Peggy Noonan and the Opposite of Contempt

Peggy Noonan got a lot of response — positive and negative — to her column on Pres. Trump’s weakness as a man and as a president.  The response was more striking to me than the column because she was far from the first person to identify Trump as a crybully, rather than the alpha male he pretends to be.

Accordingly, I suspect the reaction was due largely to the fact that it was Peggy Noonan who wrote it.  And that interests me because it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of Noonan from which we might learn something.

If you review Noonan’s columns on Trump, you generally will not find someone sympathetic to Trump.  She may have found him personally charming on the phone, or hoped after his first major address that he was finally “pivoting” toward being presidential (even if she knew better deep down).  Otherwise, you will not find much enthusiasm for the man.

Noonan is not, and never was, a yuge Trump supporter.  She was, and is, a Trump supporter supporter.

If you want to understand Noonan’s perspective, read her April 21, 2016 column, “That Moment When 2016 Hits You.”  Notably, she declared, “this is all personal, and not column-ish.”

In this piece, Noonan referred to Trump as “Crazy Man.”  She also wrote this:

I was offended that those curiously quick to write essays about who broke the party were usually those who’d backed the policies that broke it. Lately conservative thinkers and journalists had taken to making clear their disdain for the white working class. I had actually not known they looked down on them. I deeply resented it and it pained me. If you’re a writer lucky enough to have thoughts and be paid to express them and there are Americans on the ground struggling, suffering—some of them making mistakes, some unlucky—you don’t owe them your airy, well-put contempt, you owe them your loyalty. They too have given a portion of their love to this great project, and they are in trouble.”

If you harbor any doubt that elitist contempt for the working class is what agitates Noonan, read the first chapter of her memoir, What I Saw At The Revolution.  If you’re really busy, you can skip to pages 15-16.  [Update: If you can’t read those pages on Google, try Amazon.]  Noonan is very clear about the moment when she knew she was not on the left; it had everything to do with this idea of contempt.  In 2016, she was seeing it on the right as well as the left.

Of course, Noonan asserts that the conservative commentariat (of which I am a tiny part) owes the white working class our loyalty, which raises a number of interesting questions.

For example, if Trump’s margin of victory came largely from Obama voters or voters who had a favorable impression of Hillary before Trump came on the scene, what sort of loyalty needs to be shown to them?  Why didn’t we owe them loyalty when these same people were voting for Barack Obama, leader of a Democratic Party filled with the sort of contemptuous social justice warriors who so offended Noonan during the Vietnam era?

Granted, in 2016 these voters sided with the GOP nominee, which would mean more to me if I considered myself more a Republican than a conservative.  But even if I identified primarily as a Republican, I would still ask why I would owe loyalty to Trump over other Republicans,  especially given that my record as a Republican is much longer than Trump’s, let alone some former Obama voter.

Moreover, I wonder whether Noonan has considered a question raised by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, i.e., the degree to which the current suffering of the white working class is a product of declining morals among this demographic since the 1960s.  What will any politician, let alone one with the morals of Donald J. Trump, do to solve that problem?  Indeed, after identifying the failures of the elites, has Trump done anything but offer the white working class mirages and non sequiturs as solutions to their problems?

I imagine that Noonan would respond that the duty we owe the white working class is one of assistance that transcends ideology.  If so, I might agree that nationalism might extend that far… but that is inherently much different than loyalty to a particular candidate or agenda, and a principle not uniquely applicable to the white working class.

Noonan is entirely right to recoil against the contempt expressed for many Trump voters in the white working class (though perhaps this is a smaller sub-group than Noonan may believe).  But the opposite of contempt is not loyalty.

The antonyms of contempt include not only approval and flattery, but also respect and sympathy.  All of us, including the white working class, will be better served with the latter instead of the former.  Contempt can be an ugly thing, but flattery based on demographics seems much more like pandering.

Respect would be a more solid and worthwhile basis for a relationship.  But respecting others as fellow citizens and human beings does not require agreement with their political judgments and rationalizations, for the reasons already mentioned.  Respect means engaging in honest discussion and debate, in which either side may be wrong (in whole or in part) though both sides may not believe themselves to be in error.  Respect means not treating those with whom you differ like children, neither condescending nor patronizing.

Indeed, when I hear the defenses of Trump offered by his supporters, they sound eerily to me like the defenses once offered by supporters of Sarah Palin.  Once upon a time, Peggy Noonan offered an eloquent rebuttal to all of them, though she did not address whether Palin supporters had given a portion of their love to this great project.

Of course, she wasn’t necessarily 100% right then; she may not be 100% wrong now.  America is a complex place, one in which there are risks in pledging loyalty based on stereotypes, regardless of whether those stereotypes are positive or negative.

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