The vast majority of commentary about Donald Trump’s tweets centers on Trump: What do they say about his state of mind? Do they signal a change in American policy? Will he follow through on his threats? Is he a master media manipulator or just angry? Is he playing nine-dimensional chess or is he simply undisciplined and impulsive?
I want to focus on another question entirely: What are Trump’s tweets doing to the political character of his Republican supporters?
Yes, Trump has some set-piece speeches, and yes he still holds the occasional rally, but he stubbornly clings to his smartphone as a direct line to voters. His tweets reach beyond the relatively small slice of Americans who read political Twitter. They’re reproduced in hundreds of news articles, they dominate cable news, and their substance spreads across America in countless debates and arguments. In short, they define our national political conversation.
They are also often absurd and unhinged.
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
It shouldn’t take a lawyer to note that any action to challenge “licenses” on this basis would be unconstitutional. It’s Civics 101: The First Amendment protects press freedom, and that protection is easily broad enough to encompass any effort to silence journalists simply because the president believes their work is “partisan, distorted and fake.”
Yet, incredibly, across the country rank-and-file Republicans react to such messages not by rebuking Trump but by trying to find a way to rationalize or justify them. Many go even further, joining Trump in his attacks regardless of their merit. These folks are degrading their political character to defend Trump, and the damage they do to their own credibility and their party’s in the process will endure long after he has departed from the political scene.
Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage — and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time. If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately.
And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight — and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against — that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for. It’s as if millions of Christians have forgotten a basic biblical admonition: “Be angry and do not sin.” Don’t like the media? Shut it down. Don’t like kneeling football players? Make them stand. Tired of American weakness overseas? Cheer incoherent and reckless tweets as evidence of “strength.”
The result is a festival of blatant and grotesque hypocrisy. Republicans are right now in the process of demanding that every Democrat and every progressive celebrity of any consequence denounce Harvey Weinstein. Yet when Donald Trump faced serial accusations of sexual assault after being caught on tape bragging that he liked to grope women, many of these same members of the Republican base were furious at those conservatives who expressed alarm. When serial sexual-harassment allegations claimed the careers of Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, many of these same members of the Republican base accused the media of “taking scalps.”
On a vast scale, members of the Republican base are defending behavior from Trump that would shock and appall them if it came from a Democratic president.
On a vast scale, members of the Republican base are defending behavior from Trump that would shock and appall them if it came from a Democratic president. There is of course always a measure of hypocrisy in politics — partisanship can at least partially blind us all. But the scale here beggars belief. Republicans never would tolerate a Democratic president’s firing an FBI director who was investigating the president’s close aides and then misleading the American people about the reason for that firing. They would never tolerate a Democratic president’s specifically calling for unconstitutional reprisals against his political enemies. They would look at similar chaos and confusion in a Democratic White House and fear a catastrophe.
Even worse, Republicans are — to borrow my friend Greg Lukianoff’s excellent phrase — “unlearning liberty.” For example, for many years conservatives focused on ways to protect free speech, an essential liberty under attack from intolerant campus leftists and a larger progressive establishment that labeled dissent as “phobic” or bigoted. Now? Republicans defend Trump’s demands for terminations and economic boycotts against football players who engage in speech he doesn’t like. “Well, it’s not technically illegal,” they say, knowing full well the chilling effect such language will have and knowing full well that they would be howling in anger if President Obama had ever expressed a similar desire to squelch, say, Tim Tebow’s prayers. They know full well that they condemn progressive corporations who use their economic power to squelch dissent. Republicans even defend direct calls for unconstitutional reprisals against members of the press.
“He fights,” they say. And they relish the liberal tears.
It’s been said countless times because it’s true: Politics and law are downstream from culture. For the sake of short-term political victories — for the sake of protecting a single American president — Republicans have shown themselves willing to help change the culture to one that declares, with one voice (Left and Right), “Free speech for me, but not for thee.” Unless the GOP base changes course — there’s still time, by the way — and demands that its president embody the constitutional values that are supposed to define the party, the degradation of our culture and of long-standing respect for the Constitution will outlive even the memory of any given political debate.
News cycles come and go. Presidents come and go. The Constitution — and the culture of liberty it is supposed to protect — must remain. Is it worth unlearning liberty to defend Trump’s tweets? Millions seem to think so. Millions are wrong.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.