Can we really trust the polls? That’s the question New York Times writer Shawn McCreesh asks as he takes the paper’s readers on a safari through Trump country. The conclusion at which he arrives is, well, maybe not.
McCreesh presents a series of anecdotes from Pennsylvania, which together make up a portrait of a state that is once again prepared to break liberal hearts: Houses festooned with pro-Trump paraphernalia. Suburban women—the exposed thermal exhaust port to the president’s Death Star—happily patronizing something called a “Trump store.” A bakery in which pro-Trump sugar cookies are outselling pro-Biden cookies by a ten-to-one margin. If you’re perplexed as to how anyone could support the president, much less openly and passionately, all this hearsay is both confusing and terrifying. It’s enough to convince you to overlook the preponderance of statistical evidence that suggests the state leans heavily toward Democrats this year. But if McCreesh’s dispatch proves anything definitively, it is that Trump voters are not particularly shy.
That is a problem for a certain type of partisan. For this type, Trump’s support must be omnipresent—ubiquitous but unseen and, indeed, unmeasurable. The idea of such a phenomenon comforts Republicans in ways the polls do not, but the president’s supporters are not alone in this regard. The left, too, needs Trump support to be a surreptitious thing. A theoretical fifth column of Trump fanatics fuels a fashionable paranoia. For the conspiratorially minded, Trump support joins (or is indistinguishable from) the kind of covert, semi-conscious racism that serves as a simple explanation for complex societal phenomena. It’s a theory of everything for those with a heightened sense of their own persecution. And as a bonus, in the process of indicting it, you also get to play detective—unveiling truths hidden in plain sight.
New York’s Jonathan Chait provides us with an example of this kind of spectacle. The thesis of his latest piece is that Trump’s supporters, even the reluctant sort, have endorsed the president not despite his penchant for racial agitation; they support him, rather, because of all that. You’re not going to find many Trump supporters confessing to such a thing, so proving this thesis necessarily involves a spelunking expedition into prominent conservatives’ subconsciouses. But the subjects the author chooses, Daily Wire proprietor Ben Shapiro and National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, are more revealing of Chait’s motives than the right’s.
In Shapiro’s case, Chait cites an item from 2018 in which the conservative broadcaster notes that Trump’s habit of “idiotic,” and “obscene” “racist statements” are condemnable, but labeling both the man and his administration racist is more complicated. What’s more, the inconsistent application of this label by the press suggests it is an instrument of political utility as well as a descriptive adjective. Chait chalks up Shapiro’s analysis as sufficient evidence in support of his hypothesis, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Shapiro is an outspoken Trump supporter in 2020, so exposing his pro-Trump sentiments is not much fun.
No, the real detective work is applied to Cooke. You see, his endorsement of Trump has been cleverly disguised as criticism of Trump.
As Chait notes, Cooke recently participated in a symposium at National Review in which a variety of authors elaborated on either their support for or opposition to the president. Cooke’s verdict on Trump–a “maybe”–was a full-throated assault on everyone. Therein lies the challenge. It is not hard to find Trump supporters who back this president unreservedly, even in this very symposium. But that is all too transparent and above board. Cooke’s editorial, Chait contends, represents the truest, most shameful expression of National Review’s sympathies, not merely the author’s own. It was “a proxy editorial” in Trump’s favor—”a final statement of the magazine’s assessment of the president” and a “sub-rosa Trump endorsement.”
A cursory skimming of Cooke’s evaluation of the president’s record leaves the reader (as opposed to a decoder) with the impression that Trump is, in fact, quite a menace. But so, too, are his opponents. If you’ve not encountered a voter who feels similarly this year, you’re ensconced in a fairly impenetrable bubble.
The point of Chait’s exercise isn’t to reveal Cooke’s alleged insincerity or National Review’s supposed duplicity. It isn’t even to suggest that conservatives of almost every stripe are and always have been racially hostile, especially when they criticize the conspiracy theories and factually unsound shibboleths that are in vogue on the academic left today. There is plenty of all that, but the real utility in Chait’s argument is that those of sufficient intellect and training can see what the broader left can only sense: Secret Trump supporters are all around us.
Having dedicated a substantial portion of my book on the subject of racial paranoia as a governing philosophy to Trump’s racial hostilities, I’m inclined to agree that the president’s recklessness has emboldened racists and xenophobes. That is an intolerable blight on his record. But Shapiro and Cooke have expressed the same view, which is precisely what makes them such tantalizing targets. They cannot be reluctant Trump supporters (if, in Cooke’s case, he is a Trump supporter at all). They must be passionate Trump fanatics actively trying to bamboozle you.
Chait’s effort here is a display of both projection (as Cooke notes, “it remains the case that Jonathan Chait has endorsed Donald Trump one more time than I have”) and political cryptology of the most paranoid sort. It must be that these two conservatives are possessed of truly evil views, which are rendered more sordid by their efforts to disguise them. And who knows how many millions of clandestine Trump voters share in their dishonor? That’s an exciting story to tell. Much more exciting than the polls, at least.