President Trump looks to be set on the idea of pardoning war criminals as a perverse sort of Memorial Day gift.
He recently issued a pardon for a soldier convicted of the unlawful execution of a suspected al Qaeda fighter in Iraq, and he now seems to be gearing up for a preemptive pardon of former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was turned in by his fellow SEALs, who accused him of wantonly and indiscriminately murdering unarmed civilians. President Trump has already ordered Gallagher’s pre-trial conditions to be improved “in honor of his past service.” So that gives you an idea of his attitude toward the case.
Does all this talk about pardons constitute a considered judgment on Trump’s part that summary executions and terrorizing civilians are acceptable policies? Or that the actions of these specific defendants were justified? I doubt it. It looks more likely that these are simply the sort of people he feels he is expected to defend, the type whose side he is expected to take, without the need to look too closely at the details.
President Trump’s fascination with, and awe of, the military—despite or perhaps because of the fact that he himself avoided service—is well-documented. Remember all the generals he used to have in his administration? He likes people he sees as “tough” and wants to be accepted by them. So you can see how this would be his way of sending the message that he supports the troops.
This also provides us with a little perspective on Trump’s weakness for the “very fine people” of the racist “alt-right.” When I analyzed Trump’s comments praising these “very fine people” at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, I got a lot of angry responses accusing me of trying to “read minds” to figure out the intentions in Donald Trump’s head. In fact, I was focused only on the objective meaning of his words.
But I think we can make some good guesses at his motive and state of mind. We cannot directly introspect into someone else’s psyche, but can make reasonable inferences from his words and actions.
So let’s start by noting that we have a pattern. It’s not just one stray comment from 2017 that we’re talking about. It’s Trump’s recent insistence on repeating the idea that there were “very fine people” at a Nazi march.
Then there is Trump going to bat for conspiracy theorists and racists—the unscrupulous dregs of online publishing—after they were kicked off of Facebook.
Trump did not merely defend them on free speech grounds (as misdirected as that might be). He didn’t deplore what they say, but stand up for their right to say it. He defended guys such as Alex Jones and Paul Nehlen as “conservatives” who were being unfairly targeted—that is, as his ideological allies.
He has sympathetically retweeted Lauren Southern, a purveyor of racist “white genocide” conspiracy theories.
He describes Alex Jones’s protégé Paul Joseph Watson as a “conservative thinker.”
Edmund Burke was a conservative thinker. Russell Kirk, for better or worse, was a conservative thinker. You could describe William F. Buckley as a conservative thinker. But Paul Joseph Watson, a guy who believes in chemtrails?
And yet as far as Trump is concerned, these are all “very fine people,” too.
How to explain President Trump’s moth-to-the-flame fascination with the crazy and ugly fringes of the right?
For my own part, I don’t attribute it to any explicit, ideological racism. Donald Trump is not an ideological person—and that seems to be the actual root of the problem. The pattern I see is that Trump seems to regard it as his job to defend “his side”—his people—which he defines not in ideological terms but, in practice, as anyone who is being attacked by the same enemies. He doesn’t know or care so much what they stand for, or who is a real “conservative thinker.” It’s a kind of blind tribal loyalty, with Trump in the role of the tribal champion.
It’s the same kind of motive we can see with the war-crime pardons. He feels he has to defend the troops, without feeling any need to make sure which of them served honorably and which didn’t. They are a group he regards, or wants to regard, as “his.” So his job is to back them up, right or wrong.
In retrospect, the crucial moment was when Trump and his supporters began to describe themselves as “Deplorables.” This was in response to a gaffe by Hillary Clinton in which she broke the 47 Percent Rule inadvertently set by Mitt Romney in 2012: Never say anything that seems to insult or disparage a large portion of the voting public. You can rail against tiny subgroups: against the “one percent,” or the “elites,” or Hollywood, or Wall Street.
But if you write off half the country, they just might return the favor.
And yet, if you examine what Clinton actually said, she didn’t intend to target all Trump supporters, just those who are specifically “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.” Her mistake was in being “grossly generalistic” and attributing these views to “half of Trump’s supporters”—which was about a one quarter of the general population.
Trump then had an opportunity to set a non-tribal tone with his response. He could have rejected the “deplorable” label, dismissed the casual accusation of racism, and then made good on that by plausibly and unambiguously rejecting the small number of outright racists who had glommed onto his campaign.
Instead, Trump leaned in to the deplorability, and quickly afterward his campaign passed on a Twitter meme that listed among the pro-Trump “Deplorables”: Alex Jones, alt-right apologist Milo Yiannopoulos, and “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon character appropriated by white nationalists, who also used him in the posters for their Charlottesville rally.
Trump may have been sending a “dog whistle” to the racists. But he might also have seen it simply as his job to defend the common man against the condescension of the elites. To stand up for anybody Hillary Clinton insulted. And to do so without bothering to find out who was, and wasn’t, actually deplorable.
This is my Grand Unified Theory of Deplorability.
In both cases, Trump has been acting from a kind of tribalist sense of loyalty: These are my people and I must defend them, right or wrong.
And the more wrong they are, the more compelled he is to defend them, because that’s what he sees as his job: Standing up for the people the “elites” see as deplorable. It’s the behavior we would expect from someone who substitutes tribal loyalty for ideas and principles.
Does it matter that much why he gives aid and comfort to racists? Does it matter if he he does it because he’s a secret Klansman, or if he just does it because he thinks he’s getting back at the “Fake News” media?
Does it matter if he pardons an accused war criminal because he likes “tough measures” that include indiscriminate slaughter, rather than simply because he’s in awe of men in uniform and wants to be seen as standing on their side?
The damage to the country and the corruption of our culture are the same either way.
I’m sure that in his own mind, in his self-image, Donald Trump is just standing up for decent, regular folks against the forces of Political Correctness. But this would not be the first time there is a big gap between Trump’s self-image and reality.
In the end, his subjective motives and rationalizations don’t matter. What matters is the objective reality of his actions.