame someone for failing to oppose that which they don’t see?

But she saw his flaws clearly and chose to support him anyway.

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils, or to do too little to oppose him. It is quite another to support and extol Trump, despite his deplorable behavior, because he has advanced a domestic agenda that accords with one’s policy preferences. “My expectations were low—so low that he could have met them by simply not being President Clinton,” Hemingway declared. “But a year into this presidency, he’s exceeded those expectations by quite a bit. I’m thrilled.”

Ponder what it means to be thrilled, knowing what she knows.

Hemingway knows that Trump rose to power denigrating Muslims, praising authoritarians, and stoking violence at his campaign rallies. While criticizing Clinton, she acknowledged Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims is “extreme” and “also dangerous.” In office, Trump has retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda films posted by a far-right politician in Europe and imposed a travel ban targeted at Muslim countries that initially barred even existing visa holders from reentry. “The rollout was arbitrary and capricious,” Hemingway herself declared of that attempt at a travel ban, “and therefore a threat to the rule of law.”

Why would Muslim Americans, or anyone who values their own liberty, trust a coalition that recognizes Trump’s campaign-trail bigotry, elevates him anyway, sees his subsequent disregard for the rule of law, and still feels thrilled at his tenure?

Hemingway has written with clarity about Trump’s behavior on matters having to do with comportment, rather than policy, and their effect on American culture. “I fear the republic is lost,” she wrote after one of Trump’s debate performances. “We are an uneducated people that praise ignorance, celebrity, and entertainment over statesmanship. We are degenerates, immoral, and lost. We the people have not acted as those concerned about preserving the gift of self-government. The fraying fabric of society is putting the republic at risk.”

Hemingway also called Trump “a narcissist who takes no responsibility for the negative consequences of his ill-conceived and incoherent verbal spews.”

In office, Trump’s comportment has not changed. In fact, Hemingway’s recent declaration of support for him notes, “Like most people, I don’t particularly like Trump’s rhetorical style, juvenile insults and intemperate disposition—on full display in recent days.” But now that he has shown himself to advance a policy agenda more to her liking than she expected, his comportment and its consequences for the nation elicit a different reaction. “At the same time,” she declares, “having followed his career for decades, I am not surprised that he wakes up each morning as Donald Trump.” As if lack of surprise makes it better!

“Yes, he lies or exaggerates. Yes, he insults people," she once said on Fox News.

“Another great argument to deploy against Trump is that he plays fast and loose with the facts,” Hemingway wrote in the early days of his administration. “This is an easy argument to make because not only does everyone know this, they’ve known it for decades. There are hundreds of examples of his imprecision,” she added, “from claiming without evidence millions of fraudulent votes cast to a larger crowd size at his inauguration, to give two recent examples.”

Why would anyone who values the civic virtues necessary to preserve the republic trust those who cease to care that it is fraying, throwing support to a man they see as a lying, juvenile insult-monger so long as they’re getting their way?

Then there is Trump’s treatment of women.

When he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women during the 2016 campaign, Hemingway wrote, “None of it is particularly surprising for a man who spent decades bragging about his sexual prowess, adultery, handsiness, sexual entitlement, and so on and so forth. That this information is coming out is all so obvious that if you saw all these warning signs—and everyone saw these warning signs—and still supported Trump, you should look inward.” Will Hemingway now look inward the next time Trump mistreats a woman? Trump is “reprobate and immoral,” she wrote back then, adding that “he chose the wanton, unscrupulous lifestyle and bragged about it.”

Even during his presidency she has referred to him as “known perv Trump.” What does it mean for her to write that one month and declare her unsolicited support the next?

It means that her standards have been corrupted.

These are just a fraction of Trump’s flaws—the subset openly acknowledged by Hemingway, who spends most of her time on Fox News and The Federalist attacking the left, the media, and matters that don’t touch on the president. While it is more than sufficient to illustrate that a leading voice on the right has grown comfortable vesting extreme power in a man whose abysmal character is clear to her, a more complete reckoning with what Trump has done goes farther toward clarifying why being tied to him puts the whole Red Tribe in peril.

It may be, for example, that Hemingway, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and focuses on the culture war more than threats to liberty from police, does not devote a lot of thought to Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who Donald Trump pardoned.

But Americans who might be taken to be Mexican or Guatemalan or El Salvadoran by a passing cop may know that Arpaio presided over a law-enforcement agency that routinely violated the civil rights of people of Hispanic descent, including American citizens; that he was investigated by the Department of Justice, who declared that they found one of the worst patterns of racial profiling that they had ever seen; that he was ordered to stop violating the Constitution; that he continued to violate constitutional rights so flagrantly that he was convicted of criminal contempt of court; and that Trump pardoned him for that transgression.

If you were an American of Hispanic origin, would you trust this president or the people who enthusiastically support him to protect your constitutional rights?

That demographic had nothing to fear from Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush, but they’d be wise to fear a Trumpist coalition, and justified in supposing that a commentator like Hemingway would never volunteer support for a politician who treated Christians like her the way that Trump treats Mexicans and Muslims, regardless of what domestic agenda was being pursued.

Racism, sexism, and other bigotries will probably always exist in all of America’s major political coalitions. Misbehavior that undermines the civic fabric will never be eradicated, either. But in the past, most conservative pundits ensured that the Republican Party’s leadership rejected the bigoted pathologies that threaten to tear diverse, pluralistic societies apart. Today, many of the people who once would’ve kept deplorability in check opportunistically embrace a deplorable.

“The Trump nomination may result in principled conservatives leaving the party or laying very low,” Hemingway wrote in 2016, “but if this election has shown anything, it’s that principled conservatives aren’t in nearly as abundant supply as they might wish.” The Trump presidency is showing that principled conservatives are in even shorter supply than they seemed on election day. Like all winning coalitions, the American right is having a hard time imagining how fleeting its political ascendence will be, or the consequences its lack of principle will have in the long term. I expect that its moral failures will echo across American politics for years, undermining the right’s ability to credibly advance its best and worst alike.

When Trumpism ends, as every coalition built around a president must eventually end, will there be enough people on the right unsullied by his indefensible behavior to rebuild? As a fan of free markets and small government I fear not. I fear the right is discrediting itself for a generation, robbing America of the benefits of having two competing ideologies at their respective best.

In the long run, the right’s best hope lies in the shrinking faction of politicians and pundits that is happy to note when it favors a discrete policy pursued by the president, but that remains perspicacious enough to assert the overall posture of Never Trump.