Open Letter to My Friends Not Against Trump

Introduction: I wrote the open letter to my conservative friends quickly back in the Spring, when Trump was threatening to shoot protestors (feels like decades ago). This post kicked off for me a series of public-facing posts during the election season. Since then I’ve learned that, were I to rewrite the letter with the hindsight of what we know now in late October 2020 on the eve of an election, I would work harder to both extend dignity to Trump supporters as well as be much more critical of Trump and his administration. Namely, I realize more clearly now that, every time Trump supporters hear criticism of him, they ascribe bias to the critic. To that, I dignify your belief, care about you as a person, and acknowledge how frustrating it must be to believe your improbable bet is the right one and not find others you care about moved.

Why do I say improbable bet? Because… in the months after George Floyd’s murder, the evidence has mounted into a tidal wave against the President: the pandemic has left hundreds of thousands dead and out of work so far, excess casualties are higher in the USA than almost everywhere else in the world, and the President has offered no plan to either protect Americans or restart the economy for the working majority. Meanwhile, his administration has been caught willfully separating thousands of parents from children at the border precisely because, they believed, the one thing loving parents would not give up to start a new life is their children. Revelations have also disclosed his personal long history of his bad business decisions or tax evasion. Hundreds of leading economists, national security experts, scientists, and countless other professionals have joined in a chorus of voices endorsing the alternative to four more years of Trump. That he has done nothing but fan the flames of racism with partisan divide is, by now, completely unsurprising.

And so, on the eve of an election (whose outcome he has not even agreed to accept), I renew the voice of the open letter below: if you still support Trump, I dignify your belief and your choice, even as at the same time I must also condemn the consequences of that belief with all the vigor I can muster.

His turn is up. This man is simply unfit to be President.

An Open Letter to My Friends Not Against Trump,

I call on my friends everywhere to stand against Trump. This letter — written quickly out of a place of acute grief and concern — is addressed to my conservative friends in particular.

Tl;dr: Trump has lost legitimate conservative trust. The President disgusts moral conservatives.

He fails basic public figure tests. He stands for religion and law & order in name only. His administration spends liberally on his own. He has proven a poor manager and useful to conspiracies and extremists. He has stacked the pro-life courts. History will judge him and his supporters harshly. And now, impossibly, he threatens to turn the military on the people. Please don’t be on the wrong side of history. Conserve the Republic. Call off Trump. (Grumble to a fellow Trump supporter. Write a letter. Vote with all you got. Shame him now before it is too late.) Call off the troops. Call for reconciliation. Call for healing. Be the leader he cannot be or the wrong side of history awaits.

As I write, our nation is reeling. Hundreds of thousands are protesting. Police are arresting thousands. Uncertainty abounds. Military vehicles flex on our own soil. Civil war, at least in certain cities, looms on the horizon. Responsibility and blame can be placed on all sides but by definition it must ultimately reside with our leadership.

If American Presidents want to abuse their power, too little can stop them. If Trump opens fire on the American people, this open letter is a call to hold the President and his enablers responsible. To that end, my plea here to my friends who are still not against Trump. The Insurrection Act, if invoked, would give Trump, as it has presidents in the past, permissions broad enough that he can command our army, like our police, to legally kill our people. The nation demands leadership now — not the leadership of fearful reactions and returning violence with violence but the leadership to model and summon the better angels of healing, solidarity, mutual understanding, and purposeful system reform.

Now is the moment when the fate of American history hangs on the strength of the character of our leader. If he abuses that power, we will *all* suffer. If Trump takes the extraordinary act of invoking the Insurrection Act, or exercises the power approaching that, he will make him and supporters responsible for all that follows. I ask now: Do you trust him? In the balance of evidence, do you trust Trump to lead our nation in our most bitter hour of need?

There are plenty of ways to be solidly conservative: of the few that I outline below, almost none of them can justify supporting Trump. In other words, Trump is not the only or even the first thing wrong with America — but this staggering symptom of America’s problems has his hand on the trigger. And if you support him, I struggle to see that position as conservative.

