The Antidote to Trump Is Decency

The president and his movement are empowered by ugly talk—the most effective rejoinders are factually precise and emotionally restrained.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Start with what you already know: It’s hypocritical in the extreme for President Trump to denounce entertainers for using language demeaning to women. When he complains that Samantha Bee has spoken insultingly of his favorite daughter, he does so as a man who has said worse of literally dozens of women who irritated him, rebuffed his advances, or failed to meet his ideals of female beauty. Nobody in American politics—nobody in most of our lifetimes in politics—has demeaned women as grossly as Donald Trump. Contempt for women is one of the guiding rules of his life: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”

As I said, you knew that.

You also, I hope, understand that there is a huge difference between the words of most people on Twitter and those of the president of the United States, who commands the vast coercive power of the executive branch of the federal government. When Trump demands the NFL silence protest, or that an ABC executive grovel to him, or that TimeWarner fire Samantha Bee, he is not expressing an opinion. He is threatening a hostile use of state power against individuals or corporations vulnerable to that power.

Again, I hope you knew that.

Now here’s a third thing you know or should know: There is a powerful network of important people in the United States who earn their livelihoods by angrily contradicting the obvious truths in the two paragraphs above. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre coined the term “bad faith” to describe such behavior. As described by one of Sartre’s popularizers,

[The person of] bad faith … maintain[s] against all evidence that something is right, when he knows he is wrong. Deaf to rational argument, he builds false reasons, retreating into a defensive absurd system. In this game of right and wrong, the man in bad faith is not fooling anyone, least of all himself.

But that description turns out to be way too optimistic. Our modern proponents of bad faith do fool millions of people. The dimmer of them probably also succeed in fooling themselves as well. The cleverer of them have developed sophisticated justifications for what they do that transmute crass self-interest into some semblance of a higher cause.

They work in the White House, or for Fox News, or for pro-Trump websites and publications—and they matter. They exert huge influence over our public life. And when Samantha Bee or anyone else hands them raw material, they will use it.

If you take seriously that the Trump presidency is a threat to American democracy, you’ll want also to take seriously the weapons that threat deploys. Donald Trump and his people will violate the decencies of ordinary life, no matter what Bee (or any other hate target of opportunity) may say or do. But by violating those decencies herself, Bee greatly eased the Trump people’s task of obfuscating their own such violations.

Here’s something to bear in mind: During Soviet times, the communist authorities expressed themselves in operatically vehement language. Noncommunists were denigrated as hyenas, jackals, vultures, and other disgusting animals; as bandits, fascists, Nazis, and other enemies of humanity.

In response, Soviet dissenters developed their own language: factually precise, emotionally restrained. The most important dissident publication carried the determinedly unexciting name, The Chronicle of Current Events.

There’s a lesson here. Donald Trump and the political movement behind him are empowered by ugly talk. Their own talk stands out less sharply in contrast. “You did it first … you did it worse … you do it more” are accurate enough answers, but they are not as powerful as not doing it at all.

Let Trump be Trump.

Let decent people be decent.

Trust your country—not all of it, sadly, but enough of it—to notice and appreciate the difference.