Moral Outrage


It’s about five months into the fake presidency of Donald Trump and we are all looking for a new topic.  Anything will do—a new flavour of Ben and Jerry’s, a cyclone in the East Indies,  Prince George’s new playschool.    The problem is, he’s the only show in town—for news (always Breaking), comedy, political analysis—and of course, things that touch us more directly–like death and taxes.

The spasmodic lurching from faux pas to lie, insult, glaring contradiction, historical wowser,  and back to lie, has made it impossible to muster real shock or outrage at anything emerging from his sphinctoral lips, and given the notoriously spotty attention band of Americans (who also tend to forget when voting day is until the Wednesday morning following), real interest.  Americans like outcomes and results, not puzzles. America hates surprises. (That’s why, unlike Britain, we wrote our Constitution down on paper, without anticipating that some 240 years later it would be surprisingly unequipped to deal with an electoral crisis.) They are getting used to the old man’s excesses and they are bored with the complexities of Trumpgate.

I was reminded of this recently when trying to discuss Watergate with some millennials who know the events of 1972-1973 only as twentieth century history.  The vocabulary of those days—cover-up, obstruction of justice, stonewalling, special prosecutor, Saturday Night Massacre, executive privilege, enemies-list, abuse of power, articles of impeachment—has all been taken out of the trunk and dusted off for recycling.  But clearly the terms have lost their valence, their power to shock or even to rile.  Donald Trump is such a thoroughly bad person that he has made moral outrage impossible.  Nixon had to be caught in a lie.  Trump’s pimple-faced, self-contradicting, sixth-grade-caliber lying is so constant that even his critics are saying he can’t be held morally accountable for what he says.  Did he obstruct justice?  What’s justice? Whose justice? Did he intend to commit a crime?  Depends on how you define crime—and intention. Big words.  Grown-up words. Probably not words he knows. The defense of his badness veers dangerously close to an insanity plea or diminished responsibility claim in a meticulously investigated murder trial.

Our national loss of moral certainty isn’t the effect of what Trump is doing now.  He is the effect of our lack of moral certainty: Our age created him as completely as the fourth century BCE created Alexander the Great, the 18th century a Hanoverian George and a Washington, and the 1920’s Adolph Hitler.

The media, of course, makes noise about the restrictions placed on the press –fewer briefings, confrontation between the White House and reporters, propagandistic chitlings instead of information–which is nothing less than a war against the freedom of information.  But Donald Trump, who is not very smart, is smart enough to know that his average follower doesn’t care about the First Amendment.  The campaign against liberal media, the “lame-stream,” “libtard” media, has been going on since Nixon’s day, but with greater fury and defensiveness since the nasty 90’s and the death of civil discourse in the internet age.  Trump and his advisers have apparently abandoned the old distinction between true and false to raise the “Pontius Pilate question” that postmodern man is always fingering:  What is truth? (John 18.38). Is it what the New York Times says, or Breitbart, or Fox?  Or maybe it isn’t anywhere, really, or maybe in cable-land it’s as big as your menu: Find your hole, pull up a stool, and shut out the other squirrels.  And if all truth is local, and facts are negotiable, if not downright suspicious, if that’s the case, then a tubby Press Secretary who talks mud and proclaims “The president has been very clear about this” or “The President’s statement (tweet/remark/clarification) speaks for itself” can be trusted on the basis of repeated assertion.

Which brings me to the topic of moral outrage.  Aristotle, whom I’m fond of quoting, wrote in so many words in the Ethics that to be angry at the right man for the right reason at the right  time is a part of what it means to be virtuous.  He was saying that there should be no civic appetite for indulging immorality or vice.  Indulgence is encouragement, approval–consent, and there have to be consequences for bad actions like willful deception and vicious behaviour, especially when the agent is “a leader of men” [sic]  because the leader, as a “great man”, affects the lives of others either directly or by emulation. He can pass unjust laws, oppress the poor, and exploit the weak.  A great man is responsible for the moral condition of his followers, and truth and honesty is the bond between them.

