The Trump ef­fect

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Bradley R. Gitz Free­lance colum­nist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, re­ceived his Ph.D. in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

Don­ald Trump’s crit­ics claim, not with­out rea­son, that he is an un­usu­ally crude and un­hinged man who says and does things un­fit­ting an oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice. None­the­less, it re­mains un­clear how we en­hance the level of ci­vil­ity when those same crit­ics all too of­ten act as Trump does, and then seek to jus­tify their abysmal be­hav­ior by ref­er­ence to his.

For ex­am­ple, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and her rant that con­cluded with the prom­ise to “im­peach the mother##!!%%?”

Tlaib re­fused to apol­o­gize for the ugly lan­guage, and self-righ­teously claimed to be speak­ing “truth to power,” as if the ex­pres­sion of truth re­quires cru­dity. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shied away from crit­i­ciz­ing her (“I’m not in the cen­sor­ship busi­ness”) but then took it a step fur­ther by sug­gest­ing that those who did were sex­ist.

In just about all com­men­tary on the left re­gard­ing the in­ci­dent,

Tlaib was given a pass be­cause Trump rou­tinely says and does much worse things (call it the

“he did it first and worse” de­fense).

Thus we come to the Trump ef­fect, which is to “nor­mal­ize” vul­gar, un­couth and em­bar­rass­ing po­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior, to “de­fine de­viancy down,” as Pat Moynihan once put it.

If Trump has done X or Y or Z (as he al­most cer­tainly has) then it be­comes ac­cept­able for oth­ers to do X, Y, or Z in op­pos­ing him, how­ever tawdry or ob­nox­ious the be­hav­ior and how­ever much it fur­ther de­grades our al­ready de­graded po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

At the least, im­i­ta­tion seems an un­usual re­sponse to be­hav­ior deemed un­ac­cept­able, or an ef­fec­tive means of lim­it­ing its ef­fects. To re­spond to the out­rages of Trump with match­ing out­rages hardly re­duces the level of out­rage.

The par­al­lels are re­mark­able: Trump’s sup­port­ers de­fend him when­ever he says or does hor­rid things be­cause the peo­ple he is do­ing them to or say­ing them about are thought to be hor­rid. The “Re­sis­tance” feels jus­ti­fied in do­ing and say­ing hor­rid things, so long as it is said or done in op­po­si­tion to the hor­rid Trump.

Ci­vil­ity and de­cency be­come ca­su­al­ties be­cause it is as­sumed by each side that the other is in­ca­pable of ci­vil­ity or de­cency, or at least doesn’t de­serve to be treated that way. Aw­ful­ness is jus­ti­fied by the aw­ful­ness of those we op­pose.

A down­ward spi­ral con­se­quently en­sues in which be­hav­ior that would have been con­sid­ered beyond the pale just a few years ago be­comes the “new nor­mal,” with last week’s em­bar­rass­ments out­done by this week’s and this week’s sure to be sur­passed by those to come.

The obliv­i­ous­ness of it all is breath­tak­ing: to com­plain about Trump’s be­hav­ior in one breath and then to be­have badly and jus­tify it by Trump’s be­hav­ior in the next, as if it isn’t the ac­tual be­hav­ior that mat­ters but which side you are on when be­hav­ing that way.

Rather than demon­strate re­straint in the in­ter­est of el­e­vat­ing the tone of dis­course, and thereby leave Trump’s be­hav­ior in glar­ing re­lief, Trump’s op­po­nents use him as a pre­text to be­have as badly as he does.

The Pelosi caveat in all this—that crit­i­cism of Tlaib flows from sex­ism— makes mat­ters worse by pro­vid­ing a grant for ob­nox­ious­ness on the ba­sis of gen­der, as if women (or blacks or His­pan­ics or gays) are some­how in­ca­pable of be­hav­ing badly. If any crit­i­cism of be­hav­ior com­mit­ted by a woman politi­cian is dis­missed as sex­ist, then women politi­cians are ef­fec­tively im­mu­nized from crit­i­cism and free to be­have as badly as they wish.

Sleazi­ness and vul­gar­ity are just that, re­gard­less of the gen­der or race of the per­pe­tra­tor, and re­gard­less of whether they come from Trump or his op­po­nents.

The con­cept of “role mod­els” might seem a bit old-fash­ioned these days (like talk of honor or de­cency), but it is dis­tress­ing to con­tem­plate what young peo­ple are pick­ing up on and learn­ing from to­day’s ugly pol­i­tics. Along these lines, per­haps the worst dam­age that Trump has done is to make it more dif­fi­cult to teach proper val­ues and good char­ac­ter to our chil­dren: When your pres­i­dent acts like an es­pe­cially ob­nox­ious 8-year old, how do you teach your own 8-year-old how to act? Af­ter all, how bad can it be if the pres­i­dent does it (rou­tinely)?

The es­sen­tial con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal truth is that it is much eas­ier to de­stroy than it is to build; that po­lit­i­cal norms and stan­dards that took hun­dreds of years to de­velop and in­ter­nal­ize can be abruptly un­done in just a few.

When we cre­ate a grotesque, any­thing-goes form of pol­i­tics, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to find our way back to the shared stan­dards of ac­cept­able con­duct nec­es­sary for re­spon­si­ble self-gov­ern­ment.

Ex­treme po­lar­iza­tion and the de­mo­niza­tion of the other side makes it all too easy to em­brace and jus­tify be­hav­ior that we in­wardly know is de­plorable, but nei­ther side is will­ing to take the high road for fear of be­ing taken ad­van­tage of by the other.

In my Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment classes I’ve ar­gued that left and right are just parts of the same glo­ri­ous clas­si­cal lib­eral tra­di­tion; that they en­gage in mis­lead­ingly in­tense “fam­ily squab­bles” over the less im­por­tant 10 per­cent pre­cisely be­cause they agree on the more im­por­tant 90 per­cent.

It might be time to re­vise those lec­tures.

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