Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Trump and the Norms He Violates

From a commenter on Conor Friedersdorf's blog:
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.
In many ways Trump is the candidate America deserves.


Unknown said...

That argument strikes me as deeply moral, deeply worthy, and completely wrong. It seems to me that many Trump voters probably feel about moral hypocrisy the same way the poster does; they despise it. They just come to an opposite moral conclusion: they want to embrace the badness.

But then, I think moral hypocrisy is essential to civilization. If your leaders decide to use drone strikes, it's better that they look sober and regretful than like they think it's fun.

John said...

One of the serious critiques of Trump is that it is a sense of shame, as much as the Constitution, that actually restrains political behavior, and since Trump has no sense of shame he would not be constrained in ways that an ordinary politician would be. This is probably true. But I just don't see Trump as any more evil than Cheney, Wolfowitz and Addington. Where was their sense of shame? Trump is a conniving businessman, but is he any worse than the Wall Street guys who cooked up the mortgage bond market? There is a faction of Americans that finds Trump somehow much more offensive than the leadership of Goldman-Sachs, but I don't see it. And as for his shameless public narcissism, that fits in with the celebrity side of contemporary American culture. I saw some shocked responses to Trump saying that he has never asked God for forgiveness because he regrets nothing, but has W ever expressed any remorse for all the damage he did to the world?

Unknown said...

I would certainly say Trump is no worse than Cheney, et al. They also embraced the badness, though their style of embracing it was the pleasure of grimness rather than the pleasure of recklessness. But he's worse than Obama and Bill Clinton, who used US military power with lots of protestations of regret and much pantomime (some of it genuine) of hesitation.

G. Verloren said...

Really, it seems like what Americans who support Trump are actually after is a Putin figure - someone who will put on a confident tough guy act; someone who will boldly tell blatant lies that appeal to the lowest common denominator; someone who at all times will act completely confident about everything, and never admit to being wrong even when it's completely and utterly obvious that they are; but someone who at the end of the day is ultimately just blowing smoke.

The problem is that while Putin pretends to be a sociopath, Trump quite likely actually is one. I fear that if elected, most of his supporters will learn that he's actually serious the hard way - the same way most Germans learned that Hitler was actually serious about his supposed overblown "rhetoric".