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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Trump’s Corrosive Values Will Spread

Having a president who shuns morality altogether may have a terrifyingly negative ripple effect.

On September 3rd, 2020, the Atlantic ran a story entitled “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’.” For once, they did not bury the lede. The article alleged that the real reason Trump had ducked out of visiting the war dead while on state visit to France was because the fallen soldiers were “suckers.” It also claimed that the President had wanted to exclude wounded veterans from military parades because “nobody wants to see that.” In a conversation with staff on the day he was supposed to visit the memorial, Trump allegedly said“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” 

  My first reaction to these revelations was “Could it possibly be true?” After nearly four years of Trump’s occupancy in the White House, the press has lobbed so many hyperbolic attacks on the narcissistic chief executive that it’s fair to question whether the latest media hysteria will turn out to be a fevered exaggeration along the lines of the worst excesses of the media’s Russia obsession. The statements Trump is supposed to have made are so over-the-top cruel and absurd that they seem like the sort of thing nobody would ever actually say.

But Trump has already made comments expressing the same general sentiments, on the record. He repeatedly mocked the late John McCain for being tortured as a prisoner of war, suggesting that McCain was a loser for being captured. (“I like people who weren’t captured.”) Trump has a history of hideously insensitive comments and this apparently thoroughly substantiated story does seem to add up. Nobody seemed especially surprised. 

My second reaction, I will admit, was to laugh. Trump is funny, and there is something undeniably refreshing about dismissing the whole enterprise of war and saying people who die in them are “suckers.” Suck on it, losers. It’s horrible, but horrible in a “shock comedy” way; can you believe he…? Trump’s willingness to thumb his nose at every self-serious person and convention—even in the crudest and most tasteless ways—is perhaps his greatest political asset. We love people who make us laugh, and Trump makes Americans laugh.  Unfortunately, he wields real power as President and routinely uses that power to inflict suffering on others. And all of a sudden we’re no longer laughing.

With so many morally monstrous characters strutting about, it’s hard to take the one hundred thousandth declaration of Mr. Trump’s supposed singular moral horror very seriously. This is especially true considering who is usually making the charges. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic and the author of the “suckers and losers” report, was “one of the leading media cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq,” loudly trumpeting falsehoods–including the outrageous claim that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda–used to justify the invasion and destruction of that nation. Goldberg was rewarded for his criminal journalistic malpractice with lavish enticements to join the Atlantic which reportedly included gifts of ponies for Goldberg’s children. The former Israeli prison guard, who even conservative hawk Andrew Sullivan has mocked as a mouthpiece for Bibi Netanyahu, has since continued to serve as flatterer-in-chief for the violent imperial urges of the day, and as court scribe writing with grandiosity about the “Obama Doctrine.” How are we to receive Jeffrey Goldberg’s moralizing tone about respect for the war dead when he himself played a key role in condemning thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians to their deaths? 

But the fact that Trump’s critics are such nauseating sanctimonious hypocrites can keep us from appreciating just how deeply and disturbingly vile Trump actually is. There is endless caterwauling and hyperventilating about Trump by corporate media liberals and barely reconstructed neoconservatives, but much of it misses Trump’s actual serious crimes. While the media excoriated Trump for supposedly damaging the U.S. alliance with Canada and Germany, his government curtailed labor rights and transferred enormous sums to the hyper-wealthy. As the press fretted over misspelled and outrageous tweets, the Trump administration expanded the U.S. role in the murderous bombing of Yemen. The media has told us that we should hate Trump because he is a puppet of Vladimir Putin, not because he is doing everything in his power to burn the planet and render entire nations uninhabitable by deliberately accelerating climate change. The outrage machine has whirred on such a high setting that it has distracted many from the most potent reasons to oppose him.

Although the press and the nation as a whole have spent so much time over the past four years agonizing about what terrible moral example Trump sets (Think of the children!), the dominant interpretation has danced around what is actually dangerous about Trumpian morality. Trump isn’t some historical deviation forced upon us by malevolent foreign actors. Trump’s values are the most base and vulgar articulation of the logic of the “American system” itself: “grab what you can get and fuck everybody else”. Trump has a kind of atheistic cosmology of meritocracy: the law of the universe is that good things happen to “winners” and pain and suffering happen to people who are “losers”. Women are good if they are attractive with big breasts, but can be discarded if they’re fat or old. Men are “winners” if they’re rich and powerful, but “suckers” if they’re disabled or injured or ever admit they might have been wrong. If I had been a fighter pilot, I never would have been shot down in the first place. (But I was smart enough to buy a medical deferment unlike that sucker McCain.)

