Amid the gloom of coronavirus deaths and the killing of George Floyd, there are rays of sunshine. One is the declining popularity of Donald Trump, and another is the continuing pummeling of Trump by some of our country’s most thoughtful conservatives. We progressives expect those on the Left continually to find fault with one of our worst presidents ever, but when numerous columnists who approach politics from the Right also express their disgust with him it gives us greater hope that our national nightmare may soon be over.
More than two months ago, my “Conservative Critics of Trump’s Coronavirus Conduct” appeared here on LA Progressive. It provided some background for, and detailed the criticism of, such columnists as Peter Wehner and David Frum of The Atlantic, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post and Bret Stephens and David Brooks of The New York Times. In this present essay, I’ll update their criticism, which includes Trump’s response to the protests that have occurred since a policeman’s knee choked the life out of George Floyd.
When numerous columnists who approach politics from the Right also express their disgust with him it gives us greater hope that our national nightmare may soon be over.
The titles of two recent Wehner essays in The Atlantic tell us much: “The President Is Unraveling” (May 5) and “The Malignant Cruelty of Donald Trump” (May 26). In the first article, Wehner cited five early May incidents that indicate some of Trump’s essential qualities: “the shocking ignorance, ineptitude, and misinformation; his constant need to divide Americans and attack those who are trying to promote social solidarity; his narcissism, deep insecurity, utter lack of empathy, and desperate need to be loved; his feelings of victimization and grievance; his affinity for ruthless leaders; and his fondness for conspiracy theories.” Increasingly, “those traits are defining his presidency, producing a kind of creeping paralysis. We are witnessing the steady, uninterrupted intellectual and psychological decomposition of an American president.”
In the midst of this “decomposition,” Trump will ramp up his efforts “to annihilate truth,” but Wehner hopes there will be sufficient “men and women who will not believe the lies or spread the lies, who will not allow the foundation of truth—factual truth, moral truth—to be destroyed, and who, in standing for truth, will help heal this broken land.”
Wehner’s second essay was occasioned by Trump’s tweets “peddling a cruel and baseless conspiracy theory that [TV personality Joe] Scarborough had [Lori] Klausutis murdered and “a heartbreaking May 21 letter” written by her husband, Timothy, asking the CEO of Twitter to delete them. Wehner quotes Timothy on the pain Trump’s tweets have inflicted on him, a widower still trying to honor his wife’s death almost twenty years ago. The columnist’s conclusion: “There is a wickedness in our president that long ago corrupted him. It’s corrupted his party. And it’s in the process of corrupting our country, too. He is a crimson stain on American decency. He needs to go.”
Wehner’s fellow contributor, David Frum (former speech writer for George W. Bush), also has two recent Atlantic essays, “Trump Is the Looter” (May 29) and “Trump Is No Richard Nixon” (June 2). In the first piece Frum writes, “You’d think Donald Trump would have more sympathy for looters, being a looter himself…But no, he seems to think they deserve the death penalty.” Frum contrasts the indulgence of Trump toward “armed violence by pro-Trump demonstrators” in Michigan and other places in May with his more hard-line stance toward those protesting the killing of George Floyd. The columnist also praised Twitter for posting a warning over Trump’s tweet that warned looters by “glorifying violence”—“when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Frum ends his article thus: “Donald Trump has pillaged much from this country. At times, it seems he has even stolen our collective moral conscience. But the executives at Twitter just showed that the conscience, while often too quiet, can still speak. Let the reactivation of that conscience be the only enduring legacy of this squalid and brutal presidency.”
Frum’s more recent essay may not be as appealing to progressives because, while acknowledging “the Nixon of the secret tapes: crude, amoral, often bigoted,” it states that “the public Nixon of 1968, however, behaved with the dignity and decorum Americans then expected in a president.”
Yet Frum’s main point is that while Nixon in 1968 “joined his vow of order to a promise of peace at home and abroad…Trump offers only conflict, and he offers no way out of conflict, because—unlike Nixon in 1968—Trump is himself the cause of so much conflict.”
Over at The Washington Post, Michael Gerson’s June 1st column, “Every crisis America faces has been made worse by Trump,” pretty well sums up this columnist’s continuing disgust with our current president. Looking at the multiple crises we now face, Gerson writes, that we need a president who is empathetic, calming, uniting, and respectful of science and facts, but instead we have got the opposite—for example, “We got someone whose only authentic public communications are expressions of rancor.” The main lesson we should learn from Trump’s presidency? “If you elect a politician who is professionally incompetent and emotionally unwell, you will pay a price.” Other choice quotes from Gerson: “A man of Trump’s character, background and talents is the answer to precisely none of the great challenges of our time…The unity of our country is under severe strain, the justice of our country is under close questioning, and the leader of our country is a crank with a keyboard. So enough with explaining Trump or explaining him away; he must be defeated.”
Finally, we come to two conservative New York Times columnists, Bret Stephens and David Brooks. Like some of the other titles of Trump criticism, Stephens’ June 6 column, “Donald Trump Is Our National Catastrophe,” clearly sums up the writer’s opinion of Trump. More than the present pandemic, economic depression, “killer cops,” racial inequities, or looting, Trump is our main present catastrophe. His “malice toward all; with charity for none” defines him and “completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Stephens contrasts Trump’s tweets with the uplifting speeches of great leaders: “The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech…It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts…Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us…We have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.”
Stephens’ fellow conservative columnist, David Brooks, is one I have previously praised for being a conservative with whom progressives can find common ground. In his New York Time’s op-eds and on his once-a-week appearance on the PBS Newshour he has been consistently critical of Trump—e.g., in early 2016 he described him thusly: “He has no realistic policies…no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out.”
Brooks’ May 28, 2020 column is entitled “If We Had a Real Leader,” and he begins many a paragraph with those six words, e.g., “If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.” But, “of course,” he adds, “right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved—a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.”
Then, in words appreciative of history and the other humanities, Brooks adds, “Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis…Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.” The humanities should stock “leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration…But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.”
The conservative pundit pummeling of Trump indicated above should prove valuable to progressives because it adds something that we progressives often pay insufficient attention to—character and good traditional values like respect for truth, humility, empathy, and wisdom—all of which Trump lacks.
Walter G. Moss