How did Donald Trump, a candidate with a 60 percent unfavorable rating, become president? How has he gained near-total control of the Republican Party? Why have institutions and people who might have stood up to him—churches, business leaders, congressional Republicans—fallen into line behind him? One answer is that he’s aided by a phalanx of conservatives who don’t particularly like him. These politicians and pundits serve Trump by attacking his critics. They aren’t Trumpers, but they train their fire on anyone from the political left or center who challenges the president and his supporters.
Kevin Williamson, a correspondent at National Review, has long been a Trump skeptic. Three years ago, he literally wrote The Case Against Trump. But then Trump captured the Republican nomination and the presidency. That made Trump the right’s standard-bearer, and it put conservatives like Williamson in an awkward position: What should they do when progressives or adversarial journalists criticize the president and his supporters? Should Williamson and his colleagues seriously entertain the merits of these challenges? Or should they revert to the conventions of politics by reflexively attacking criticism from the left?
The usual rap on Williamson is that he’s too harsh. But when Trump supporters are challenged by people outside the conservative fold, Williamson goes soft. This week he came to the defense of white evangelicals who share Trump’s views on race and immigration. His argument illustrates how a “Never Trumper” can serve the president and his base by adopting their tactics and assailing their enemies.
In this week’s post, Williamson brushes off an article in Slate that faulted Trump’s evangelical supporters for expressing open hostility to immigrants, Muslims, and ethnic minorities. Williamson says the article’s author has no “substantive interest” in Christianity and therefore has no business telling Christians what their faith requires. I know this is false, since I wrote the Slate article. When Ross Douthat published his book Bad Religion, I spent four days in a 10-part dialogue with him about Christianity, morals, and modern life. Williamson has clipped a sentence from that dialogue, omitted its context, and misrepresented its meaning to pretend that I was blowing off the religion that, in reality, I spent the rest of that week (and many weeks since then) discussing.
When Williamson says I have no “substantive interest” in Christianity, and when he asks who “appointed” me to be “the pope of Evangelical Protestantism, White People Synod,” what he’s really hinting at is that I’m not Christian. I’m Jewish. This spares Williamson and his readers the difficulty of dealing with an inconvenient fact: The person who was quoted in the Slate article using the term “un-Christian” to describe Trumpist bigotry among evangelicals is Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Stetzer is an evangelical Christian. So is Mike Gerson, the other Trump critic quoted in the article. The values described in the article—values that Trump and many of his evangelical supporters openly spurn—used to be considered Judeo-Christian: respect parents, love the stranger, don’t steal, don’t kill innocent people, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. When Williamson suggests that Christians can’t be held to these standards by anyone who isn’t Christian, he, like Trump, is appealing to tribalism, not faith or reason.
Every allegation in the Slate article about Trumpist immorality among evangelicals was backed up by hard data. Williamson misrepresents that too. He accuses the article of “religiously illiterate horsepucky” in one paragraph, for “conflating care for the poor with political support for the current social-welfare bureaucracy.” He doesn’t tell his readers about the rest of that paragraph, which refuted his spin:
The charitable explanation for [polls that show white evangelical opposition to welfare spending] is that white evangelicals are skeptical about federal spending, not about helping the poor. But even when survey questions focus on help, not on spending, they’re unmoved. The [Billy Graham Center] poll asked respondents to choose, from a list of 12 issues and traits, which was most important in determining how they voted in 2016. Among black and Hispanic evangelicals, a candidate’s “ability to help those in need” was the second or third most commonly named factor. Among white evangelicals, it ranked almost dead last.
What Williamson defends, at bottom, is a Christian exemption from universal moral claims. Gerson, writing in the Atlantic in April, worried that Trump was reducing evangelicals to “an interest group in need of protection and preferences.” Williamson embraces that reduction. “Christians have the same legitimate right as any other group in a liberal democratic society to pursue their own political interests as they understand them,” he writes. If they decide their interests lie in “continued support of Donald Trump,” Williamson seems fine with that. After all, he reasons, they’re operating in a “secular political system, the democratic realities of which necessitate various compromises and tradeoffs.”
Once Christians are liberated from moral scrutiny, they can abandon what Williamson derides as the progressive vision of Christianity: “a cult of niceness.” They can embrace, in his words, their healthy distrust of “politics-powered do-goodism.” In short, they can renounce virtue.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same Kevin Williamson who, just a year ago, excoriated many Republicans for
celebrating Donald Trump—not in spite of his being a dishonest, crude serial adulterer but because of it. His dishonesty, the quondam cardinals of Virtue Inc. assure us, is simply the mark of a savvy businessman, his vulgarity the badge of his genuineness and lack of “political correctness,” and his pitiless abuse of his several wives and children the mark of a genuine “alpha male.” … Bill Bennett dismissed those who pointed out Trump’s endless lies and habitual betrayals as suffering from “moral superiority,” from people on “high horses,” and said that Trump simply is “a guy who says some things awkwardly, indecorously, infelicitously.” Thus did the author of The Book of Virtues embrace the author of “Grab ’Em By the P***y.”
How did Williamson go from the unflinching frankness of that 2017 article to the subjectivist excuse making of his post on white evangelicals? By switching targets. When you focus your scrutiny on one side of a dispute, it’s easy to become an apologist for the other.
That’s how a “Never Trumper” ends up as a wingman for Trumpers. He tells them that nobody has the right to judge them, that criticism from outsiders is fake, and that basic human kindness is left-wing sap. He thinks he’s standing up to the left. In truth, he’s coddling the right.