This moral perspective is the cartoonishly juvenile thinking of an eleven year old boy bullying his peers. But the fact so many eleven year old boys end up sounding like sociopathic egomaniacs isn’t an accident–those children have absorbed fundamental values reflected in our society. It’s this fact—that Trumpism emerges from the mainline of American economic and political traditions—that MSNBC liberals find to be so unutterable. To admit it would force an examination and repudiation of every precursor to Trump—Obama’s cruelty towards immigrants and endless wars abroad, Bush’s massive tax cuts and shameful use of torture, Bill Clinton’s narcissism and opportunistic racism, the hair-dyed and makeup-caked Ronald Reagan’s explicit racism and clichéd lines (which Trump then stole nearly verbatim).

Trump’s worldview allows for the unapologetic declaration of capitalist interests as correct, no longer constrained by the pretense that human life or human dignity have value. There are implications of carrying this pure Social Darwinism through to its conclusions. If a billion people die as a result of Trump’s policy, they are losers by definition. There is something undeniably fascist about the underlying ethic: strength is virtue, weakness is pathetic. It is no wonder Trump wants to eliminate any and all emissions standards, as well as protections on endangered wildlife. Nature is to be conquered and destroyed, not preserved. There is a common thread running through Trump’s indifference to Covid deaths, escalation of nuclear arms production, rollback of environmental regulations, use of office for self-enrichment, shameless lies, cuts to Medicaid, war on immigrants, and empowerment of cops. It is not any loyalty to “the free market.” It is a belief the powerful deserve to get more powerful and can do whatever they want to achieve that power. There are no rules they are bound by. The powerless, on the other hand, are losers who deserve nothing. 

Trump’s elevation of raw selfishness to a political creed makes him more forthright than many previous politicians. Where past leaders have made noises about “democracy’ or “human rights,” Trump declares the U.S.’ right to seize Iraq’s oil and keep the profits because “to the victor belong the spoils.” Just as fallen soldiers are “losers” and “suckers,” so too are nations who have been victims of history. Hence Haiti and formerly colonized nations are “shithole countries,” countries that we can bully or exploit without compunction. While both parties have delayed or downplayed the seriousness of climate change, Trump can simply declare climate change is a “hoax” and that “windmills cause cancer.” Conservative governments in the UK made a show of taking action on climate, but Trump’s Republicans are now free to simply accelerate towards the precipice. 

The administration’s gleeful climate arson and ‘let the weak perish’ coronavirus response in particular signal that their worldview is even darker than self-interest alone. It is outright suicidal. They are willing to cook the planet that they live on, spread a virus which infects them as well. While other ruling class factions may see some restraint to be in their self interest, Trump’s apparent belief that reality can be ignored, and a lie becomes truth if you only you say it enough, reinforces the most self-destructive drives already present in our economic system just as we approach the last turnoff before total climate and ecological disaster.

The Republican party’s now near-total embrace of Trump has made his worldview the explicit morality of the party. If he is re-elected, it will become much harder to argue that his worldview does not represent the nation. This is dangerous not just for how it makes us feel, but because it is likely to have a serious impact on policy and the course of global events. 

The prospect of Trump’s re-election in November is so alarming in part because of its power to reshape what all of us believe or expect others to believe. Trump’s worldview reinforces every psychopathic assumption of capitalism while undermining values of human solidarity. With Trump in office, every petty tyrant, every bad boss or landlord, every sexual harasser has felt empowered and vindicated in their worst urges. Trump stands at the head of the nation and says to them all: “It’s okay to give into your worst instincts. I’m behind you.” Whether it’s grabbing women by the genitals or stealing from your own employees, Trump sets the tone: do what you want, what matters is what you can get away with, the rules are all fake, morality is a sham. Why shouldn’t an employer just decline to pay people for their work? Trump is living proof that you can do that over and over and still be supported by millions and become the president of the United States. His reelection will only further prove that in this country, hurting other people is rewarded, not punished. Those inclined toward cruelty and exploitation will take note.

So begins a process of moral decay. Each of us began to question if so many other humans even have empathy or if maybe everyone is just out for themselves. Your liberal-leaning family members began excusing even the most vile behavior with the facile “well it’s still better than Trump.” Katha Pollitt of the Nation said she’d vote for Joe Biden even if he “boiled babies and ate them,” because Trump has moved the standards for what is acceptable so far, so fast. The echoes of Trump’s election helped bring like-minded dim-witted fascist Jair Bolsonaro to power in Brazil, gave ample cover for the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to proceed apace with a program of mass extrajudicial killings, for Viktor Orbán to attack minorities and political opponents in Hungary. Trump’s re-election would serve as proof that those regimes too will persist, that the abusive boss will triumph over the worker.

