Donald Trump’s candidacy isn’t really about politics, which is why it divides people so deeply. It’s about revenge.
By Tom Nichols
I have been thinking about Peter Wehner’s piece in the New York Times yesterday, in which he talks about the sadness of losing friends over Donald Trump’s candidacy. I have not—yet—lost any friends over Trump, but it’s possible. Unlike Wehner, I am less concerned about it. The Trump campaign is a test of character, and many Americans are failing it.
Put another way, if my opposition to Trump is going to cost me friends, then all I can say is: So be it.
I know people who are voting for Trump, including members of my family. I do not immediately find myself opposed to anyone who would vote for Trump; to the contrary, I find a lot of fertile ground for discussion and argument with conservative friends who disagree with me only about the lengths to which the “never Trump” movement should go. They might not be comfortable with Trump, but they will do anything to stop Hillary Clinton, and I understand that position.
By Now, You Know What You’re Getting
But I find almost nothing to say to people who are full-throated, enthusiastic Trump supporters, especially now. Back in August, I could console myself that most Trump supporters just didn’t know what they were getting into, and that they would return to their senses and regain their decency once they got a look at the unhinged huckster onto whom they’d signed.
All these months later, however, the pretense has to stop.
As Jonathan Last noted recently, an attorney and blogger who calls himself “Thomas Crown” summed up this kind of voter in a recent article. Crown discussed one of his clients, a pseudonymous “Mrs. Martin” who was supporting a Trump she mostly knew through bits and pieces of information, none of them too close to the truth about the actual man. “Mrs. Martin” seems a decent sort, even if I’m having a bit of trouble believing that she’s as untouched by Trump’s reality as she claims.
All these months later, however, the pretense has to stop. Trump’s supporters are voracious consumers of his public and television appearances, and they now know what kind of man he is. With my friends and family who still cling to Trump, I never waver from my insistence, directly and firmly, that they are making a terrible mistake, and that Trump is making them worse people for being involved in his message. I still love them, and they still love me. (I think.)
Friendship With Political Opponents Is Possible
In a lifetime spent in and around politics, I actually haven’t lost many friends over political disagreements. In my academic life, I have always been part of a political minority; I once did a campus radio show with a colleague who admitted happily that during the 1960s he had denounced his father as a class enemy on national television. (He settled into being somewhat more of a conventional liberal 30 years later.) I doubt that being a conservative helped my early career, but few of the people I knew in those days broke even a casual friendship with me.
Trump and his views are ghastly in a way that goes beyond politics.
I also have liberal friends from my days working in politics. We stayed friends even as they and I worked for opposite sides, and while I wrote articles (and speeches for a GOP senator) excoriating their ideas and their party. Much like the sheepdog and the coyote in the old Warner Brothers’ cartoon, we would fight each other during the day, punch the clock, then go out and enjoy a friendship based in a common interest in politics, even if from different sides of the field.
But Trump’s candidacy isn’t really about politics, which is why it divides people so deeply. Trump and his views are ghastly in a way that goes beyond politics. They challenge our human decency and patriotism. That’s why they test not only our political associations but our friendships.
A Rant Is Not a Policy
Yes, fellow conservatives: Trump is worse than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Their policies are liberal, even leftist, often motivated by cheap politics, ego, and political grandstanding. But they are policies, understandable as such and opposable by political means.
There are no real principles on the table here, only Trump’s demagogic stoking of incoherent and even paranoid rage.
Trump’s various rants, by contrast, do not amount to policies. They are ignorant tone poems, bad haikus, streams of words whose content has no real meaning. They’re not positions available either to the GOP or Democrats, because they do not contain a vision of the future over which those parties can fight.
In fact, Trump’s policies are not policies. They’re just feverish revenge fantasies. Trump, a scam artist whose entire career has been based on victimizing the working class, should be the target of that anger. Instead, he is encouraging Americans to turn their hostility away from him and against their fellow citizens, inviting us into a war of all against all over which he will preside as an amused dictator.
The division between Trump’s supporters and the rest of us is not about reconciling our political differences. It is not about opposing policies we hate. (Most of Trump’s policies are actually quite liberal, but that is irrelevant.) There are no real principles on the table here, only Trump’s demagogic stoking of incoherent and even paranoid rage.
Revenge Destroys Friendships
This is what destroys friendships. Trump’s supporters are now like roaring drunks in a bar fight, people who you might have tried to reason with five drinks earlier but now are just lashing out at everyone in every direction. Pumped up on talk radio conspiracies, overdosing on the venom of Sean Hannity and Judge Jeannine, comatose with irrational fury, they are no longer part of any sensible political debate in America.
Trump’s supporters are now like roaring drunks in a bar fight, people who you might have tried to reason with five drinks earlier.
This blind madness puts both political and emotional distance between Trump supporters and the rest of us. Most conservatives have already told Trump that we will not sell our character as Americans, and indeed our very souls, just to feel the pleasure of resentful anger for a few months. All we can do is to keep trying to talk our friends out of making that very mistake, or at best to hope that buyer’s remorse will set in.
Still, if anyone who knows me really believes I am now a traitor to my country because of the way I’m going to vote, then I can do without their friendship. If they end their relationship with me because Donald Trump has identified people like me as the source of their problems, then maybe we were not that close in the first place.
In the end, I can only say it again: if I lose a friend only because I am opposed to man who is, in my view, a mortal enemy of everything American, then so be it.
Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter, @RadioFreeTom.