The elephant in America’s living room

Published 6:50 pm Thursday, April 4, 2019


Contributing columnist

All the talking heads confirm that the GOP is now “Trump’s party.” But the usual language of political victory fails to capture what Trump has done to the party and its base. He has subjugated the Republican Party by turning its base into a cult that will not tolerate criticism of “my president” and will follow him into a moral abyss.

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His language and behavior trash the values invoked by words such as honesty, decency and dignity. He doesn’t just violate traditional codes of honor and morality; he scorns them. He hasn’t let up on the insults, name-calling, lying and childish boasting, which were staples of his primary and presidential campaigns. His sewer-like stream of consciousness spews at boisterous rallies and in incessant tweets, and flows through the consciousness of the nation thanks to the compulsive attention of reporters and pundits.

He has divided the nation into two hostile tribes. One applauds his character and values, or at least accepts them as the rough edges of something good for the country. The other regards him as vile, as morally unfit to be our president and representative to the world. This moral divide must be distinguished from policy differences, even though they too are intense and fundamental.

I encounter this moral chasm is when I ask myself how some of my neighbors and acquaintances can possibly be Trump supporters. I avoid certain topics with them, but in other respects they seem to be decent, trustworthy people and good citizens. Many are generous with their time and money for good causes.

The phrase ‘elephant in the room’ refers to a large fact that people are aware of, but are reluctant to acknowledge. The elephant in America’s living room is this moral abyss. There’s a lot of public reporting on issues of domestic and foreign policy, although much of it is uncritical gossip about candidates’ positions in our incessant elections. But there is almost no airing of this huge question: What does it do to our country to have a President who is so indecent? Should any one of either party be willing to make the devil’s bargain that such a person is OK as long as they are ‘right’ on certain issues (e.g. abortion or low taxation)?

The commentariat is aware of this moral divide, but they treat it in terms of the political horse race: They speculate on how much Trump’s bad character affects his re-election prospects. For instance, will the loyalty of white Christian evangelicals be enough to offset anger among southern blacks over his racism? Such questions are relevant and unavoidable. But they have the effect of normalizing the moral calamity that is Trump.

One of the most striking examples of making a devil’s bargain by supporting Trump is Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, world-famous, globe-trotting evangelical preacher in the second half of the 20th century. Franklin inherited his father’s $765 million evangelical empire, and he’s one of Trump’s best known supporters. In a Nov. 25 interview, he said that Trump “defends the faith. And I appreciate that very much.” Trump defends Graham’s faith by appointing judges who will be unfavorable to abortion, gay marriage and the freedom of retailers to discriminate for religious reasons, and by fanatically supporting the Israeli government.

His devil’s bargain leads Graham to dismiss Trump’s incessant lying. To paraphrase Huey Long, he seems to think that Trump “may be a liar, but he’s my (or our) liar.” Or maybe Graham is himself a liar, as in this sickening exchange with MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Jan. 31:

“You and I both know that this president has said things, over and over, that aren’t true,” Melvin said.

“No, I don’t know that,” said Graham.

By not impeaching Trump, we are normalizing his lying and moral nihilism. We are allowing his rot to settle into public discourse. He reduces factual claims to tribal beliefs, beliefs that are adopted from a sense of identity with a tribe — the like-minded MAGA-hatters that roar with delight at his shameless falsehoods.

In the latest example of his thousands of documented lies, he tells his crowds that the Mueller report (as yet unseen by him or us) gives him “Complete and Total EXONERATION.” Never mind that AG Barr’s summary says that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

As philosopher Immanuel Kant explained, lying to people devalues them as persons, as rational beings. Instead of letting people exercise their freedom by making up their minds based on facts and logic, the liar treats them as things to be manipulated into doing what they would not do if properly informed. This devaluation of persons easily leads to violence as a way to resolve disputes. Once factual claims become tribal beliefs, disagreements become power struggles.

It’s not surprising that a hard-core liar such as Trump frequently exhibits cruelty and insensitivity to the pain of others. Their feelings have no importance to him except as a means of manipulation. He can relish inflicting pain for the same reason he is an enthusiastic liar: It’s an exercise of power.

He often invites his crowds to share enthusiasm, e.g. when he mockingly imitated a New York Times journalist whose arthrogryposis limited his arm flexibility, or when he told a crowd in Las Vegas that the security staff were too gentle in removing a protestor: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

He vilifies refugees fleeing for their lives from Honduras and Guatemala, and traumatized thousands of refugee children by separating them from their parents at our southern border.

Trump wants his followers to disparage unwelcome information as “fake news.” Nevermind documentation (such as Obama’s birth certificate), science (as in global warming) or even photographs (such as the ones showing sparse crowds at his inauguration). If evidence contradicts a tribal belief, dismiss it as fake. The Republican devil’s bargain is undoing rational public discourse.