Here are some of the ways I no longer see Trump as conservative:

Are you a moral conservative? I applaud his loyalty to his children in public life. Other than that, I see a man who makes no effort to disguise his deadly sins: greed (a self-declared billionaire who seeks personal power over public service, eager to abuse the powers of the highest office for personal gain), lust (a thrice-married philanderer with a record of misandrous boasts, rape accusations, and sexual assault accusations; he relates to women primarily as objects of his lust or, in Ivanka’s case, as a reflection of his own self-love), sloth (the leader with the most access to intelligence in the world regularly does not finish reading his briefings), gluttony (he insists on satisfying his obese appetite with a fast food diet at luxury resorts), envy (his whole analysis of the world often boils down to his status anxiety), pride (a reality TV host prone to declare that “I alone” can fix the world), and wrath: Our nation, divided, demands leadership now — a leader ready to model and summon the forces of healing, solidarity, mutual understanding, and system reform; instead he orders our own military to turn its guns toward our own people. Ever, wrath.

A man who, sworn to serve the Constitution, lies and exaggerates impulsively, consistently, instinctively. A man who, declaring himself a Christian, gasses peaceful protestors and priests in order to snap a photo-op in front of a church holding a Bible, whose Pauline epistle he once called “two Corinthians.” Behold a man who appears most in his element whipping up crowds into delusions about enemy others — a casebook narcissist who, after repeatedly elevating himself to the greats of history, appears to know almost no history but his own.

Now let us consider the President as a conservative public figure — as a symbol that speaks for and guides the nation. In this vein, I deem Donald Trump not only one of the most uninteresting presidents but disappointing public figures in recent memory. He cannot speak well. He tells stories terribly. Exactly when adult conversation would turn to details, he defaults to vagaries and even dogwhistles. (I was stunned yesterday, when, after declaring he would turn troops against American citizens, he finished the press conference by muttering something about his now going to a “very special place” and then walking off.) He often appears cognitively incapable of sustaining the many conspiracies he fears and serves. He commands crowds but only to incite anger and polarization, almost never to do what sustainable leaders must do, especially now:

Now is the time for leaders to inspire with their words and example, to amplify human dignity wherever it can be found, to understand and work across otherness and difference, to propose previously unseen solutions and to advance practical courses of action, to model and then call for humble self-reflection and self-correction that leads to greater purpose and more effective action.

As an educator, I judge his public performance as showing little to no ability to learn or retain knowledge. My disadvantaged first-year college students sometimes outperform him in argumentation and evidence. He has a peerless middle school mastery of petty insults and a strong radar for personal and crowd manipulation, but little else that makes him fit for the public square. As a student of the media, I see his verbal attack on the free press (now literally embodied in well over 100 police attacks on journalists in the last few days) as, at the very best, a poor practical bet. If you too feel tempted to agree with Trump that all media is fake news these days, consider which of the following two situations is more likely: (1) almost all the mainstream media are fake news because the guy in charge says so, or (2) the journalism industry with tens of thousands of trained professionals devoted to checking power with public verified facts remains, on balance, more credible in its critique of the guy in charge than the other way around?

(If you still think it is likely that it is easier for thousands of professionals to be more wrong than one President, do you make this kind of bet often? Do you think that thousands of NASA scientists kept the big moon secret for sixty years too? Do you think the rest of the universe would be simpler to explain if the world were flat, not round? If so, Trump’s fake news claim is just another bridge to nowhere. It is too easy.) History reminds us: all Presidents have tense relationships with the media, but this one is on the edge. Trump’s blunt attacks on the media draw directly from the playbook of tyrants in training.

The end result of this character assessment? Trump, the person, is inconsequential. Were history just, he would be a nobody; yet here we are, now condemning him as he deserves and steeling ourselves against letting his deep moral failure break our hearts.

