A Distinction without a Difference?

A short, curious post at First Things by R.R. Reno, "Why I'm Anti-Anti-Trump," caught my attention this week. Much of it consists of Reno citing and agreeing with an article by Walter Russell Mead that runs down the failures and limits of the prevailing "American establishment"—Wall Street, Silicon Valley, our great universities and foundations, Hollywood, and more—and how Trump is the candidate for those who blame this establishment for the many problems we face, and don’t believe it is up to the task of addressing them. Our elites, for Mead, are "unusually clueless these days." Or as Reno puts it in a slightly different way, "The Baby Boomer consensus has failed to create a healthy society that works for the majority of Americans, whether that's measured in economic, cultural, or moral terms." Conventional wisdom just won't do anymore. Trump, and his supporters, are rising up and saying "No!" to the status quo.

Fair enough, I suppose. I’d modify this account of Trump’s rise in a few ways, especially when it comes to the conservative movement’s role in mainstreaming fact-free, conspiracy-tinged political ideas, but I understand what Mead and Reno mean. Here, for example, is a representative sample of Mead’s argument:

Myself, I don’t think the system is quite as corrupt as some Trump supporters believe or, perhaps more accurately, I lack their confidence that burning down the old house is the best way to build something new. But it would be equally wrong and perhaps more dangerous to take the view that there is nothing more fueling his rise than ignorance, racism and hate. The failure of the center-Left to transform its institutional and intellectual dominance into policy achievements that actually stabilize middle class life, and the failure of the center-Right to articulate a workable alternative have left a giant intellectual and political vacuum in the heart of American life. The Trump movement is not an answer to our problems, but the social instinct of revolt and rejection that powers it is a sign of social health.

I nodded along with at least some of this, though I certainly don’t believe the “Trump movement” is a sign of “social health.” While it’s true that there is more than just racism and hate behind Trump’s support, there’s far, far too much of it for me to take the relatively benign view of Trump’s ascendency that Mead does. Or to put it differently: I can understand and even sympathize with the plight of many Trump supporters, without excusing their support for a candidate rightfully described as “semi-fascist,” or feeling even a trace of approval for Trump himself. I “get” why so many are angry, especially those living in economically depressed areas, but that doesn’t require approving of how that anger has been channeled.

Where I absolutely have to part ways with this line of thinking, though, is when Reno pivots from quoting Mead to make the following assertion about Trump:

He is a very flawed candidate, but the success of his candidacy is not something for us to anguish over. It's good, very good, that he is sweeping away the tired conservative orthodoxies. I hope he can do the same for the even more exhausted liberal orthodoxies in November.

I’m sorry, but we should anguish over Trump’s success, no matter how much any of us might dissent from prevailing orthodoxies, left or right. How could anyone, let alone a prominent Christian intellectual, not recoil at Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, vulgarity, embrace of violence and torture, and vast policy ignorance? And how will one nasty, uninformed failure of a businessman getting the Republican nomination sweep away these orthodoxies, exactly?

But most of all, I read Reno's last sentence about his hopes for November with great disappointment. What is happening in November? A presidential election, of course. What could it mean for Trump to sweep away liberal orthodoxies in November, apart from winning? I honestly couldn't say. Which means I can't see how to read Reno's missive as anything other than a hope for a Trump victory over Hillary Clinton.

That's not anti-anti-Trump. That's simply pro-Trump. What a disgrace.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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