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  • Max Stearns

Trump isn’t the Problem (with language alert)

The number 1 trending NYT article is a list of Trump’s lies since he was sworn in as President. See here. Before the election, the NYT compiled a similar list, which it has since updated, of his insulting tweets. See here.

Since his election, Donald Trump has compromised international relationships with NATO Allies, with Mexico, with China, even with Australia. He continues to try to put up that wall, yet tear down Obamacare. He seeks to block Muslim entry, just without calling it that. He has largely eschewed diversity, while praising wealth, in his selection of cabinet members and other high-level officials. See here. He has fired James Comey on dubious pretenses, and he has led the nation on an apparent wild goose chase regarding the possibility of taped meetings, based, of course, on a misleading tweet. We are five months in.

It’s easy to blame Trump for where we are. Trump isn’t the problem. There are countless people like him, people who pathologically lie, who blame others for their failings, who hold conspiratorial views of the world, who are narcissistic, who believe that they are exempt from the rules and entitled to everything and more. In my professional life, including this blog, I always try to use proper language. This demands precision. But precision doesn't preclude unkind, even vulgar, terms that are sometimes essential in conveying meaning. The Princeton philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, captured this insight in titling his monograph “On Bullshit,” see here. And in "Asshole: A Theory," UC Irvine Professor, Aaron James, likewise exposed that term to probing philosophical inquiry, see here. Readers can decide for themselves if our President matches the criteria of the second book. But even if one concludes that he does, surely that is not a rarity. The world is filled with them. It’s the old joke comparing them to opinions; everyone has one.

The problems we face don't turn on whether Trump is part of that club. We can debate the merits of past presidents, but the odds surely favor electing such a person every now and again. Even if we were naïve enough to believe James Madison’s argument that institutional filters could inoculate us from depraved leaders, those institutional features have largely been stripped bare, and in many respects for the better. We now elect our Senators, for example, by popular vote, and with an expanded franchise, minus the workmanship of the smoke filled back rooms to close the deal. Despite Trump’s having won the general election by negative 3 million votes and despite the Electoral College, which largely is about managing error, the same holds true for the Presidency. We have largely eviscerated our filters. If Trump has proved nothing else, he certainly has proved that. What, then, is the problem?

To paraphrase Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), it is that we no longer “give a damn.” Watch here. We have become a defined-by-confidence, ever-self-righteous society. If we are true-hearted liberals, we mustn’t ever compromise our ideals. Damn Hillary for not being progressive enough, for not being Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren enough. If we are conservative, or libertarian, it is equally vital never to compromise. To hell with arguments that we should support a candidate who really could defeat Trump, either by getting together behind a credible single alternative in the primary/caucus cycle, or by "holding one's nose" to vote Hillary, hoping to save the nation from a true threat. Better to vote third party, Libertarian Gary Johnson, or Green Party Jill Stein, neither of whom, after all, stood a chance of winning, but each of whom, at the time, held the prospect of being a spoiler. We are defined by our principles, and they must be right. We know this because, well, it’s who we are. The fault rests with others who fail to understand. And besides, no single vote matters. What matters is feeling good, indeed righteous, when exiting the polling station.

If this fairly describes voters in the growing wings and shrinking cores of the two major parties, it becomes harder to fault those who “feel good” by sending a loud and clear “anti-establishment” message, a signal to shake things up, whatever the cost. For those voters, published lists of Trump’s insulting tweets and demonstrable (near) daily lies isn’t proof they were wrong. Quite the contrary; it vindicates them. Trump is such a powerful threat to the establishment that even with all his insults and non-truths (surely, having prevailed, Trump’s supporters have earned this a more benign phrasing), he got elected. And despite all the havoc he has wreaked since then, he persists. It’s the Peacock’s Tail Theory of Politics; sure, it doesn’t serve any beneficial function, and might even be maladaptive, but to a peahen, it’s apparently sexy to imagine what your chicks might survive if their father could have endured such a thing! See here. If the goal is to disrupt the system, how does pointing out any of Trump’s most egregious faults—his long and growing tail of insults and lies—other than prove these voters right? This is what it takes to create fundamental change, and, after all, it is change (whatever that might mean) that is essential to Making America Great Again (whatever that means).

I’ll confess that my parents’ mindset sometimes frustrated me. Like many in their generation, my parents were institutional minded. They assumed, for example, that doctors, who, after all, were so well educated, knew what they were talking about. And so, they rarely shopped around, despite my and my sister’s pleas that they travel for better informed second opinions. I went to school with many who went on to become doctors. For me, there’s no magic to it; some are truly gifted, but surely not all. And we all know the joke about what you call the medical student who graduates last in his class: Doctor. My parents used to get teary eyed listening to The Star Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful. My generation’s sentiments lie elsewhere. To be sure, my parents were opinionated, sometimes frustratingly so. They were not credulous. But their opinions never overtook their patriotism or their sense that there were things that deeply mattered beyond themselves. My father, a collector of artifacts and historical documents, including the Presidents, intensely disliked George W. Bush. Yet he had a tradition of displaying a picture of the sitting president on his office desk. I told him on several occasions that he really didn't have to display a picture of a man he so disliked on this desk, but he said the picture had to stay so that he could honor the President. My parents somehow maintained an abiding faith in institutions that, in their view, and with all flaws, nurtured them and their families for generations, even when they disliked particular leaders or policies. Perhaps Trump would finally have broken my father's desk tradition. I like to think so.

Our generation is meta-institutional. We view ourselves as “citizens of the world,” suggesting that we can somehow extricate ourselves from, or pick and choose among, institutions, rejecting those we don’t like, respecting only those we do. But our institutions aren’t optional. Imagine, just for a moment, that President Trump, for whatever reason, fails to complete his first term. Nobody believes that had he been a candidate for the Republican nomination, Mike Pence would have won, or that anyone other than Trump would have picked him as Vice President. Even setting aside his politics, Pence is about as exciting as a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread. But he is next in the line of succession, and if Trump fails to complete his first term, we will have President Mike Pence. Indeed, by electing Trump, we are stuck with his power to effectuate policies through a host of institutions, including which bills to support or veto, which executive orders to redact or execute, which international agreements to abrogate or enter into, who to appoint to the judiciary and to agencies, and the list goes on. Whatever we might think of the powers of the presidency, which ironically was part of his anti-establishment messaging, we are stuck with it. Calling ourselves citizens of the world doesn’t render these institutional structures optional.

I certainly don’t suggest that we resort to unerring credulity or unyielding acceptance. Yes, we need to question, challenge, and fight the good fight, but it is beyond hubristic to imagine that we don’t have to do so while working within the confines of the institutions that define who we are. Compromise isn’t evil. Self-righteousness isn’t inherently evil either, but it can lead to a world of trouble. Trump isn’t the problem, but he is certainly a symptom. Our failure to appreciate the importance of compromise, the role of institutions, and the value of subordinating our own sense of righteousness to accomplish what actually is right, and what actually is great, those are the problems. It’s easy to look at Trump. He’s before us every day. We also need to take a good look at ourselves.

As always, I welcome your comments. (Please note that this blogger is going to be on vacation through mid-July, and that might affect my posting frequency. I hope you all have a wonderful summer).

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