GETTING HIM OUT OF MY BRAIN

A man can prom­ise change but if he is dis­hon­est, dis­loyal and self­ish, the change he de­liv­ers is not go­ing to be ef­fec­tive or good, writes

New Straits Times - - Opinion - DAVID BROOKS

LAST week, The Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished tran­scripts of United States Don­ald Trump’s con­ver­sa­tions with for­eign lead­ers. A dear friend sent me an email sug­gest­ing I read them be­cause they re­veal how Trump’s mind works. But, as I tried to click the link, a Bartleby-like voice in my head said: “I would pre­fer not to.”

I tried to click again and the voice said: “No thanks. I’m full.”

For the past two years, Trump has taken up an amaz­ing amount of my brain space. My brain has ap­par­ently de­cided that it’s not in­ter­ested in de­vot­ing more neu­rons to that guy. There’s noth­ing more to be learnt about Trump’s mix­ture of ig­no­rance, in­se­cu­rity and nar­cis­sism. Ev­ery sec­ond spent on his blus­ter is more de­grad­ing than in­for­ma­tive.

Now, a lot of peo­ple are clearly still ad­dicted to Trump. My Twit­ter feed is all him. Some peo­ple treat the Trump White House as the Break­ing Bad tele­vi­sion se­rial drama they’ve been binge watch­ing for six months.

For some of us, Trump-bash­ing has be­come ed­u­cated-class meth. We de­rive end­less sat­is­fac­tion from feel­ing mo­rally su­pe­rior to him — and as critic-au­thor Leon Wieseltier put it, af­fir­ma­tion is the new sex.

But, I thought I might try to lis­ten to my brain for a change. That would mean try­ing, prob­a­bly un­suc­cess­fully, to spend less time think­ing about Trump the soap opera and more time on ques­tions that sur­round the Trump phe­nom­ena and this mo­ment of his­tory.

How much per­ma­nent dam­age is he do­ing to our global al­liances? Have Amer­i­cans re­ally de­cided they no longer want to be a uni­ver­sal na­tion with a spe­cial mis­sion to spread free­dom around the world? Is pop­ulism now the lin­gua franca of pol­i­tics so the Democrats’ only hope is to match Trump’s pop­ulism with their own?

Th­ese concerns re­volve around one big ques­tion: What lessons are peo­ple draw­ing from this de­ba­cle and how will they shape what comes next?

It’s clear that Trump is not just a paren­the­sis. Af­ter he leaves, things will not just snap back to “nor­mal”.

In­stead, he rep­re­sents the far­ci­cal cul­mi­na­tion of a lot of dy­ing old orders — de­mo­graphic, po­lit­i­cal, even moral — and what comes af­ter will be a re­ac­tion against rather than a con­tin­u­ing from.

For ex­am­ple, let’s look at our moral culture. For most of Amer­i­can his­tory, main­line Protes­tants — the Epis­co­palians, Methodists, Pres­by­te­ri­ans and so on — set the dom­i­nant cul­tural tone. Most of the big so­cial move­ments like abo­li­tion­ism, the suf­frag­ist move­ment and the civil rights move­ment came out of the main­line churches.

As Joseph Bot­tum wrote in An Anx­ious Age, main­line Protes­tants cre­ated a kind of uni­fy­ing culture that bounds peo­ple of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal views. You could be Catholic, Jewish, Mus­lim or an athe­ist, but still you were in­flu­enced by cer­tain main­line ideas — the Protes­tant work ethics, the White An­glo-Saxon Protes­tant’s (WASP) def­i­ni­tion of a gen­tle­man. Lead­ers from Theodore Roo­sevelt to Barack Obama hewed to a sim­i­lar main­line stan­dard for what is de­cent in pub­lic life and what is be­yond the pale.

Over the last sev­eral decades, main­line Protes­tantism has with­ered. The coun­try be­came more di­verse. The WASPs lost their perch atop so­ci­ety. The main­line de­nom­i­na­tions lost their vi­tal­ity.

For a time, we lived off the moral cap­i­tal of the past. But, the elec­tion of Trump shows just how des­ic­cated the main­line code has be­come. A na­tion guided by that ethic would not have elected a guy who is a daily af­front to it, a guy who nakedly loves money, who boasts, who ob­jec­ti­fies women, who is in­ca­pable of hypocrisy be­cause he ac­knowl­edges no stan­dard of pro­pri­ety other than that which he feels like do­ing at any given mo­ment.

Trump has smashed through the be­hav­iour stan­dards that once gov­erned pub­lic life. His elec­tion demon­strates that as the uni­fy­ing glue of the main­line culture re­ceded, the coun­try di­vided into at least three blocks — white evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tantism that at least in its pub­lic face seems to care more about eros than car­i­tas; sec­u­lar pro­gres­sivism that is spir­i­tu­ally formed by fem­i­nism, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and the quest for in­di­vid­ual rights, and real­ist na­tion­al­ism that gets its man­ners from re­al­ity TV and its spir­i­tual suc­cour from in-group/out-group sol­i­dar­ity.

If Trump falls in dis­grace or de­feat, and peo­ple’s par­ti­san pride is no longer at stake, I hope that even his sup­port­ers will have enough moral mem­ory to ac­knowl­edge that char­ac­ter re­ally does mat­ter. A guy can prom­ise change, but if he is dis­hon­est, dis­loyal and self­ish, the change he de­liv­ers is not go­ing to be ef­fec­tive or good.

But where are peo­ple go­ing to go for a new stan­dard of de­cency? They’re not go­ing to go back to the old WASP ideal. That’s dead. Trump re­vealed the vac­uum, but who is go­ing to fill it and with what?

I could de­scribe a sim­i­lar vac­uum when it comes to do­mes­tic pol­icy think­ing, to Amer­i­can identity, to Amer­ica’s role in the world. Trump ex­poses the void, but doesn’t fill it. That’s why the re­ac­tion against Trump is now more im­por­tant than the man him­self. One way or an­other, I’m go­ing wash that man right out of what’s left of my hair. NYT The writer, a ‘New York Times’ Op-Ed colum­nist, writes about pol­i­tics, culture and the so­cial sciences

How much per­ma­nent dam­age is he do­ing to our global al­liances? Have Amer­i­cans re­ally de­cided they no longer want to be a uni­ver­sal na­tion with a spe­cial mis­sion to spread free­dom around the world? Is pop­ulism now the lin­gua franca of pol­i­tics so the Democrats’ only hope is to match Trump’s pop­ulism with their own?

NYT PIC

United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump salutes a sol­dier on his way to Ma­rine One at the White House.

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