Are you a religious conservative? The scriptures brim with warnings against corrupt leaders and nations caught in pride cycles. They overwhelmingly invite us to welcome the stranger, to rally against unjust laws, to resist oppression against widows, orphans, and the least of these, to repent, and to love one another. Joseph was prudent with himself and then with all of Egypt’s resources. King David sinned and then showed remorse. Prophets do nothing if not warn that nations and peoples destroy themselves through pride cycles. Will we not hear these warnings now? Will we not see them in our leaders and ourselves?

Are you a fiscal conservative? You don’t need the reminder: even without starting a new war abroad, his administration has punished those with an instinct for arithmetic and balanced accounting. The Trump administration has ballooned the size of government, debt, and taxes as much as or more than his Democrat and Republican predecessors but, unlike them, in ways that openly serve his own good before the public or party good. His administration has raised taxes on the coastal states (California has the second most Republicans), issued tariffs against free trade, waged trade wars, and increased the national debt to over 25 trillion (roughly 200K per tax payer) — and often out of an apparent sense of vengeance, not balance. Whatever fiscal conservatism is, Trump is not.

Are you a law & order conservative? I see an administration that cannot maintain law & order in itself, never mind one prone to fumble the nation in serious social and economic distress. The overturn in his staff is continuous. He fires as much as a third of the White House senior staff every year. The inditement, vacancy, and internal leaks counts are high: the people closest to Trump do not appear to trust him. A law & order administration is only that in name if it also drives out seasoned public servants and stable mature professionals and replaces them with a court of yes-men (Pence), ideologues (Miller, Bannon, Bolton), millionaires and billionaires (de Vos, et. al.), and nepotistic neophytes to governance (Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Trump himself). What law and order can we hope for out of a house divided against itself, internally as an administration and as a nation? Meanwhile, the fruits of his law & order policies have been not sensible immigration reform nor surely redresses for centuries of systemic racial injustice.

Instead we have witnessed the militarizing of anti-immigration actions that hold refugee women and children in cages, divide families, and profit the private prison industry. His wall along our Southern border is the kind of law and order demanded in Soviet Berlin, the West Bank, and the Korean DMZ. More Americans are choosing to move to Mexico now than the other way around.

When law & order is an administrative principle of diligence and procedural fairness, it can lead to well-ordered states: when in name only, “law & order” is code for our country’s systemic racism and oppression of black and brown people. There is no ambiguity today about which law & order Trump stands for.

Are you a pragmatic or cultural conservative who just wants stuff managed well while voting for the same party your parents voted for? Not your guy. Consider Trump’s response to the pandemic: Trump defunded the pandemic crisis preparation team despite warnings, tried to discredit and politicize the CDC, slipped into idiot questions, and promoted unproven panaceas that would pad his pockets. More crucially, his administration has fumbled its critical role in coordinating crisis relief, public health knowledge, and relief operations in conjunction with the states. It has delayed our national response by weeks, pushed to reopen under a false dichotomy between economy and lives, and in the process has made itself responsible for exacerbating perhaps the greatest spike in unemployment, economic depression, and avoidable deaths in a century. Now, instead of carefully coordinating relief to those who suffer, he is deploying the military on his own people.

Are you a hot-button conservative? Well, here you may have received what you were promised. Trump — the same man who has never clarified whether he supported abortions with the women he has slept with, who suggested states have control over abortion, and whose stance on abortion flip-flops with more political convenience than learning — has successfully appointed two Supreme Court associate justices and 195 other judges to the courts of our land. And, if you believe the ends justify the means, first consider that anti-abortion law may kill more people than they save and then rest assured that you have received what you ask for: this administration has appointed, save for one predecessor, more young, life-time judges to our courts, especially red-state district courts and courts of appeal. Surely these hot-button conservatives who see only that a baby’s death is wrong can also see that every George Floyd in every city is also the baby of a mother? Surely you can see that the constitution guarantees to all that our nation currently does not: the right to life? (Added: are you single-issue enough that you’ll actually follow where the evidence leads? Surely you are willing to follow your conviction far enough to realize that, now over thirty years of evidence, that the apparent best way to discourage abortions is not to legislate morality but to vote blue?)

