Are Liberals Helping Trump?


Are Liberals Helping Trump?
Sabrina Tavernise - National Correspondent for The New York Times.


Sabrina Tavernise
Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina, voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican. But some things are making him feel uncomfortable - parts of Mr. Trump's travel ban, for example, and the recurring theme of his apparent affinity for Russia.

Mr. Medford should be a natural ally for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice. But it is not working out that way. Every time Mr. Medford dips into the political debate - either with strangers on Facebook or friends in New York and Los Angeles - he comes away feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority.

"We're backed into a corner," said Mr. Medford, 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. "There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: 'Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You're an idiot if you support any part of Trump.' "

He added: "I didn't choose a side. They put me on one."

Liberals may feel energized by a surge in political activism, and a unified stance against a president they see as irresponsible and even dangerous. But that momentum is provoking an equal and opposite reaction on the right.s In recent interviews, conservative voters said they felt assaulted by what they said was a kind of moral Bolshevism - the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one. Disagreeing meant being publicly shamed.

Protests and righteous indignation on social media and in Hollywood may seem to liberals to be about policy and persuasion. But moderate conservatives say they are having the opposite effect, chipping away at their middle ground and pushing them closer to Mr. Trump.

"The name calling from the left is crazy," said Bryce Youngquist, 34, who works in sales for a tech start-up in Mountain View, Calif., a liberal enclave where admitting you voted for Mr. Trump is a little like saying in the 1950s that you were gay. "They are complaining that Trump calls people names, but they turned into some mean people."

Mr. Youngquist stayed in the closet for months about his support for Mr. Trump. He did not put a bumper sticker on his car, for fear it would be keyed. The only place he felt comfortable wearing his Make America Great Again hat was on a vacation in China. Even dating became difficult. Many people on Tinder have a warning on their profile: "Trump supporters swipe left" - meaning, get lost.

He came out a few days before the election. On election night, a friend posted on Facebook, "You are a disgusting human being."

"They were making me want to support him more with how irrational they were being," Mr. Youngquist said.

Conservatives have gotten vicious, too, sometimes with Mr. Trump's encouragement. But if political action is meant to persuade people that Mr. Trump is bad for the country, then people on the fence would seem a logical place to start. Yet many seemingly persuadable conservatives say that liberals are burning bridges rather than building them.

"We are in a trust spiral," said Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. "My fear is that we have reached escape velocity where the actions of each side can produce such strong reactions on the other that things will continue to escalate."

It is tempting to blame Mr. Trump for America's toxic political state of mind. He has wreaked havoc on political civility and is putting American democratic institutions through the most robust stress test in decades. But many experts argue that he is a symptom, not a cause, and that the roots go deeper.

Many experts compare today with the 1960s and the Vietnam War protests. That period was far more violent but culminated in a landslide victory for Richard Nixon in 1972, after he famously appealed to the "silent majority," who he believed resented what they saw as disrespect for American institutions. Others say that democracy was far healthier then and that you have to go farther back to find a historical parallel.

"There is really only one period that was analogous, and that is the Civil War and its immediate aftermath," said Doug McAdam, a Stanford sociology professor. "I'm not suggesting we are there, but we are straining our institutions more than we really ever have before."

One facet of recent political life has been large-scale protests against Mr. Trump. They have been largely peaceful, but when there is violence, even on the fringes, it tends to reduce popular support for them, Professor Haidt said, citing recent research. And for many Trump voters, even peaceful protests are unsettling.

"I don't have a problem with protesting as long as it's peaceful, but this is destroying the country," said Ann O'Connell, 72, a retired administrative assistant in Syracuse who voted for Mr. Trump. "I feel like we are in some kind of civil war right now. I know people don't like to use those terms. But I think it's scary."

Mrs. O'Connell is a registered Democrat. She voted for Bill Clinton twice. But she has drifted away from the party over what she said was a move from its middle-class economic roots toward identity politics. She remembers Mr. Clinton giving a speech about the dangers of illegal immigration. Mr. Trump was lambasted for offering some of the same ideas, she said.

"The Democratic Party has changed so much that I don't even recognize it anymore," she said. "These people are destroying our democracy. They are scarier to me than these Islamic terrorists. I feel absolutely disgusted with them and their antics. It strengthens people's resolve in wanting to support President Trump. It really does."

Polling data suggest many center-right voters feel the same way. The first poll by the Pew Research Center on presidential job performance since Mr. Trump took office showed last week that while he has almost no support from Democrats, he has high marks among moderates who lean Republican: 70 percent approve, while 20 percent disapprove.

Mr. Medford compares Mr. Trump to a jalopy.

"It's like I need to get from Charleston to Atlanta, and suddenly the most beat-up car on earth shows up and says, 'Do you need a ride?' I think, wow, if I had any other way to get there, I'd choose it. But there's only this terrible car. And it might not even make it."

But he doesn't want to get out, at least not yet, and the resignation of Mr. Trump's national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, hasn't changed that. Late last year, he hit it off with a woman in New York he met online. They spent hours on the phone. They made plans for him to visit. But when he mentioned he had voted for Mr. Trump, she said she was embarrassed and didn't know if she wanted him to come. (He eventually did, but she lied to her friends about his visiting.)

"It invalidated anything that's good about me, just because of how I voted. Poof, it's gone."

Mrs. O'Connell feels hopeless. She has deleted all her news feeds on Facebook and she tries to watch less TV. But politics keeps seeping in.

"I love Meryl Streep, but you know, she robbed me of that wonderful feeling when I go to the movies to be entertained," she said. "I told my husband, I said, 'Ed, we have to be a little more flexible, or we're going to run out of movies!' "

As for the country, she is worried.

"Change doesn't occur until you hit rock bottom, like an alcoholic, on his knees, begging for help," she said. "I think we still have farther to go."



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