I am particularly concerned about the potential impacts that a vindication of Trumpism may have on organizing. While there has been an upsurge of activism under Trump, that activism has been primarily defensive—delaying the implementation of the Muslim ban, defeating the adminstration’s repeal of Obamacare, keeping DACA alive or the government open, teachers’ clawing back a 5% raise and keeping their healthcare. Going on the offensive to demand changes we want to see has been almost entirely unthinkable. Even in the brightest spot of Trump-era activism, the demand to defund the police, the focus has largely been on liberal controlled municipalities where victory is at least conceivable. And while the Left has grown substantially, this has been achieved primarily through the opening created by the Sanders campaigns’ successful rupture of liberal intellectual hegemony and disaffection with the Obama era among the younger generations.

So much of organizing is about creating hope of something better, of raising expectations. Collective action is also about forging “solidarity” —meaning getting people invested in the wellbeing of others to fight for their benefit as well as their own. In labor organizing, we work hard to build this solidarity. I remember the look on the face of a non-union catering chef when he discovered visiting the house of a lead cook who worked at his side for 16 years that she made only half what he made. Or the pity he felt visiting the flimsy trailer where another co-worker lived with his family in poverty conditions. After those visits, his relationship to the unionization campaign changed. When you’re asking someone to put their livelihood on the line, the “material conditions” aren’t enough—you need compassion and human connection. If Trump is good at anything, he excels at making us feel that the world is out of control and that such things as “improvements” or “making things better” are hopelessly out of reach. If Trump symbolizes anything, it is extreme selfishness and individualism (does anyone believe he even loves his own wife?). Trump is the antithesis of hope and solidarity made flesh. Demoralized on the one hand, and facing greater state repression on the other, how much harder could bringing people together to fight side by side become?

While the first Trump term was filled with instability and contestation for the President—his net approval ratings dropped as low as -20% during the failed healthcare repeal push—a second Trump term could be much darker. Re-election will bring vindication for the crass “might makes right” ethos in the eyes of many. The risk is real that another unexpected electoral triumph by the right will produce more despair than outrage, inducing working people to capitulate to the go-it-alone individualist ethos and abandon hope in solidarity and collective action. Resistance may seem futile. For all the predictions of accelerationists, the history of authoritarian consolidation has more often seen the left extinguished than rise up leading revolution. A new government under the weak and uninspiring leadership of Joe Biden, on the other hand, creates an opening, a political vacuum in which progressive and left movements may seize the initiative if we can muster the force and focus to do so.

It is not just Americans on the left who respond to all this by saying “but the Democrats are the same.” Many who will vote for Trump do so under the same logic. It is undeniable that on the issues of war, and deference to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, Biden is nearly as bad as Trump and the Republicans, just with a goofy smile. But as Nathan Robinson has persuasively argued in this magazine, the differences between the two possible administrations remain significant both in terms of impacts on human suffering and in prospects for the continued growth and organizing of the left. Biden and the Democrats are hypocrites who are bound to betray their high-minded progressive rhetoric. But as the author and essayist Arundhati Roy has explained, hypocrisy has its benefits: 

“There is something to be said for hypocrisy, you know, for doing things by night, because there’s a little bit of tentativeness there; there isn’t this sureness of, you know, ‘We want the Hindu nation, and we want the rule of the corporations,’ and so on”. 

Such an insight applies as well to the U.S. context as it does to Indian politics. Hypocrisy presents organizing opportunities. It is far scarier when even the pretense of a standard is abandoned. No explanation or justification for anything has to be given. Hypocrisy, by at least affirming the existence of some kind of code of values, gives us something to point to, and sometimes a rallying point from which to push back against the worst abuses. It is impossible to argue against someone whose “philosophy” is that they are going to destroy you by any means necessary and do whatever they please no matter what the consequences are. 

The problem with Trump’s controversial comments is not that they violate the “norms” of polite society. Politeness is overrated. The problem is that they serve to justify horrific actions and reactionary policy carried about by his office and countless others who wield power. They send a nihilistic message that will reverberate around the country, telling people they no longer need to care about anyone else. That is chilling, because the President sits atop incredibly powerful bureaucracies and systems of authority which he incites daily to greater brutality while promising impunity for abuses yet unnamed. Whether we like it or not, and I certainly do not, the perceived values of a national leader can have profound impacts on the culture and sense of the possible of an entire society. This election represents the last real chance to deliver a decisive rebuke to the worldview Trump represents. For that reason alone, every person who still believes in decency and human solidarity should wish to see him defeated.

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