Donald Trump is not a “great man” by anyone’s standards but in the Greek scheme of things history (in one of its more unfortunate vomitous heaves) has thrust greatness upon him.  The shoes are too big, the crown too heavy, and the burden of office, especially military office, more than he can handle.  But his absurdity in the role doesn’t mean he should not be judged by how he fills it.  Even if the civil body politic bears the responsibility for thrusting an undeserving pillock into the office, the outrage has to be directed at the dealer, not at the gulls.  

American political discourse is full of slogans that are not only ridiculous but completely erroneous.  One of them is that we must respect the “office” of the presidency even if the occupant of the office is a total reprobate and fool.  

The framers of the Constitution did set a fairly high standard for removal from office through the impeachment process (Article 2, section 4), but the very fact that it’s there at all suggests that the founders contemplated the election of scoundrels to office was within the realm of possibility. At the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin noted that, historically, the removal of obnoxious chief executives had been accomplished by assassination. Franklin suggested that a proceduralized mechanism for removal—impeachment—would be preferable.  But no one recommended a presidency construed as the “power” of the throne, a bifurcation of the man (or woman) and the office.  That sort of metaphysical thinking is left over from the days of monarchy, the divine right of kings, and the infallibility of popes.

In the American system, it is totally gratuitous.  The American presidency is an elective office, not a hereditary status.  It expresses the fickle and fallible will of the people at a point in history.  We choose citizens  to fill it.  There is no vacant chair, no sede vacantes when a president dies.  No unclaimed scepter, no interregnum.  There is no point in respecting the “office of president” if the holder of the office doesn’t merit respect, and those who fail have not disgraced the office but themselves in it.  In short, being elected president doesn’t entitle anyone to more than a chance to prove himself fit for the office through the judicious and respectable use of power granted to him.   It does not invest him with good judgment, grant him the benefit of a doubt, or enlarge his intelligence.

It is clear after five months that Donald Trump deserves only contempt, not just for his ideas, which are irrational, cruel, and wrong, for the most part, but also for the sort of man he is.  To invoke the fact that people voted for him, or that, after all, he is the president, is not enough to make him deserving.  He cannot demand that his election victory, which is still a matter of surprise to him, is an entitlement not to be criticized, second-guessed, and ridiculed.

And this is why Congress must be worried.  Our European and Asian cousins aren’t persuaded that a clear line can be drawn between Trump and American values.  His greed, petulance, and ignorance are simply a compilation of things that many people in other parts of the world have thought America was becoming (or has been) for a very long time.  Donald Trump is the confirmation of their opinion.  They see a worrying amateur with a short attention span and an impetuous nature, a man who thinks no more is expected of him in negotiating the byways of foreign policy than a contestant at the Miss Universe pageant answering a question about world peace, and no more is needed in building an administration than surrounding himself with family, cronies, billionaires (the successful), and generals (tough guys, decision-making “experts”) and being willing to play a chief executive who fires people who dissatisfy him.  The President rewards people who share his dwarfish sense of reality and complexity and, unlike most previous presidents, he is jealous of everyone because he is personally but contemptuously aware that most people are smarter than he is.

And this is also why a country that expresses outrage all the time–in a traffic jam along the highway, in a long line at the DMV, over an increase in property tax or a school bond levy, or a decrease in Medicare payouts, over their neighbor’s pet crapping in their flower bed, even at the least suggestion someone will take away a firearm—these same Americans who are angry much of the time about little things need to save some of that rage for what really matters.  

And what should that be?  Why should Trump-Americans be outraged?  Because they are being lied to.  Their chosen President of the United States does not care about them.  He does not want them in his golf club.  They cannot afford a weekend at his resorts.  He does not care about their health and wellbeing, or their children’s education, or the family’s debt or mortgage or foreclosure, or the disappearance of jobs from the mines. As a post-moral man, he will say what he needs to say to push his incoherent agenda and hold on to power. To take credit and shower blame.  He will live on to lie another day. And nothing will change until the gulls no longer swoop to feed out of his hand.