The Wrong Side of Liberty
I did not write the following to add another entry to the Told You So genre. Anyone who has read me for a while knows I like to look back — and that I have a better record with reflection rather than prediction. Remembering the why’s and how’s of a thing make it easier to, say, avoid the same mistake in the future. Knowing now what we didn’t know then is a fine time to ask if it was all worth it. Besides, there are enough I-should’ve-seens for me in the past 5 years to keep me from getting cocky.
It was the summer of 2016 the first time someone called me a traitor. She, a friend to that point, seemed almost panicked that even after all of the other candidates had conceded, I still refused to get behind Donald J. Trump for President of the United States. My unwillingness to follow the party down that ominous path was — somehow — a betrayal of my country, not just the political party, which I was in fact leaving (or being left by, as the old twist on a Reagan quote goes. No matter who left whom, though, the split happened.)
That friend, and many others, told us, the reluctant, that voting for Trump would be worth it. For the price of accepting a man without manners, as they often phrased it, we could get long-wished-for policies enacted. Once in office, other leaders in the party, the top notch advisors he would appoint, and thought leaders at now established right leaning publications would hold him to account on his excesses. They would be his conscience.
That we did not believe any of this somehow made us the problem, which did not bode well for their promises. I can’t recall the precise phrasing of the early threat to get with the program and defend him publicly or shut up, as I had gone deaf to them at the word “traitor,” but shut up was the demand. How would accountability happen if other conservatives shut up? It would be done, we were told, behind the scenes, by those top notch advisors he’d appoint. Meanwhile, behind those scenes, many of the promised top notch people refused positions. I suspect that many had the experience working with narcissists to know what one sounds like and how things don’t usually end well for anyone. Soon enough, we all got to watch the fun house of the advisor exits and trapdoors whenever those who did accept a job stood up to the man. Accountability was going to be a bust.
Not yet a cynic, but quickly transitioning to pessimist, I resigned two advocacy organizations, one that I headed, because I thought that the policy reforms we sought would be set back by association with the Trump Administration. To start, the populist fervor that swept him into office was eager for quick, showy action. Executive orders fit that bill. Get the president a pen! No need to wait for Congress to act! The problem with EO’s, however — besides how they can blur the line between making law and enforcing law — is that they don’t have reliable staying power. They are a law making sugar rush. The next executive can reverse them for their own quick, showy action. (And in a move that should surprise no one, one of the first pictures the new Biden Administration sent out was of a stack of EO’s on the Resolute Desk, ready for the new presidential pen.)
Furthermore, to the extent President Trump would use EO’s, I did not think he’d use them well. It took about a week for me to feel good about that assessment. At the time I was still writing at a once-promising publication, and my first piece after the inauguration covered the immigration EO that was so poorly executed that it drew a national injunction against the policy. It was many hearings and about 18 months later before that week-one priority program went into effect, in reduced form. For the supporters of tightening immigration, it was not one of those teased wins of which there would be so many that Republicans would tire of winning.
It should have been obvious then, but clearly was not, that any policies associated with this White House could end up delayed, shrunken, abandoned, tainted, enjoined, repealed, or any combination there of, courtesy of the methods of the man without manners. Yet, any reminders about holding him accountable fell like the tree in the forest that no one was around to hear.
The prospect of power to enact those long wished for policies made his supporters deaf to all but superficial objections. I’m still stunned, four years later, by the speed at which this happened to individuals. On a Monday, I could commiserate with a collegue about our dismay at Trump’s rise. On Wednesday, we could cover our growing dread at resigning ourselves to become a supporter for the sake of policy. Then on Friday, I’d field a call from that same collegue, a new and fully functional Trump cheerleader. I understood the reasoning of the from-the-start Trump supporters better than I understood these switches in rapid time.
For those of us who remained reluctant — and our numbers did shrivel like a Shrinky Dink in a hot oven in the early days of the Trump era — there wasn’t much we could do once his supporters decided to stop listening. It is a fatal threshold in any persuasive endeavor, the not-listening. Whether they didn’t think anything was wrong or didn’t want to acknowledge any wrongness lest it weaken their newfound power, the result was the same: we couldn’t reach them.
Worse, the opposition had gone just as deaf. As the initial shock of the 2016 election faded, so did the resolve to seek out and understand Trump’s appeal to his voters, which wasn’t merely about He Fights. It started being about what He Fights for, which incidentally couldn’t all be shoved into some White Supremacy catch-all category. There were ideas and ideals, good ones, driving some of his support, but Trump’s persona was so large that everything got lost in being good because He Fights or bad because Orange Man Bad.
Ultimately, abstractly, this is why the Trumpian bargain would never be worth it. Ideas should matter. For a handful of policy enactments — most of them reversible, as the new Biden Administration has begun to demonstrate — the ideas got forgotten. Today, we must remember they exist before we can attempt to pull them out the layers of muck that now cover them.
I confess, I doubted my decision to leave the party, my organizations, and writing on a few occasions the bargain seemed well struck. It’s a lonely, few-man’s-land out here in the libertarian localism neighborhood, and that’s before the chill of my own mistakes seep in. But only now, at the end, can we really ask if it was worth it.
Policies and achievements of the past administration face retraction not only because Trump lost and the Democrats have other policy preferences, but also because the policies are of Trump Administration and will not be allowed to stand out of spite, revenge, or righteous anger. The politics of personality reigns, and we face our third — and habit setting — case of whiplash by pen and phone, of rule by executive order. Apologists for this administration — once some of the brightest stars on the right — have lost credibility of consequence. Besides the judicial appointments, which will not deliver the social mandates those who struck the bargain seek, or the new collations in the Middle East, which we can only hope are already set enough to survive in a hostile environment, what of Trumpism will remain to make these last four years worth it?
Many times over this term, my husband and I have mulled these problems in our bathroom. (An odd setting, perhaps, but that is where we usually talk about big ideas, I suppose because we’ve finally gotten our teenage children trained not to barge into our bathroom and so we are interrupted less often.) Sometime in all of the incessant federal drama, Jim got frustrated with the careless and casual tossing about of the idea of being on the wrong side of history. The idea is based in the naive notion that history always bends toward progress. No, it doesn’t. Humans, certainly ones who drive history, tend to do horrible things to each other. The arc of history is arbitrary at best and getting on the wrong side of it is highly subjective. Better, my husband suggested, to aim to be on the right side of liberty.
Was that our aim these past years? Is it our aim now? How we answer those questions can help us figure out how to go forward.