Too few Americans see that distinction. And Trump benefits from their dearth of discernment. It frees him from the burden of carefully deciding which taboos ought to be challenged and which safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of careful critiques, he rants off-the-cuff, knowing that the bad press will look basically the same regardless of whether he attacks Rosie O’Donnell or the taboo against torture. His supporters are as inclined as the press to treat every utterance as an undifferentiated instance of political correctness—as if the appropriate degree of political correctness is all that’s at stake this election cycle.
As Trump himself has put it, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
That is the frame he requires to thrive.
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Over the weekend, Rod Dreher published his reflections on a just-concluded candidacy. “Was Jeb Bush acting out of conscious humility when he refused to engage Trump at the gutter level?” he asked. “I suspect it’s more the case that people of his class and breeding (if we can say that still) have internalized a code of honor that considers that kind of vulgar display to be contemptible, and beneath one’s dignity to engage. How could one tell the difference between the strength of character through which a man refuses to dishonor himself, and weakness?”
Several reader comments beneath that post offered unusually thought-provoking theories on why Trump is able to excel despite his undignified manner and lack of decency.
One commenter proposed that decency is no longer an option for Americans:
When an entitled elite has ensconced itself so securely in power that it cannot be removed decently, because it has to firm a grip on all the levers of political influence, what alternative is there but to remove them indecently? Not that I’m claiming Trump sees it that way, merely that those supporting him are reaching out for the only tool with a chance of succeeding. Those to blame are those who left them no decent alternative.
Another cast Trump as the more honorable candidate:
I think there is something refreshing about Trump disrespecting Bush to his face, in public... as opposed to running a smear campaign where his lackeys dig up dirt and release it to the press, all with plausible deniability for the candidate. I wouldn’t necessarily call it honorable, but I prefer Trump doing it himself to letting a super PAC do it on his behalf.
It’s hypocrisy to make a show of your personal character on stage while running a campaign that is not above dishonorable behavior behind the scenes.
The most insightful commenter argued that Trump would not have succeeded at rejecting so many long-held norms if the political establishment hadn’t long ago destroyed those norms:
Our norms of civic decency were evolved for a reason. Watching Trump violate those norms is a really good reminder of why we evolved those norms in the first place.
On the other hand, those norms have been profoundly subverted and corrupted for a while now, and used as often as mere cover for all manner of awfulness.
An an example, we’re all very accustomed to politicians “lying” the way that lawyers lie – which is to say, shading, obscuring, and hiding the truth, suggesting, and implying, relying heavily on euphemism and omission, walking right up to the line without ever quite crossing. That is the refined, college-educated way to lie. When Trump just lies brazenly, and then shrugs indifferently when called on it, it’s a really tacky and unfortunate way to be. But it also kind of throws into relief that what he’s doing isn’t really very far off from the not-quite-lying-but-actually-totally-lying that is handled constantly with more refined rhetoric.
One gets the sense from our current political class that, for example, torture and unconstrained drone strike assassination isn’t actually morally wrong as long as you adopt a furrowed brow and a constipated facial expression, sigh loudly, and say in your most patronizing voice, “This hurts me than it hurts you. I’m sorry I have to do this.” It’s adopting the “serious” tone that matters, not the actual content of your actions.
And it is profoundly ugly when Trump just gleefully says, more or less, I love torture and we’re going to be doing a lot of it. BUT, on the other hand, it’s not so clear at all that his stance on those things would really be any more assertive than people who adopt more pleasant, civil, “serious” rhetoric on these topics. And so again his sin becomes his rudeness and general obnoxiousness, his low classness, not the content of what he claims he’s going to do.
Which is a long-winded way of saying, I think Trump can exist because our norms have become hollowed shells of what they purport to be. Our norms have been gamed. It feels very much like we’ve gotten to a point where people in many of our institutions, in positions of authority, follow the letter of the law about civic decency, but have almost entirely abandoned the spirit of the law. Trump just takes the last little leap and ditches the letter of the law too.
My hope is that people rediscover why we had those norms, and rediscover the spirit of them, not just the dead letter. And if Trump serves as a midwife to that process, then thank you Donald Trump. I guess I have to hope that, because the alternative is Idiocracy on an accelerated time line.
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