Jonah Goldberg was bemused this week by all the blowback he keeps getting from Trump voters when he ventures a mild criticism of the president-elect.
Goldberg’s experience seems pretty typical for right-wing Trump skeptics.
From the Right, any time I say anything — and I mean anything — critical of Trump, I’m told it’s proof that I’m “bitter” or “biased” and that I can’t admit I was wrong about him, etc. I can go on TV and say that Trump has been brilliant at x and y but I’m still concerned about z, and all I’ll hear is the whistle of incoming ALL CAPS arrows: GET OVER IT! HE WON! GO AWAY NEVER TRUMPERS! HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPLOCK!!!111! Etc. …
[Y]ou know what is alive and well? Always Trump. These are the folks who think Trump must be defended and celebrated no matter what he does or says. In fairness, some of these people are still auditioning for jobs in the administration and know they must follow the rhetorical principle of “not one step backward.” But others are just normal Americans who love Trump and think that I’m somehow duty-bound to say I love him too, no matter what he does. Well, I didn’t sign up for that either.
Whenever I say this, someone shrieks at me about my “arrogance” or “hubris” — for reasons I truly cannot fathom.
I do understand Goldberg’s view here. But I also think I can fathom what’s going on with the Trump voters. And it’s something that the political right will perish if we don’t listen to, with a discerning ear.
It’s really very simple. People don’t thrive under constant rebuke and criticism. At a certain point, it all becomes an undifferentiated noise machine, blasting at them to keep them discouraged and silent.
Americans have been under near-constant rebuke from their government, their media, their schools, and the loudest voices of their culture for 80 if not 100 years now. With the exception of the eight Reagan years, which were a vast relief to many, the pervasive tone of public discourse has been negative: hypercritical, rebuking, accusing, pessimistic, swinging wildly between false piety and cynicism.
The people who pay attention to the business of the public square are either down for that (the Democratic base), or they just can’t take it anymore. There’s no margin left in which to give a basically grounded, contented people a little rebuke to reflect on. It’s all rebuke, all the time now – fair, unfair, doesn’t matter. It never changes. People are waking up to realize how their baseline condition has become that of the old dray-donkey who’s just been prodded in the rear too many times.
America was once a Petri dish of optimism. But the encroachment of angry, activist government – which metastasized during the FDR administration – and the impact of the Frankfurt School and its “critical theory” on American schools, have combined to sour us and make us instinctively resistant to even well-meaning lectures and objections.
When people haven’t had a positive, hopeful environment for years, when every day for decades has been about what this group or that group is doing wrong, and what must be done to correct it – and most of the time, each of us is somewhere in one of the culpable groups, so we’re always under the gun, always being weighed and found wanting – people stop hearing your brilliant analysis and just start hearing that don’t nothin’ ever make you happy.
That’s the situation Trump’s critics from the right are now in. For those who think that because they’re on the right they should be listened to anyway, I offer a few comments. One is that old-consensus politicians and pundits – conservatives! – have been literally calling the battered average American bad names for some time now. There’s a reason the fly-over proles aren’t attuned as much to what the pundits are saying as to who’s saying it.
Another is that the right has its own problems with a culture of rebuke. I felt my heart sink a couple of weeks ago when I saw someone – and I can’t find the article again, or I’d link it here – asking how Christians were going to perform their necessary function of rebuking society (that was the word: “rebuke”) now that Trump was sort of taking up all the oxygen.
Dear Christian brothers and sisters, your fellow Americans are probably the most rebuked people who have ever walked the planet. People already know things are wrong; they know things are wrong with them. It’s not the sense of sinfulness and rebuke they need. They’ve got that, up one side and down the other. What they could use is GOOD NEWS. Hint. Hint.
Americans have been basically marinating in rebuke and criticism for decades now. Sure, much of it is misconceived and misdirected. But the real reason it’s gotten us into a pickle is that rebuke and criticism aren’t a winning strategy for anything in life, starting with our individual spiritual well-being. Mercy and renewal are. We have to have them to have hope and future – even more than we need rebuke and criticism. The latter are necessary, in measured doses, but they are not sufficient. They are defensive, like sanitation and inoculations. If life held only sanitation and inoculation, we’d all kill ourselves from hopelessness.
A big part of Reagan’s genius was knowing that it was not his job to go around daunting the people with reminders of their unrighteousness. I wrote more about the un-leaderliness of that approach – so characteristic of Obama – in a post last year here. And interestingly, what prompted me then was a self-styled conservative (David Brooks) thinking our national leader should remind us to slap and daunt ourselves, rather than help us find direction and confidence and get things done.
It’s possible that Trump supporters will go too far in refusing to listen to criticism. But our prominent dissenting voices simply won’t drown out Trump’s positive message with criticism. They’ll have to stop doing something that doesn’t work. Step up their game, and stop wasting their attention time with knee-jerk criticism of everything that isn’t perfect.
Trump is an action guy – which we’ve fallen so far that we now call a sign of “fascism” – and he isn’t there to try to answer every criticism from every critic. I suggest to the critics that they shouldn’t be there for that either, unless they just want to remain irrelevant.
If you’re a pundit with a big impact, don’t think “criticism”; think about what you want – how you want things to be. And then say nice things, send a gift basket (metaphorically speaking), and argue for it. Enough with the neg-head downer stuff. Thinking positive isn’t about being a Pollyanna; it’s about seeing possibility as a way of life. And Trump is already way ahead of you in that field of expertise.