“Flexible” or “Pretzel”?

Fairly often, readers or other acquaintances inform me that although they may agree with my negative assessment of Donald Trump on its face, they cannot understand why I have thus far failed to recognize the special conditions of this historical moment that require the “grassroots conservative” to adopt a more flexible attitude in order to match Trump’s uniquely flexible style of governance.

The difference between their perspective and mine, it increasingly seems to me, hinges on the evaluative element of our respective views of Trump’s changeability, which they choose to assess as an unorthodox management style, while I assess it as evidence of a fundamental lack of principle, purpose, or seriousness about anything other than his own ego. That is to say, whereas his supporters see him as approaching exceptional problems in suitably pragmatic ways, I see him as a man motivated primarily by an almost maniacally immature need to be liked and admired.

These good acquaintances concede that Trump is often abrasive, insulting, childish, prone to rash decisions and equally rash reversals, and lacking any well-developed political convictions to guide his actions. If they cannot concede that much — that is, if they have joined the “multi-dimensional chess” fantasists — then I cannot discuss these matters with them at all, as they have simply chosen to close their eyes to anything but Trump, which is to say they are no longer thinking strategically or even politically, but have merely joined a cult.

Insofar as they do continue to concede the obvious about Trump, but nevertheless reject my conclusion that he is almost as bad a president as he is a human being — and being a bad president is much more dangerous and disturbing than being a bad human being, from the societal point of view — the divide between us appears to be reducible to this: They insist that continuing to support and justify Trump requires only a new kind of flexibility; I, on the other hand, insist that it requires a willingness to turn oneself into a moral and intellectual pretzel.

Flexible or pretzel? That is the basic question on the table for those of us trying to decide how to align ourselves regarding the peculiar event that is the Trump presidency. Here are a few obvious instantiations of this question.

When Trump began to assemble his administration in the months following his election, supporters regularly shoved each new appointment in the faces of Trump’s conservative detractors — the so-called NeverTrumpers — saying, “See? You said he would surround himself with establishment cronies and swamp dwellers, but in fact he has chosen yet another strong, principled man of experience.” Now, as Trump routinely ridicules his appointees publicly, and then fires them publicly — that is, without so much as the dignity of a private face-to-face meeting — the same people say, “See, he’s draining the swamp as he said he would.”

Flexible or pretzel?

During his primary campaign, Trump routinely fired up his base with feisty rhetoric about deporting illegal immigrants and making Mexico pay for a wall to block them out. When some of us politely pointed out that this rhetoric was belied by his and his surrogates’ quieter qualifications indicating that in fact he was in favor of a broad amnesty for illegals, his supporters scoffed and told us we were deliberately twisting his words. Now, when Trump has turned out to be, quantitatively speaking, the most pro-amnesty president in U.S. history, these supporters answer the NeverTrumpers’ chorus of “I told you so!” by saying, “Well, of course you can’t just deport all those Dreamers,” or “He never said he was going to deport all of them,” or “Look how he’s running circles around the Democrats on DACA.”

Flexible or pretzel?

During the 2016 campaign, perhaps the three biggest reasons to fear a Hillary Clinton presidency — the main reasons non-cultish Trump voters voted for him in the first place — were Clinton’s frequent hardline statements advocating unprecedented violations of the letter and spirit of the Second Amendment, the likelihood that she would further entrench the underlying (and unconstitutional) premise of Obamacare (viz. that government-regulated medicine is necessary and viable), and the certainty that she would push for citizenship for illegals. Now that Trump has aggressively co-opted all three of those positions from Hillary’s playbook — and even worse, in the sense that he has made all three into Republican positions — these once-reluctant Trump supporters are saying, “Isn’t it brilliant how Trump is stealing issues from the Democrats and leaving them confused and disarmed?”

Flexible or pretzel?

Throughout the Obama presidency, conservatives of the “grassroots” variety railed against the progressive transformation of American society toward the elevation of amoral gratification over moderation, shameless vulgarity over decency, gross materialism and acquisitiveness over moral virtue, and unmanly nastiness over masculine strength and civility. Now, to state the obvious, America’s tone is being set by a president who has, for decades, been perhaps America’s single most internationally recognizable icon of amoral gratification, shameless vulgarity, gross materialism and acquisitiveness, and unmanly nastiness — in defense of which his supporters are saying, “At the moment we needed it, God has sent us a fighter!” 

Flexible or pretzel?

You be the judge. For what it’s worth, I have not yet seen any reason to regret my own judgment.

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