Mark Franke: The Trump effect

I will come clean up front: I am not a Donald Trump supporter. I will also come clean by publicly stating I voted for him in the 2016 and 2020 general elections but in neither primary. What choice did I have when considering the alternatives? The current state of affairs with Joe Biden and his administration validates my choice. And no defense is required for refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Just the thought of having a rematch between Biden and Trump makes me despair for our republic. I think psychologists would define my mental state as cognitive dissonance. No matter which choice I might make, I will regret it. Economists call this buyer’s remorse, if I recall my college courses in that discipline.

My wife’s feelings are the same so you can imagine what family discourse is like leading up to Election Day.

When this situation comes up in conversation among friends, the conversation becomes less polite and friendships are stressed. Between my MAGA and Never Trump acquaintances, enjoyable evenings are hard to come by.

My mental health is medicated by a group of friends who gather monthly to discuss issues like the Trump effect and other significant national policy questions. The reason I find these sessions restorative rests in the group’s composition and its ground rules.

None of us knew everyone prior to our first meeting. A common friend facilitated the group for the sole purpose of finding a way forward through our national malaise. We come from varied backgrounds and professions. Everyone is well-read and intellectually rigorous. We all know that difficult questions require intensive study and open-mindedness when considering possible solutions.

The group attempts to hold our monthly discussions via the Socratic method. A Socratic purist would not be impressed with our application of the methodology. We seem to honor it more in the breach than in the observance yet we still can advance the debate in a semi-formal structure that pushes us toward a proposed solution, although in all honesty I must admit we don’t always get there. I don’t envy the month’s moderator whose job it is to make it so.

Every month we select the next topic and assign a moderator. His job is to write the discussion prompt and assemble a relevant reading list. Yes, homework is required and watching Fox News or CNN doesn’t count.

We are supposed to raise our hands when we wish to speak and the order of speakers is honored for the most part. The current speaker is not to be interrupted and a time limit of three minutes per comment is occasionally enforced.

We routinely violate Socrates’ idea of how to study a question and the Oxford debating society would just shake its head at our informality. Still, this is not the Saturday night cocktail party approach of one-upmanship and tossing hand grenades on the table. The topic doesn’t change every 90 seconds and nobody is trying to prove a point, just presenting a persuasive argument for or against the monthly prompt. This recalls my undergraduate days when we would stay up most of the night to solve all the world’s problems. Undergraduate hubris is a force of nature.

So what about Donald Trump? Everyone in the group acknowledged Trump’s commanding lead among Republican candidates and, for the most part, expected this lead to be unassailable. The more Trump is prosecuted (or persecuted, your choice), the more solid his base becomes.

Much of our time was invested in considering Trump’s impact down ticket on senatorial and congressional candidates. Can a Republican candidate admit to not being a Trump supporter? Trump’s track record in the 2022 midterm elections was not impressive so perhaps these candidates need not be overly defensive.

Biden’s poll numbers continue to head south on nearly every issue, red meat for his opponent. But we saw in 2016 that Trump can’t tolerate the other candidate getting any press coverage, which his ego wants focused on him. As one of our group stated, “Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”

While we worried the Republican problem to death, we gave short shrift to the very real problems the Democrats have with their presumptive ticket. Can Joe Biden win if he actually campaigns or debates? And then there is Kamala Harris, who seems even more confused and confusing than her boss whenever she speaks. Napoleon’s maxim to never interrupt your opponent when he is about to make a mistake is apropos for Trump, if he cares to listen.

If we came to any conclusion, it was to take a long-term view of the Republican Party’s prospects. It is difficult now with all the oxygen having left the room, but a post-Trump party can be built by successful federal, state and local candidates.

Is there a young Ronald Reagan waiting in the wings? I sure hope so.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].