The psychological concept of projection proposes that people impute to others the negative qualities they themselves possess. Some of the post-election attacks on Donald Trump have been grounded in reality. Others have been grounded in projection. For many liberal activists, fear of Trump is fear that what they would have done with power now will be done unto them.
Let us first note that many groups have legitimate reasons to fear a Trump presidency, more than the presidency of a standard Republican. His immigration policy started at the extreme and his immigration rhetoric sometimes approached the slanderous.. Trump has backed off his promise of comprehensive mass deportation and has said that deportations will focus instead on criminals. If you listen closely, he has left the door open for an eventual amnesty—but I would still be worried if I were in a mixed-immigration-status family. Trump’s famous statement about illegal-alien rapists was more qualified than people remember (as was Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “deplorables”), but, as with Clinton’s statement, the core sentiment of fear and hostility lingers.
Similarly, Trump has backed off his “Muslim ban” and now talks about a series of screens for immigration. His candidate for chief of staff has dropped the idea of a Muslim registry. But for all that, if I were a Muslim, I might worry that this person had lousy instincts and a problem with me.
These are legitimate concerns. Altogether different, however, is the fear that has allegedly gripped leftwing college students and social-liberal activists. This is where hatred for Trump is clearly a form of projection.
Of all the Republican presidential nominees in recent memory, Trump has had the least to do with social conservatism. Before running for president, Trump took no part in any culture-war battle, except to get on the liberal side. As a presidential candidate, his first instinct was to criticize North Carolina’s bathroom law. During the debates, he was articulate in his opposition to partial-birth abortion, but he has laid less stress on abortion than any recent nominee of either major party. Of all the recent Republican presidential nominees, Trump has been the most openly supportive of racial preferences. On many of the social issues, Trump is the best that social liberals can reasonably hope for from the GOP. So why are they so mad?
One reason is disappointed ambition. The left thought they were riding a demographic wave that would render their political opponents not merely irrelevant, but helpless. And if, at some point in the future, the political tides brought conservatives into elected office, a compact and aggressively liberal Supreme Court majority would make sure that while liberals might lose elections, they would never really lose power.
And oh, the things they planned to do with that power! Mark Tushnet reflected on the death of Antonin Scalia, together with the presumptive election of Hillary Clinton, and argued that, legally, the culture wars were over and conservatives had lost. He argued for a “hard line” against conservatives, similar to the occupations of the Reconstruction-era South and post-WWII Germany and Japan. He wrote that liberal judges and activist groups should have no concern for conservative objections, which “liberals regard as having no normative pull at all.”
Tushnet’s argument puts Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” speech in a different light. Clinton not only demonized approximately one-quarter of the electorate as racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and Islamophobic—she also called them “irredeemable.” Even Clinton’s exception for “half” of Trump’s supporters as merely misled carried an implied warning. Get right with her and her coalition after the election—or else hold onto your unauthorized ideas and get social justice, good and hard.
The dream of a Clinton presidency and liberal Supreme Court has turned into a nightmare. The hope that America might become one big college campus where dissenters could be shouted down with the connivance of the administration has been inverted. The weapons liberals sharpened now look likely to be turned upon the left.
Not really, of course. Trumps isn’t some horror-movie version of Rick Santorum. Trump gives no indication of taking notice of social liberals except for when they protest him. They aren’t afraid of the promiscuous, billionaire socialite. They recognize a fellow acrimonious and merciless spirit. And social liberal activists know what they would do to Trump voters if they had the powers of the presidency.
The irony is that the scariest thing Trump could do to liberal activists is offer them pure reciprocity. He could reassure liberal college students that he will respect their right to free speech, just as they have respected the rights of conservative speakers. He could reassure Black Lives Matter activists that, in his public statements about them, he will be just as scrupulously accurate and charitable as they were in describing Officer Darren Wilson. Liberal groups should be reassured that IRS scrutiny of liberal groups will be identical to the scrutiny endured by conservative groups during the famously scandal-free Obama administration.
While Mike Pence was attending the play Hamilton (to the boos of many in the audience), one of the actors addressed the future vice president. Brandon Victor Dixon is reported to have said:
We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.
That fear and anxiety might be the beginning of wisdom about the need for limited, constitutional, impartial government. But what form would reassurance take?
What if Trump (a rather theatrical sort himself) had appeared and addressed the audience? What if Trump had assured Mr. Dixon (and those booing Pence) that when using his powers as president, he would always keep in mind how the cast and audience of Hamilton would protect bakers who did not want to participate in same-sex marriages, and nuns who did not want to pay for abortifacients, and extend the exact same respect for the sensibilities and rights of liberals? Would these liberals—with their spotless consciences—be reassured that we had reached an agreement on inalienable rights and American values, or would they—in guilt and frustration—interpret such a statement as venomous sarcasm, and a promise of legal harassment?
Many people look at Trump and (correctly) see a vindictive bully. But for some liberal activists, when they see Trump, they are looking into the mirror.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.