It's not an easy thing to defend Trump's character. Regardless of your feelings or your belief about the validity of the scandals themselves, Trump's full year of presidency has been far more scandal-laden than any term.
Here's a very brief and incomplete summary:
- Trump campaign and political advisers have pleaded guilty, or are indicted on, lying to the FBI, conspiracy, and fraud, all around Russia's manipulation of the 2016 election, for which there are 13 more indictments of Russian citizens. And there's more to investigate.
- He's accused from a lot of angles of lying a lot while in office. On the low end is over 100 (compared to 18 by Obama); on the high end is over 2000 (and here's a Politifact list)
- He's been accused by at least 15 women of sexual assault and harassment since the 1980's. He of course even said himself that he "grabs 'em by the pussy."
- He refused to release his tax returns, which makes people think he has something to hide
- Stormy Daniels in 2011 gave an interview in which she said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, and his lawyer has admitted paying $130k to her to keep her quiet
- Heck, he's had two divorces, which is something that would weigh on other politicians but seems an afterthought here.
It's worth noting here that I find all controversy around Trump's legal affairs and business bankruptcies--as questions about how he runs business--to be largely unwarranted.
And yet, Trump's approval stands at about 41%.
It seems baffling, given that far gentler scandals have taken down countless politicians. Those who don't support Trump may wonder: how can someone like Trump with all of this going on?
The response by Trump supporters involves a mix of distrust of media, distrust of the FBI and deep state, and other theories that involve a concerted conspiracy to discredit Trump.
Let's be clear about one thing: what I'm about to say cannot be proven, however I think there is a lot of evidence for it. I'm going to assume for now that many of the 41% of Trump supporters generally don't believe that his team colluded with the Russians to manipulate US elections, don't believe that Trump is a serial sex offender, cheater, and liar.
If Trump were a Democrat, that same 41% would want him in jail.
Why do I think this? Mostly because during Trump campaign rallies and on social media, many Trump supporters wanted--and still want--Clinton locked up for allegations of pay-to-play in the State Department (including the Uranium One scandal), fumbling that led to deaths of Americans in Benghazi, using a private email server for classified State Department communication and subsequent deleting of those emails, and general corruption and dishonesty.
Why the major gap? Why do accusations against Clinton lead to a desire to have her put in jail, where accusations against Trump lead to a desire to defend him? I think the intuitive and likely answer is that motivated reasoning is afoot. That is, people have a conclusion for emotional reasons, and then they look for evidence to back this up. It's a common, well-documented cognitive bias.
What would be the motivation for attacking Clinton for her accusations and defending Trump on his? It's as simple as team loyalty. And team loyalty is nothing new in politics. It's very common, say in war, to defend your own side's actions and condemn those of the enemy. It's also been fairly common in democratic politics for just about its entire history.
But Trump's list of scandals is so vast that it becomes an interesting case study. Many previous politicians have been taken down by a single scandal that is gentler than what Trump has. Yet to some extent his base of support is unmoved by mounting displays of smoke; instead, they reason why each instance and each scandal must be unjustified.
There is a spectrum between politics as "rational decision making" vs "pure sports-team support." Neither is ever achieved. We want our politics to be rational decision making: people assess a candidate based on their talents, virtues, and positions, and then vote. They can change their support. In "sports-team support," we blindly support a team no matter their virtues or vices. They're our team.
The fact that Trump's scandals have not significantly eroded his support seems to demonstrate that sport-steam support is on the rise. It's what Professor Brene Brown calls the rise of "bullshit:" there's not a motivation to lie. There's simply a lack of any desire to discover the truth. In the "bullshit" state of thinking, we're not even considering whether we have the truth. We talk and share what is supportive of our team, and ignore and fight what isn't. We don't care about interrogating reality; we care about who has more points int eh end.
Why is it rising? We talk about it in Wedged. But it's also increasingly clear that people's social circles are increasingly mono-ideological. To some extent, we're defending the folks we love when we defend that they're right and "the other" is wrong.
Do Democrats Suffer From Team Loyalty Blindness?
Probably. It's hard to make a fair comparison because nobody in office has had scandal like Donald Trump. But a few examples:
- Bill Clinton has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, including Juanita Broaddrick of rape. Ken Starr's inquiry included allegations of sexual misconduct, but ultimately focused on perjury and obstruction during a lawsuit by Paula Jones in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Clinton remained very popular and Democrats launched the "move on" campaign, writing off the series of issues as (as I've heard it many times) simply "a blowjob in the White House," boiling down the issue to his affair with Lewinsky. If Clinton were a Republican being accused of sexual assault, and then lying and obstruction of justice about it, how would Democrats and Republicans have responded?
- Elizabeth Warren probably lied for at least a decade about being part Native American. She officially claimed she was the only Native American faculty at Harvard Law School, and identified herself as a racial minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory. Yet she is arguably the most popular Democrat in the country. How would Democrats feel if a Republican senator had done the same?
One can find dozens of examples of each side being mum or defensive of their team's sins, and on full attack of the other's. There's no need to go into too much detail. The point is that we need to be on the lookout for it in ourselves--and can only look out for it in ourselves. Accusing others of hypocrisy is a tried-and-failed strategy. If you want to earn the moral high ground, you need to hold your blue or red team to the same standards as you hold others.