The Trump effect
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.