Like most Americans today, I occupy a bubble. My friends, family, colleagues and neighbors all tend to see political reality largely the way I see it.
So I was taken aback–floored, really–by a conversation I had during a weekend visit to New Buffalo, Michigan. Our daughter and son-in-law had treated us to the visit and a tour of the 1932 World Fair’s “Homes of the Future” sponsored by Indiana Landmarks. We were staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and while I was getting coffee, I chatted with a guest who turned out to be from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis.
What began as a cordial exchange devolved when he mentioned that he “loved” President Trump. (I’m sorry to report that I didn’t bite my tongue; I suggested he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid, and he stomped off.)
This encounter bothered me immensely. Here was a person who was obviously comfortable financially, who didn’t look like someone who ignored the news, or was mentally incapacitated. Why would he “love” this pathetic excuse for a human?
My husband’s theory was that Trump justifies the guy’s probable racism, but the exchange was still rankling when I read Peter Wehner’s column in Monday’s New York Times, titled “What’s the Matter with Republicans?”
One might hope that some of the party’s elected officials would forcefully condemn the president on the grounds that there is now demonstrable evidence that he had crossed an ethical line and abused his power in ways even beyond what he had done previously, which was problematic enough.
But things are very different today than they were in the summer of ’74. Mr. Trump was on to something when he famously said, during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.? It’s, like, incredible.” What most people took to be hyperbole turned out to be closer to reality.
Wehner–who was formerly a staunch Republican–then asked the same question I had asked: why? What would account for continued fealty to someone who is not only a demonstrably unfit President, but a truly repulsive human being with what Wehner accurately describes as “a mobster’s mentality”?
Why, then, are so many Republicans yet again circling the Trump wagon rather than taking this opportunity to denounce what the president did and declare some independence from him by doing so? Why has Mr. Trump, an ethical wreck of a man both before and after he reached the White House, earned such fealty from Republicans?
Wehner says it isn’t policy, and I agree.
Understanding the close compact between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party starts with acknowledging the false hope many establishment Republicans placed in the shady real estate mogul as he rose to power. They misdiagnosed the individual they were dealing with, assuming that Mr. Trump would “grow in office” and that they, the “adults in the room,” would be able to control and contain him. At the outset of this unholy alliance, they were convinced they would change Mr. Trump more than Mr. Trump would change them. But the transformation turned out to be in them, not him.
Wehner acknowledges that politicians’ self-interest is threatened by the loyalty of the GOP base to Trump. But what accounts for the devotion of that base–of people like the man I had encountered?
As a conservative-leaning clinical psychologist I know explained to me, when new experiences don’t fit into an existing schema — Mr. Trump becoming the leader of the party that insisted on the necessity of good character in the Oval Office when Bill Clinton was president, for example — cognitive accommodation occurs.
When the accommodation involves compromising one’s sense of integrity, the tensions are reduced when others join in the effort. This creates a powerful sense of cohesion, harmony and group think. The greater the compromise, the more fierce the justification for it — and the greater the need to denounce those who call them out for their compromise. “In response,” this person said to me, “an ‘us versus them’ mentality emerges, sometimes quite viciously.”
“What used to be a sense of belonging,” I was told, “devolves into primitive tribalism, absolute adherence to the leader over adherence to a code of ethics.”…
As the psychologist I spoke to put it to me, many Republicans “are nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves pre-Trump. At this stage it’s less about defending Trump; they are defending their own defense of Trump.”
“At this point,” this person went on, “condemnation of Trump is condemnation of themselves. They’ve let too much go by to try and assert moral high ground now. Calling out another is one thing; calling out yourself is quite another.”
And then there’s that shared racism….