One of the sadder sights during this election season has been that of intelligent conservative writers trading barbs on social media with witless and malicious (and usually anonymous) Trump supporters. I get the sense that many people who write about politics for a living have judged the mass of Trump supporters on the basis of their experiences with the scum of the internet. This practice has led some to call for purging Trump supporters from the Republican Party. To attempt such a purge would be disastrous and—even if it were possible—would entail the expulsion of millions of decent (though erring) people. When dealing with the mass of Trump supporters, we should start with kindness and a willingness to listen.
The first thing to keep in mind is that many of Trump’s internet supporters are not representative of pro-Trump popular opinion. Many, in fact, are Russian-financed dummy accounts, intended to spread Kremlin propaganda. These accounts were easier to spot earlier in the year, because the X-rated semi-literacy of the writers was often unintentionally hilarious. But recently they have gotten better at mimicking the idioms of America’s racist and conspiracist subcultures.
The point isn’t that Putin is bad. The point isn’t even that these foreign dummy accounts are trying to influence American politics. The point is that these accounts will only have influence if we let them. No abusive social-media post is going to elect Trump. What those accounts can do is increase the toxicity of American politics, regardless of who wins the presidential election. Politics inevitably involves a certain amount of division. Every bit of hatred of, and contempt for, our fellow citizens that we allow in our hearts because of some pro-Trump troll is a win for our country’s foreign adversaries.
There are also native pro-Trump trolls. (There are also non-abusive Trump supporters, and none of these comments apply to them.) Some of these native trolls are cranks with no particular following. Some are just sociopaths who like being outrageous and get a kick out of Trump’s combative style. This time next year, these same trolls will busy themselves composing YouTube comments about how Beverly Hills Cop III is a way better movie than The Godfather. But Trump received about 45 percent of the vote in the Republican primaries. He currently has the support of over two-thirds of Republican identifiers. Most of these people are not race theorists or mother’s-basement-dwelling losers.
Let me tell you about some of the Trump supporters I know. They aren’t the cartoons you see on the internet. They would sooner cut their own throats than send a tweet. They don’t believe that Trump is going to Make America Great Again. They are undeceived about Trump’s many flaws and they aren’t shy about admitting them.
What they see in Trump is someone who has at least some hope of getting a response out of a sluggish political system. They would agree with Martin Gurri that Trump is a wrecking ball, but they would argue that only a wrecking ball will get the attention of our comfortable and self-serving political elites.
But Trump is not just a wrecking ball. They also see Trump as a businessman who has actually done things. This is what can’t be erased by all the talk of Trump’s bankruptcies. While some of Trump’s companies went out of business, he still built those companies. He built residencies in which people lived, and casinos in which they people were entertained. Even if some of those businesses eventually went bad—even if all of those businesses had gone bad—Trump would still compare favorably with politicians whose only visible skills are giving speeches and cashing checks. These Trump supporters suspect that, one way or another, things are going to end badly with Trump. But they are absolutely certain of being utterly ignored by any of the conventional politicians who ran for president this cycle.
That doesn’t make these Trump supporters right about Trump. He is too unprincipled, reckless, and malicious to be trusted with any kind of public authority. But it also doesn’t make them wrong about the unresponsiveness of the political system. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out, increasing immigration is very unpopular with both the general public and Republican primary voters, and yet most of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates supported increasing immigration.
Now we have (some) anti-Trump conservatives arguing for a purge and humiliation of Trump’s current supporters. Political consultant Rick Wilson’s twitter account produces a steady stream of Trump criticism. All of it is deserved, but Wilson goes too far when he promises:
So when it's over, Trumpkins, remember: You're not purging us. We're purging you.
The problem is that there are far more Trump supporters than conservative dead-ender Trump opponents. (Disclosure: I am a conservative dead-ender Trump opponent.) Any center-right majority is going to involve former Trump supporters as a majority or near-majority of the coalition.
A bigger problem is the smug and unjustified moralism. Wilson says that the lessons of the “detailed” 2012 Republican National Committee autopsy were ignored. But that autopsy was not so detailed that it offered any advice on how the Republicans could update their obsolete and rich-centered economic agenda. That part must have slipped their minds.
Moreover, the autopsy was not ignored. Its findings were championed by Marco Rubio, whose “comprehensive” immigration reform included an enormous (and enormously unpopular) expansion in immigration. Rubio got so carried away with the findings of the autopsy that one of his aides explicitly argued for expanding guest worker programs as an alternative to the hiring of American workers who “can’t cut it.”
Wilson wasn’t the first who made the mistake of thinking that the party elites could purge the voters and prosper. After the 2012 election, Mike Murphy (who would go on to waste over $100 million running a pro–Jeb Bush Super PAC) argued that the GOP should turn away from social conservatism and opposition to comprehensive immigration reform and listen to “the party’s biggest funders, mostly hardheaded business types.” Murphy’s strategy worked out very well, if his goal was to raise money and pocket consulting fees. It worked out less well if his goal was to influence the Republican nominating process.
The basic problem of the Murphys and the Wilsons is that you can’t get a majority Republican Party by exiling the majority of the party. You also won’t get a reconciliation among different kinds of Republican voters without the recognition that the business and consulting types who authored the Republican National Committee autopsy were the ones who drenched the GOP in gasoline and handed Donald Trump the matches. They were the ones who, after Mitt Romney’s rich-centered “You built that” campaign, decided that Romney hadn’t paid enough attention to the priorities of the “party’s biggest fundraisers.”
Any decent center-right majority is going to include the majority of Trump supporters. It is going to include Ted Cruz supporters. It is even going to include some people who will vote for Hillary Clinton this November. There is fault enough to go around. A center-right politics that can reach out to persuadable voters starts with recognizing how multiple groups of conservatives and Republicans (not just Trump supporters) have prioritized their own interests and resentments over the common good.
Wilson wants Trump supporters to be humbled by the general election. Fine. But the people who were defeated in the Republican primaries by a flagrant and underfunded con artist are themselves long overdue for some humility.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.