| by James A. Lindsay |
“What do you mean, our end-of-year bonuses?!”
My friend works for a relatively large company that manufactures and distributes mobile and modular homes. Many of its employees voted for Donald Trump and support him. Prognosticating experts suggested they’d suffer from Trump’s policies, though not nearly as much as others, but they didn’t believe it. Some are starting to.
Some twelve days and about a hundred fevered news cycles ago, an hour after Donald Trump left his inaugural stage, he signed his first executive order. It cancels a planned reduction to the rate most not-wealthy homeowners would have to contribute to the Federal Housing Authority’s mandatory insurance program. President Obama had introduced the order, which for many Americans would save them a few hundred dollars a year when attempting to purchase a home.
“Yeah, our end-of-year bonuses are determined in part based on how the company’s sales go for the year, and the projections they made based upon the old policy have been updated for President Trump’s FHA order. This change hits our market demographic hard, so our end-of-year bonuses might only be a quarter or a third of what they usually are this year,” my friend explained. “One signature from Trump on his first day, and I lose my annual bonus. People at the office aren’t happy with Trump anymore.”
This story is a roadmap. It tells us something about how and when we should criticize Trump, especially how liberals and progressives should.
We must reach to people, especially Republicans who support or supported Trump, and indicate ways Trump’s actions are hurting them — doing so only in terms that are clear and make sense to them. It does us little or no good to target liberal or progressive ideals being trampled by Trump’s administration, or worse, speculative inflated perceptions of these problems. Trump’s supporters elected him to repudiate progressivism, or they don’t care. “He’s harming Muslims” or “he’s harming LGBT” is infinitely less effective than “he’s hurting the economy,” “he’s separating families,” or “he’s eroding your civil liberties,” where the “your” means those who support him. Most of all, every criticism so delivered must be calm, measured, unambiguous, and true.
Why should we want to criticize Trump, though? He’s president now, and it’s a valid question. There are a few reasons.
First, we should always deliver fair criticism to political power as the exercise of an essential right in a free society. Trump is not Dear Leader and cannot be allowed to pretend it, even for a minute. Moreover, it is a bedrock American value to hold our elected officials to the highest scrutiny, especially when they don’t want it, particularly when there’s any scent of corruption, incompetence, or authoritarianism in the air.
Second, Trump’s own behavior — from his campaign rhetoric, to his first actions in office, to his temperament, to his apparent cronyism and bent toward authoritarian behavior — demand valid criticism. Much of what he has said or done is not merely impolitic; it’s legitimately terrifying to any free society. Though many already do, not all of his supporters see it, and they deserve help in that.
Third, as he is President of the United States, we should all want Trump to succeed in his office, or at least not perform catastrophically. Confidence in him is justifiably low, but there were enough hints around the edges to convince many pundits that he may pivot toward more moderate politics under the gravity of the office (though the baleful influence of Bannon on the president is deeply concerning). Whether this is likely or not is also unclear, but if it is to happen, it will only happen in response to the pressure of his base or as a result of Congress moderating him (which means his party in Congress moderating him, as they control it). Only valid criticisms that are appropriately applied have any hope of creating that much-needed political pressure on President Trump or the GOP-controlled Congress. Congress will not act effectively in this way unless the Republican base— their voters — supports it.
To learn how to create that pressure, however, we need to appreciate a rather disgusting fact. For some who voted for Trump, the brand of vindictive political nihilism he stoked throughout his campaign forms the central reason they voted for him. For many others, it was a nontrivial element in the mix of reasons that led them to overcome their general distaste for him. “The liberals will hate him even more than I do,” might summarize the general sentiment, and it’s disturbingly mainstream in his base of support. That is, Trump was elected to some significant degree specifically to spite liberals, and it appears the populist celebrity and innate contrarian in our new Chief Executive fully appreciates it. He acts accordingly, spiting liberals and especially progressives, and his base cheers him on. (If he’s truly a narcissist, this cheering is all he’ll hear.)
Unfortunate as it is, Trump’s more fervent band of supporters are getting their perverse wish. In watching President Trump, “liberal and progressive heads are exploding,” as the saying goes. Whether for good reasons or not, many of Trump’s supporters, sadly, are absolutely delighting in this fact.
This tells us more about our map.
Due to the highly partisan and poisonous nature of our national conversation, we must steel ourselves to avoid histrionics and overreactions. Our criticisms of Trump mustn’t fall prey to our worst fears about him, should be measured in tone (don’t say the sky is falling until it is), and above all must be true or, at least, so imminently plausible that even a motivated, partisan skeptic can see the problem. Trust me — he’ll give us plenty of that to work with, so there’s no benefit, only cried-wolf harm in inventing more.
