Presumption of Good Intentions

Every once in a while, I wade into political discussions on social media. I know . . . I am a glutton for punishment.

I don’t do it all the time, and I try to be selective about where I do it. More often than not, it’ll be in the comments on one of my own posts or a post made by a friend. I am more likely to get civil, intelligent responses there than out on the ‘open’ Internet with its millions of fired-up anonymous partisans, Russian bots, and paid astroturfers. And normally this goes okay; we have a passionate but polite discussion, and everybody who participated learns something about those who disagree with them.

One of my Facebook acquaintances is somebody I don’t actually know very well. She is a ‘friend of a friend’ who connected with me at some point, and I accepted because there was no reason not to. I usually enjoy her posts. She is a hard-core right-winger, and while she is not the only one on my friends list, she is probably the most vocal and forward about it. I agree with her a lot of the time, but not always. But whether or not I agree with her on some particular issue, it’s undeniable that she’s smart, sincere, and passionate.

Recently, she posted a statement by Dr. James Dobson in response to a Christianity Today editorial favoring the impeachment and removal of President Donald Trump (R). Nothing against Dobson, but it was mostly polemical nonsense. He starts off by saying, “The editors didn’t tell us who should take [Trump’s] place in the aftermath.” Well they didn’t need to! If a president is removed, the vice president becomes president. So the dastardly left-wing maniac who would replace Trump would be . . . Vice President Mike Pence (R).

Dobson went on to say that maybe Christianity Today, which is a conservative Christian publication, would prefer a president who opposes all the major political positions of the modern ‘right’ . . . continuing to work from the fallacious assumption that wanting Trump out of office automatically means you want a Democrat there instead. Of course the real-world impact of a removal would be to elevate an even more consistent and more honest supporter of conservative causes to that office. Remember, most of the ‘evangelicals’ didn’t even support Trump until after he picked Pence to be his V.P. candidate, because they liked and trusted Pence a lot more than they did Trump.

Sure, most of the people advocating Trump’s removal would prefer a Democrat. And you may argue that the whole impeachment effort is a thinly-veiled partisan hit. But isn’t it at least conceivable that somebody who ticks all the conservative boxes, somebody who consistently supports conservative causes, might also believe that Trump’s behavior constitutes a high crime or misdemeanor? Last time I checked, being a conservative did not require bending the knee before any particular political figure, nor did it mean you must never criticize people on your own side.

But daring to break with Trump these days results in people like Dobson implying that maybe you “would prefer a president who is passionately pro-abortion, anti-family, hostile to the military, dispassionate toward Israel, supports a socialist form of government,” etc. You are, apparently, either a MAGA-hat-wearing hard-core Trumpian ’til death, or else you are a pinko commie America-hating leftist. Nothing in-between. No nuance is possible. We cannot even grant a presumption of good intentions to whose who dare to disagree about the merits of this one particular man who happens to be president today, even if we agree with one another on practically every other issue.

Anyway . . . I responded to her re-post of Dobson’s statement with a brief statement of my own. I won’t post the whole thing, but the key point I made was this: “I’m not saying I believe that [impeachment and removal is] the best way forward. But it is at least conceivable that somebody with a well-formed conscience might support removing Trump (if they really believe he has committed a “high crime”), and that cannot be assumed to equate to an endorsement of the Democrats.”

I got a few responses . . . and the gist of them can be summed up with a couple of quotes: One said, “If following in the footsteps of the Dems in this disgusting ‘impeachment’ effort is NOT endorsing their stands . . . I don’t know what it is!!” Another said, “Supporting impeachment doesn’t endorse Trump’s opponents? A person supporting impeachment IS Trump’s opponent!”

Of course many of the respondents assumed that I was stating my own position (even though I said I wasn’t). You’ll be hearing what I think about the recently passed articles of impeachment as soon as I finish my detailed analysis, which is currently a work-in-progress. In this case, I wasn’t even defending Christianity Today’s argument, I was merely calling-out Dobson’s careless misrepresentation of it, and of what it would actually mean if Trump were removed. I think it’s important to debate from people’s real positions, not twisted, hyper-partisan, knee-jerk caricatures of them. As I reiterated in a follow-up post: “Disagree with the [Christianity Today] article. Fine. I see where it’s coming from but I too don’t agree with its conclusions. But it’s quite a leap from there to assuming that . . . the writer of the article is a pro-abortion Democrat!”

I concluded: “I’m really troubled by how some on ‘our side’ deify Trump and place him above criticism, and assume that others who dislike him more than we do are somehow bad or evil people who must therefore be socialist pro-abortion Democrats (and so on).” Nobody ever responded to that and our little sub-thread fizzed out. I don’t know if that means I got through to them, or they blocked me, or they just lost interest in the discussion. But the conversation did stick with me none-the-less, even though it was about two weeks ago now.

Ever since Trump emerged as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, I have had a love/hate political relationship with him. He is a deeply flawed representative of conservatism, to say the least. In the end, I voted for him . . . but only in an effort to deny the presidency to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), who would have been much, much worse for the U.S. Supreme Court and, thereby, for the future of the republic. But the things that made me—and many other conservatives—hesitant about Trump in the first place mostly still apply. And nobody should demand that others must have an overriding love for Donald Trump in order to qualify as a conservative.

Yes, a good conservative can be a die-hard supporter of Trump who will never waver. If that describes you, fine! I don’t question your ‘right wing’ credentials on that basis! But another good conservative can support most of Trump’s policies without even liking Trump the person. And another can can wish for—and even advocate for—replacing Trump with somebody they think would be a better messenger for their beliefs. And yes, another can, in good conscience, believe that Trump committed a high crime or misdemeanor and should be removed from office and replaced by Pence. That, in and of itself, does not even make that person a bad conservative . . . let alone some kind of progressive Democrat in disguise!

We can have the debate. We can disagree. But we can still acknowledge that we’re mostly on the same side and not lob insults and litmus tests at each other.

Earlier I used a phrase that I want to come back to: the presumption of good intentions. Most conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, want what they believe is best for the country. Yes, we have very different ideas about what that means. And it is okay to think that your opponents are misguided or wrong (at least as long as you’ve taken the time to actually learn what they believe and why). But we should not fall into the trap of assuming our political opponents are psychopaths who want to destroy America. Even if that were true of some political leaders, we should be able to recognize that the ‘normal’ Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and independents who live around us generally aren’t evil.

But the trend seems to be going the opposite way. Now, even the slightest deviation from your own side’s party line seems to get you labeled ‘the enemy’ by people who agree with you about almost everything. It has gotten absolutely absurd. We demand from our peers a level of “purity” in thought that is practically impossible to achieve without a complete suspension of critical thinking. Is it any wonder, then, that the quality of our political representatives—and the legislation they write—seems to get worse by the year? We are self-selecting leaders who either blindly follow a party line, or a party leader . . . or are at least willing to lie and say that they do.

Likewise, we punish the honest, independent thinkers and exclude them from serious consideration. People like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI 2nd)—either of whom would be better presidents than the recent nominees from their respective parties—are drummed out early from their presidential primaries for failing to march in perfect lockstep. Is it any wonder, then, that independents like myself feel so alienated even from the major political party that we are closest to ideologically? And is it any wonder that much of America thinks our political system is badly broken?

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.