With Donald Trump, we have been witnessing the normalization of the unforgivable.
The rise of an authoritarian leader in the United States, who through outrageous lies, thuggish behavior, and the assistance of a large-scale Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, became President, would be great material for a movie but in fact be unbelievable, unless of course it actually happened.
During his campaign in 2016, the transition, and now his four months in office, Donald Trump has erased the boundaries of the impermissible, the unthinkable, and the very concept of the truth itself.
Now, in 2017, we can for perhaps the first time in many decades understand what happened after 1932 with the rise of the National Socialist Parry and its leader in Germany. Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny” describes the gradual acceptance by ordinary and erstwhile upright and honorable men and women of behavior which in earlier years had been unthinkable.
What is astounding is how fast the standards of decency and democratic life have fallen victim to the mean-spirited and hate-filled ideology of Trump and his supporters, and the ever-growing number of yes-men and apologists who are found among Republicans in Congress and in the party as a whole.
Many critics of Trump lean over backwards to insist we try harder to understand the hardships and frustrations of his core supporters. Few are willing or courageous enough to pass judgment on these voters, who made a Faustian bargain to accept Trump’s hate, his attack on the truth, and his attack on the institutions of our democracy, including an independent press, in exchange for what he seemed to offer.
He offered an endless profusion of illusory promises of jobs and making America great again, which persuaded his undereducated base. He also held out the promise of curbing immigration. Others, guided by their own ideology of primitive capitalism, followed and continue to support Trump out of cynical calculations that under Trump they will be able to redistribute wealth and welfare to the rich.
So Faustian bargains, of two varieties, have given impetus to the authoritarian movement of Donald Trump.
At present, it seems that Trumpism has taken over the minds of upwards of 40% of those who vote. Snyder recounts how, during the rise of Nazism, individuals suddenly flipped to become Nazis, succumbing to the power of mass psychology. Eugene Ionescu, in his play “Rhinoceros”, depicted such metamorpheses by showing those who suddenly flippped as assuming the form of a rhinoceros.
In America today we can see many politicians who have now assumed the form of a rhinoceros. The unthinkable has become normal. They argue that the unacceptable must be understood. They lie. They lie big time. They twist themselves into pretzels defending untruths.
Critics reassure themselves that everything is under control, and that the democratic institutions of the country will contain the excesses of Trump and Trumpism.
While in the end they may be right, an honest observer would have to admit that the outcome is uncertain.
Trump and his supporters could win the struggle for the soul of the country.
To appreciate that possibility we need only look at what they have achieved so far.
For example, they have achieved the normalization and acceptance of monstrous lies, such as those contained in Trump’s new budget proposal, or in the statements of those who defend the health care bill that recently passed the House.
They have rendered the democratic principles of conflict-of-interest and nepotism nearly meaningless.
They have turned American foreign policy on its head, jettisoning the defense of human rights while cozying up to authoritarian regimes. They have weakened NATO’s mutual self-defense commitments, while supporting those who would undermine the European Union.
Trump has already destroyed much of the fabric of civic life, where discourse in a democratic society can only be conducted with a certain respect for facts and the truth.
The most frightening fact is that after all his lies have been revealed for what they are, Trump continues to enjoy strong support among 35-40% of the population.
This is what has happened to America, in the last two years.
See David Ignatius, “Get ready for the ‘impeachment election’,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2017. Ignatius writes:
“Under our Constitution, the House and Senate are prosecutor and jury, respectively, for serious presidential misconduct. But this legal process probably won’t be triggered without a poisonously divisive election. If recent history teaches anything, it’s unfortunately this harsh fact: In the battle for America’s soul, Trump could win.”
What lies ahead can only be viewed with extreme foreboding, so long as Trump and the rhinoceri who support him retain their hold on power.
Each day they chip away a little more at our concepts of the truth, of decency, and of the bulwarks against authoritarian behaviors that exist in a democracy.
We are desensitized. The outrage is drained from our souls. We begin to make excuses for Trump and his rhinoceri.
We begin to acquiesce.
The Trenchant Observer