That our criticisms of Trump all be as close to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is paramount, but before diving into that, I’ll commiserate with you. After the whole birther thing, no one carries a dirty secret delight in the idea of Trump’s presidency being haunted by exhausting, salacious, and ultimately false scandals more than I do. Given the present circumstances of rampant distrust of the media and partisan propaganda, however, we need to be able to reliably trust as many aspects of our media as possible. Thus, it is critical that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of truth in criticizing Trump. Again, there will be plenty to work with.
Furthermore, criticism of Trump should involve as little speculation as possible and should stick to unmistakable impacts of his policy decisions (giving credit when they’re good and blame when they’re bad). There is little to be gained in criticizing the person of someone who was elected despite himself throughout his campaign. In fact, this behavior helps renegade populists. He already won despite his toxic brand and won’t be stopped that way, and the grim facts are all very well-publicized now. His policies, however, will make or break his presidency, and expert opinion tells us, again, we’ll have a lot to work with.
Take the example of the “Muslim ban” executive order signed by Trump last Friday. Does it unfairly target Muslims? Perhaps, but the wording is careful not to say so. Was that their intention? Seemingly, yes, but this is not deterring his supporters from pointing out that the wording is more careful than the rhetoric, which they aren’t bothered by. On the other hand, it unambiguously caused major problems at airports, separated families, prevented professionals (including medical researchers and doctors) from bringing their talents back to help build America, undermined our security interests in a number of ways, alienated key allies in our fight against ISIS, was partially stayed in court within hours of being signed, may be unlawful, and led to massive civil unrest — all unnecessary drains on the American system and American standing that impact every American, whatever their faith and whatever their political standing, all caused by a president imprudently shooting from the hip and ignoring much of his administrative team. Focusing on any of these points is much more important to eroding his popular support than well-intended paeans about immigrants and refugees (which are more appealing to the liberals and progressives making them than to their opponents).
When we criticize Trump, whether publicly in articles or privately in any conversation with his supporters — with whom we should be conversing as much and as positively as possible — it is absolutely vital that we avoid liberal (and especially progressive) talking points. Instead, effective criticism of Trump should address how his policy decisions are negatively impacting conservatives, especially people who voted for him. It should be true, measured, and to the point, pinning specific decisions made by his administration to clear harms done to those who put him in office. Everything else is noise that disguises or suppresses this critical signal.
As for protests, these should continue, but it’s paramount that a few points are adhered to. First and foremost, they must be peaceful and civil — the moment they turn violent or riotous, our real problems begin. Second, they should have clear objectives that will resonate with people who currently support Trump, so, to take the Science March, wailing about inclusiveness or diversity in science is a much worse direction than talking about the importance of science in determining objective facts and the ways Trump’s administration is actively trampling it. Do not turn protests into propaganda. As David Frum notes in the Atlantic, Trump can use them to whip up his base (who mostly hate liberals and especially progressives). Do not march explicitly for progressive causes, especially in reaction to Trump’s actions. Causes must have broad (read: conservative) appeal, or it’s better to stay home. Third, they should clean up after themselves. (This isn’t acquiescence, by the way, it’s strategy.)
There’s one additional step that can be taken in how we criticize Trump. Make sure it is absolutely clear that the GOP is the Party of Trump. Through some application of political dark magic, the GOP fostered a political environment that not only produced Trump’s presidency, but that also has led them to fall in line behind him, even after he mocked them mercilessly throughout his campaign and even in his inaugural.
The GOP controls both chambers of Congress and could do a great deal to stand up to and prevent damaging policy decisions out of Trump’s White House. That is, Trump’s failures are the GOP’s failures, and Trump’s damages are the GOP’s damages. The GOP should not be allowed to shirk responsibility for their latest president and head of party — and they will probably try their best to do so.
The GOP took a big risk in getting behind Trump, and we should let them bear that burden. If Trump succeeds, they’ll get the spoils, but if he fails the American people, the GOP should get the bulk of the responsibility for the damages done. They will not change their habits until Republican support for Trump’s administration wavers into the negative, and right now it stands north of 80%. Many elected GOP officials have proved themselves to be craven, putting the Republican Party and their own re-election campaigns ahead of the republic, and so these numbers form a bottom line measure of whether or not Congress will do its duty and stand up for Americans ahead of Trump.
Criticizing Trump, his administration, and his party is an American civic duty, and doing it fairly is an American civic responsibility. The effectiveness of our criticism of Trump’s presidency depends upon the discipline of will to hone it to demonstrable harms, to deliver it in a peaceable, measured way to the necessary audience (consisting of his supporters, which live and think outside of the liberal bubble, by the way), and to express it with a relentless commitment to truth, integrity, and the facts.
James A. Lindsay is a thinker, not a philosopher, with a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books, most recently Life in Light of Death. His essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine. He thinks everybody is wrong about God. You can follow him on Twitter @GodDoesnt
Header Photo: Roya Ann Miller