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What Did They Think Would Happen?

Actually, character does count.
June 1, 2020
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(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

An awful lot of Trump’s defenders in conservative media appear to be shocked by what is happening right now in America.

But I’m kind of curious. What did they think was going to happen?

The president has a real job. His words have real consequences. Electing someone to that position who has no compunction about stoking racial tensions and a history of incendiary, violent, racist rhetoric—and totally uninterested in even the idea of national unity—was always a ticking time bomb.

None of this is to absolve the looters and rioters—they should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But no one should be surprised that we’ve gotten to this point.

There was always going to be an intervening event, be it police violence or economic strife, that would reawaken our country’s underlying racial tensions and inequity. In a country with our history – with our present – this might be the most predictable catastrophe in history.

The argument made in 2016 by conservatives who thought that Trump was manifestly unfit for the job went something like this:

Sure, we might get judges and tax cuts. But the potential downside of having a senescent, wannabe gangster as president of the United States is that (1) he might push us into a constitutional crisis and that (2) if he’s confronted with a real-world crisis, there’s a non-zero chance he could cause radical, real-world harm.

Well, here we are.

These possibilities seemed so obvious then that I could never tell if the people denying them were really blind, or if they were working overtime to pretend not to see them.

Did they really think that putting a man bereft of character, decency, and empathy in charge of the country wouldn’t make a difference?

Did they really think that dismissing each instance of his racism, bullying, fecklessness, megalomania, corruption, lies, and stupidity it wouldn’t have a cumulative effect?

Trump accommodators, of both the direct and indirect variety, will scoff at the idea that what is happening to the country right now is in any way related to Trump’s incompetent and toxic performance.

They have to scoff. Because to admit that Trump played any part in bringing us to this moment is to admit culpability for the role they played all the times they covered for him because, you know, Gorsuch. So instead they tweet outrage at the cities on fire and the protestors in the street with a studied blindness to the fact that this is the logical conclusion—to paraphrase John Heilemann—of putting a pyromaniac in charge of a tinder box.

What did they think was going to happen?

We have an incurious narcissist of a president who was warned over and over by his advisors about an imminent pandemic. He ignored them. Then he engaged in “one day it will just disappear” wishcasting instead of spearheading a coordinated federal response. Then he said that he “take[s] no responsibility.”

What did they think was going to happen?

This pandemic has left more than 104,000 dead in 12 weeks and sparked an economic crisis that has pushed 40 million into unemployment. And during this time the president used his bully pulpit not to rally the country to unity or try to vent some of the pressure that was building up in our communities, but to promote fake medical cures, push fake Obama scandals, and to spread conspiracy theories about a fake murder.

What did they think was going to happen?

You may remember that time when the president told American congresswomen of color to “go back to where they came from.” Or the time he told cops not to “be too nice” when arresting suspects. Or the time he laughed when one of his supporters suggested shooting immigrants. Or all the times he told his followers to punch people he didn’t like.

Donald Trump has spent his entire political career using maximally divisive, racially charged, rhetoric that glorifies violence while winking and nodding to those eager to receive the high-pitched dog-whistle of hate.

What did they think was going to happen?

The president’s behavior sets the tone for the country. When the president lacks restraint, he creates permission structures for less restraint from everyone down the chain—politicians, cops, citizens. When the president lacks character, there is a vacuum of leadership. And chaos always fills that void. When the president relishes violence and promises to unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on protesters, we should not be shocked when things escalate.

Again, I’m not excusing the looting and rioting. The people committing that violence should be held accountable for their crimes. But this isn’t an either/or situation. You can hold those people responsible and also hold the president accountable for the toxic atmosphere he has recklessly nurtured.

And you can hold to account the people who, for reasons of either convenience, or ideology, or profit, made themselves willfully blind to what Trump has been doing.

As a young conservative in the ‘90s and early aughts I was told, over and over (and to this day still believe), that “character counts.”

Peggy Noonan once wrote of Ronald Reagan:

In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. White Houses are always full of quick-witted people with ready advice on how to flip a senator or implement a strategy. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks.

But you can’t buy courage and decency, you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.

Well, President Trump didn’t bring any of those things with him. And rather than demand better, conservatives and Republicans surrendered. Many of them eagerly. They put policy over decency. They prioritized political power over everything.

From the day he came down the escalator, Trump promised to burn it all down. And now Conservatism Inc. is surprised the country is on fire?

What did they think was going to happen?

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.