Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As Republicans watch this week’s convention to renominate the President, there’s one Trump 2020 bumper sticker that says it all: “No More Bullsh*t.”
It’s the perfect expression of President Donald Trump’s appeal to his supporters: A defiant middle finger to what many see as a politically correct culture run amok. But there’s a deep unintended irony.
Because, of course, there are few American politicians who wield more B.S. than Donald Trump. It’s not biased to say that Donald Trump lies much more than the average human being, with the Washington Post chronicling more than 20,000 “false or misleading claims” over three year and a half years in office – which averages more than 15 untruths per day.
This is just one example of how Trump is actually the opposite of what so many of his supporters believe. And at a time when negative partisan narratives provide so much of the glue that holds together the conservative coalition, it’s notable that Trump embodies almost everything the right says it hates about the left.
He is an entitled coastal elitist, an easily triggered snowflake who plays the victim card and constantly elevates feelings over thinking. Trump is a big spending, Constitution-disregarding, dictator-coddling, traditional values-disdaining, identity politics-embracing, cancel culture-advocating craver of safe spaces.
There’s nothing Trump resembles so much as a stereotype of left wingers. If he were a Democrat, Republicans would find their perfect foil. Instead, they fell in line out of fear or love with the kind of cult of personality they once decried.
Let’s tick through these narratives, one by one.
Populist conservatives often attack liberals as entitled coastal elites, but their hero is a self-styled playboy billionaire who was bailed out of bankruptcy by his father and lives in a gilded tower on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and at a private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Snowflake” is conservative shorthand for arguing liberals are easily offended and unable to deal with differing opinions.
But in the Trump administration, disagreement is seen as disloyalty and the President is so easily offended that he obsessively lashes out at critics. He’s so thin-skinned that last week, the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to let him block critics on Twitter.
Conservatives righteously condemn a culture of victimization. They see it as a form of virtue signaling that leads to the infantilization of our citizenry. Trump occupies the most powerful position in the world, but he compulsively plays the victim card and complains about being treated more unfairly than Abraham Lincoln by the press.
He calls himself the victim of a witch hunt, compared his impeachment to a lynching and even reportedly views the pandemic through the lens of a woe-is-me harassment.
The leader of the party that claims to advance personal responsibility has refused to take responsibility for our country’s response to Covid-19 in terms of testing.
This victim-pose leads to infantilization, as the White House staff constantly act as if the President shouldn’t be held to the same standards as a normal functioning adult.
A closely related conservative criticism is that liberals elevate feeling over thinking. “F*ck Your Feelings” remains a popular slogan on pro-Trump merchandise.
But President Trump is all feelings and less thinking. He once half-jokingly proclaimed that he “fell in love” with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un after exchanging a few letters. He doesn’t bother to regularly or fully read his intelligence briefings and has ignored the advice of his advisers, preferring to go with his prodigious gut with disastrous results.
Before Trump, conservatives railed against what they called the “generational theft” of deficit and debt. But they fell hard for the self-described “King of Debt” and the result has been big spending on an unprecedented scale, with ballooning deficits and debt – even before the Covid-19 crisis.
When it comes to the once-vaunted conservative principle of free-trade, forget about it – Trump is our most protectionist president in decades, raising tariffs even against our allies.
Likewise, we used to hear a lot from “constitutional conservatives.” But they’ve rolled over for the President’s often unconstitutional instincts, from saying that his “authority is total,” to sending federal law enforcement into US cities without invitation, to threatening to shut down social media companies, to trying to take away fundamental taxing and spending powers from Congress through executive actions.
His latest threat to utilize sheriffs to monitor polling places on Election Day shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how our system works – sheriffs don’t report to the president.
For decades, the conservative coalition consolidated around opposition to Russia and defending traditional family values. But Trump seems afraid to confront Russia on its power grabs, propping up of dictators and assaults on dissidents.
This is no freedom administration – according to John Bolton’s memoir, Trump even approved of China’s Uyghur concentration camps (Trump has denied this claim).
When it comes to defending traditional family values, Americans may not all be able to agree with the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics that the Trump administration policy of separating children at the border from their families is a form of “child abuse,” but we should be able to agree that paying hush money to a porn star who says they had a hotel-room tumble four months after his third wife gave birth to their first child doesn’t offer an exemplar of moral leadership.
Identity politics is a common target for conservatives – decrying what they see as liberals’ attempts to divide American society by race and class, weaponizing those differences for political gain. But Trump is the most successful purveyor of identity politics in American history.
He rode white identity politics to the presidency, exacerbating feelings of fear and resentment at an increasingly diverse America. These appeals are at the core of his reelection strategy as well, with not-so-subtle promises to “save” suburbs from Black families while rolling back fair housing rules.
Another frequent target of conservative anger is “cancel culture.” But Trump is one of the prime advocates of canceling his critics.
CNN’s Daniel Dale compiled a list of his cancel culture screeds over the years, from comedians (“Everyone should cancel HBO until they fire low life dummy Bill Maher”) and journalists news organizations (including CNN) to companies ranging from Apple to Harley Davidson, and most recently, Goodyear. If you’ve offended Trump, his first instinct is to have you canceled.
Finally, while Trump fans see a fearless culture warrior, this President craves nothing so much as safe spaces where he can attack critics without fear of contradiction.
It’s why he misses his rallies so much, surrounded by adoration. It’s why he rails against even conservative publications when they dare to allow dissenting voices or unflattering polling data.
No safe space is too sordid: Trump’s refusal to denounce the QAnon conspiracies was predicated upon their support: “They like me.”
This is all evidence of something more serious than simple hypocrisy. These same negative narratives are used to demonize Democrats and excuse Trump for all manner of sins in an orgy of whataboutisms.
This is exactly the kind of moral relativism that conservatives used to decry in liberals at home and abroad. But no major Democrat – prompted or otherwise – have defended Vladimir Putin in the face of charges that he is a killer – and simultaneously knee-capped American exceptionalism – by saying, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
The result is that Trump seems simultaneously naïve and amoral – a charge wielded at Democratic presidents ranging from Carter to Clinton.
Conservatives abandoned their principles with stunning speed out of deference to Trump’s popularity with the base. Fear and greed are powerful narcotics. But this is a time for choosing: You either believe in conservative principles or you believe in Trump.
Simply falling in line behind a hero who hates like you isn’t a political decision, it’s a moral one. And when conservatives try to resuscitate these traditional attacks against the next Democratic president, they’ll find it falls utterly flat outside their tribe because they’ll have created an unbridgeable credibility gap.
But Trump provides a cautionary tale for progressives as well. He provides plenty of reasons to distrust excesses of executive power and reasons to strengthen checks and balances.
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Trump also provides a potent example for why identity politics are a dangerous foundation for power and why we should be skeptical of victimization, virtue signaling, safe spaces (he prefers to do interviews with a single friendly news outlet – Fox News) and cancel culture.
Looking forward, we do not want a country where populist political leaders achieve prominence by elevating feeling over thinking or dividing our country by appealing to a common enemy rather than our common humanity.
Trump’s first term has been a civic stress test. This election is a referendum not just on Trump’s leadership, but what lessons we have learned as a society.
Character counts above all in a president. Political principles don’t exist if they’re ignored for the sake of power. Hate erodes our common bonds. And hyperpartisanship always runs the risk of making us hypocrites.