And then there’s the last way to support Trump: the scariest and illegitimate way. These conservatives may harbor radical (if secret) ideologies bent on speeding the collapse of our country. These few non-patriots excuse his nationalist populism because it smuggles in the catastrophism that promises to accelerate one of any number of their favorite apocalyptic futures.

I know a few of these catastrophic camps — and they have their limited uses: communism has its accelerationists, whose theory makes for good reading while American Christianity has its doomsday preppers who often have great homemade jam recipes. There are countless push-button catastrophisms. If this sounds like you on a bad day, ask yourself — why do I think Trump will speed my particular vision of the future after the crisis? Take your pick: the second coming for the evangelicals, the establishment of an Aryan nation, the promise of terrorist overthrow, threat of nuclear annihilation. Catastrophism cannot justify any one particular post-apocalyptic hoped-for future; instead it encourages us to rush foolishly toward all of them. Even the increasingly likely catastrophic future — the sixth extinction — is unlikely to happen in the ways its strongest advocates imagine. If you have a specific vision of life after Trump, and that life is better because Trump sped the end of days, you’re just wrong.

Still, I must admit, if this kind of thinking still attracts you, Trump might actually be your best inside man. Since his election, neofascist groups are on the rise, incidents of hate and violence against non-white people are climbing significantly, environmental neglect is accelerating, and now there is blood flowing in the streets. He is a useful idiot for making the end looks ever closer and closer, but do not be fooled. Trump loves the language of crisis but, the pandemic has shown, he cannot govern crisis to any given end. This means Trump is incapable of serving any but a chaotic future. If this is *still* your Trump, I don’t know what to say: I call out your callousness and your ridiculously fixed imagination of the future. You may not risk the lives of others on implausible futures. Among my conservative friends, I pray few to none are actively in this subset. If you are, please change your ways. Our worst enemies celebrate the extremists and conspiracy theorists among us.

The moral calculus of conservatism is often as complex as the history that calculates its moral arc. Today tens of thousands are peacefully protesting for historic change. So please take history seriously today and heed this warning: if Trump opens fire on our own people, history will indite him and all those who do not oppose him. History will not be kind to Trump or his supporters.

The future of our nation’s health, never mind that of the conservative movement, will depend on our nation’s collective ability to distance ourselves from Trump and his enablers, all the way from the halls of Congress to the next PTA Zoom meeting.

Look, I’m not delighted about the alternatives to Trump either. But I will *not* abdicate the capacity to discern and pass considered judgments. Too much is at stake. The world is complex enough without what-about false equivalences. This is how I see it right now: in the old analogy of politicians as public transportation options, Biden is a dotty public servant driving a somewhat smelly bus likely to make random detours in the general direction we should go, while Trump is the thirteen-year-old bully who offers to give the country a ride in his shiny new Red Flyer wagon that he has just hitched to a rowdy biker gang speeding out of town. This is hardly a choice, but if you cannot make it, and make it decidedly, please know that you are increasingly on the wrong side of history in this challenging chapter of our country.

Now is the time for leadership that is expansive, visionary, evidence-based, conciliatory, and compassionate. Now is a time to extend to all people the dignity of our common humanity. If the violent won’t, the President must. If he won’t, our country will fail the peaceful majority.

If you are military, you will be judged on how you respond to the President’s order to turn on our own people. Your finest and most challenging hour will come in standing up against that order — in calling for denouement, in standing down, and in kneeling in shared grief with all those who suffer.

No house will stand divided against itself. Racism, among so much else, must be resisted and reformed. Conservatives, conserve the Republic: stand now against Trump.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ben Peters

Media prof (TU), author, editor, theorist, historian, ultimate frisbeeist