The Necessary, Honorable Thing: Denounce Trump
Only a few true moments of conscience present themselves in a lifetime. For relatively safe and comfortable Americans of the post-World War II era — a place and period of human history unparalleled in its general security and complacency — those moments are even fewer. So unfamiliar are these crucibles of conscience in actual experience that even many among the learned are blurred in their vision, dulled to the understanding of what rises before them. Though their fates may be poised before an unalterable destination and a lifetime of nostalgia for the lost world ante, they do not act. But they must act. For just such a moment of conscience is now.
Donald Trump, like all demagogues, is a barbarian. Bespoke to pass for civilized in the cultivated appointments of commerce and power, he is a brute in a suit. It is a truism among the unblind that he is a narcissist, an Ego on legs sublimating primal urges to the contest of domination. He has not the least understanding of American history or of the American ideal — both of which he defiles with almost every utterance — but would not value them if he did. For every person who ever confused the exceptional idea of America with some reality of an Exceptional America, Donald Trump is the horrific lie behind the ripped open curtain to which that delusion is put.
As a person, he is an offense to decency who will demean and destroy both the high and the low, the weak and the strong, the guilty and the innocent in order to aggrandize his lust for superiority. Upon the culture and the body politic, he is a blot, a blight, a blob: decent people should refuse his presence for fear of the accreting ooze spreading at their feet. Those analysts among the opining class who confuse and characterize his crude offense and bald bigotry pronounced in a New York accent with candor — said often of a man who can barely articulate a truth not shadowed by a lie, and who rises to glory as the P.T. Barnum of bullshit* — should be locked away from keyboard and microphone for the danger to the republic they amplify.
As a man in pursuit of political power, he is the apotheosis of ignorance over the cheap mammon of notoriety. He knows nothing of the issues he addresses, cares nothing for the people whose passions he exhorts — whom he would cheat by a scheme the moment after professing his love from the podium — and he believes in nothing that he says but the declarations of his own greatness. The foremost authoritarians of the twentieth century themselves actually believed in something — in some perverse conception of the people or the state. Donald Trump is the debasement of even demagoguery itself, for he scorns the very demos in demagogue, which is nothing but a mark to be played.
Short of the snuff film legalized, the return of public executions, or the restoration of the Battle Royal, Donald Trump is the final degradation of exhibitionist, reality-entertainment, gawker American culture. Politically, he is the greatest threat to the Republic since the Civil War. He is an event horizon beyond which, even eventually defeated and overcome, the nation would never be the same again. In some respects, for what Trump has revealed of many, that is true already.
What has Trump revealed?
That the American people, no different from any other people — which the nation’s founders well knew, but their most pious inheritors forgot, in unseemly self-congratulation for an achievement not their own — are subject to the same ugly and shameful passions and animating angers as any other people; and which their better educated but foolish observers will excuse as the passionate expression of democracy.
That despite the cant of American patriotism, American political partisanship is superior by far for many than love of country; that there is, for many, no true idea of America separable from a conservative or liberal America.
That the American news media, at their now far too common worst — ever and fatally uncomprehending of the distinction between objectivity and neutrality, and of the inherent mission of journalism to seek and serve the truth, and thus reveal and judge the lie — are stenographers of disaster and ticket takers at a Roman Circus they sponsor.
The advent of Donald Trump on the political scene is a rend in the fabric of American republican history, a maelstrom in the moral climate of the nation’s present. As did many millions of Europeans after the Second World War, and Americans after McCarthyism, we will reckon with the roles we played at the time of his rise for generations to come, as well we should. For now, the task is to ensure that the reckoning comes sooner and less seriously than if it comes later.
Every Republican who would be called a patriot should work to ensure that Donald Trump does not become the candidate for President of the Republican Party. If he does, Republicans of conscience must leave the party and form a new party, of conservative principle, of human decency, and of commitment to America’s founding ideals, and run a candidate against Trump.
News media must cease to treat Trump as another candidate, end their acquiescence to, and normalization of, his conduct, and report on him not as a mere variant candidate for president, but as a phenomenon of American political history deserving of historical analysis and judgment.
Too many have waited too long. The time has come. This is the moment.
*“Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.
“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
“The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
Further reading: “Unexceptional America”