In a bold quest for journalism’s holy grail — the Pulitzer Prize — New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen recently abandoned his comfy Manhattan ivory tower. Sallying forth into America’s darkest hinterlands, he sought to confront that dreaded liberal bête noire: an honorable Donald Trump supporter. In Syracuse, New York, Cohen found his quarry. Shannon Kennedy, an unmarried 69-year-old retired military officer and former stockbroker, voted twice for Barack Obama before his conversion to Trump.
The main source of Kennedy’s anger, Cohen informed us last weekend, is the profusion of lobbyists and politicians lining their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense. “Trust the Clintons? Not with the Lord’s breakfast,” Kennedy told Cohen.
Damn the torpedoes
In this fetid swamp, Obama appealed to Kennedy as “a breath of fresh air… So poised, a really got-it-together guy.” But now Kennedy’s heart goes pitter-pat for Trump for similar reasons.
“The thing about him,” Kennedy told Cohen, “is that there’s forward energy. He’s like a horse with blinders at the Kentucky Derby. If there’s another horse in the way, knock it out and ride the rail. I listened to him, on draining the swamp, on lobbyists, and I liked that. As I recall, it was ‘We the people,’ not ‘We the empowered.’”
Kennedy insisted that he harbors no illusions about Trump, whom he called “brash” and “a rogue.” But here’s Kennedy’s bottom line: Trump is also “a fighter, a scrapper, the kind of guy who says, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.'”
Avoiding Joe Biden
After tolerantly devoting 14 paragraphs to Kennedy’s biography and views, Cohen limply informs us, “I disagree,” because, Cohen says, Trump has sullied the presidency with “mendacity, bigotry, and autocratic contempt for the Constitution.” The lesson for Democrats who want to win elections, Cohen concludes, is that they need to pay more attention to voters like Shannon Kennedy and avoid the same old establishment candidates, such as former vice president Joe Biden.
Cohen asked Kennedy about “the president’s racism, lies, warmongering outbursts, vulgarity, and attacks on a free press and the judiciary.” Kennedy glibly replied, “Go beyond the noise. Don’t take him at face value. If I thought he was a racist, I’d be off the train so fast you’d have to mail me my shadow.”
Hillary’s "swelled head"
As the late Philadelphia journalist John Guinther observed, to get better answers, ask better questions. Maybe questions like:
“You say you were wrong about Obama — is it possible you could also be wrong about Trump? You say you don’t trust the Clintons, but why do you trust Trump? I understand that Trump says things you’d like to hear, but have you looked beyond his rhetoric? Is it possible Trump has conned you, just as he conned so many of his investors, bankers, and suppliers, not to mention all those students of Trump University? You put your life on the line for your country; do you see anything in Trump’s record that suggests he would do the same?”
Of course, journalists (especially at the Times) bend over backwards to avoid seeming to take sides. But if journalists did pose some of the above questions to Trump supporters — as I have done occasionally — the answers could be more enlightening than anything Cohen elicited from Kennedy.
A Trump voter, shortly before the 2016 election, told me, “I know he’s a con man. I know he’s not qualified to be president. But that’s the whole point! The system is rotten. By voting for an obviously unqualified candidate, I’m registering my protest against the system.”
Two other educated Republican friends in Indiana, one the author of several books about opera, the other the head of a college dance program, said shortly after the 2016 election: “We disliked both candidates. We voted for Trump for two reasons. First, we knew Trump would win Indiana, so our votes wouldn’t make a difference here. Second, we assumed Hillary would win big nationally, and we didn’t want her to get a swelled head.”
In both cases, these voters assumed (wrongly) that Trump had no chance to win. They voted for him either as a protest gesture or as a check on Hillary Clinton’s mandate. They may or may not be typical Trump supporters, but you’ll never really know unless you engage them in one-on-one Socratic dialogue. Cohen failed to do this with Kennedy. On the contrary, he went belly-up for Kennedy in much the same way Kennedy went belly-up for Trump. As Pogo Possum famously put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.