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.
Trump-Americans are not outraged because they believe Trump will do things that will lead to them having more money. And who knows, they might, just might, one day, if they work hard and their God, the one and only true God, is willing, they too just might become rich like Trump. Then they can snub their noses at the middle and lower class denizens, especially the darker-skinned ones, they were able to pull themselves up from (by their own bootstraps), and keep such low life’s out of their country clubs.
“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.”
Ditto for the bulk of his voters, judging from their own statements. Most of the Republicans holding office are better and worse: they can see the game, but care even less.
“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared. The traitor is the carrier of the plague. You have unbarred the gates of Rome to him.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Herb van Fleet:
Excellent quotation from Cicero.
And that is exactly the very reason why so many Democrats refused to vote for Hillary Clinton, and some voted for Trump. Women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are distrusted, not because they are women, but for what they say, what they preach, when it sounds phony and manipulative. They do not come out as the persons they really are, but as characters they self-fabricate as tools for their manipulations. They come out as secretive, manipulative, untrustworthy and hiding who they in essence are. Even a fool and a joker and big-time clown as Trump shows off his character and his reality. You see who he is, and pretty quickly, but it’s all out in the open, visible to us all. “He is known and carries his banner openly”. With those manipulative women, nothing is visible and honest, they “work secretly and unknown in the night”, they “speak in accents familiar to [their] victims,” and they “wear their face and their arguments,”, for self-serving and secret purposes. We are served rhetoric and disguise, while they act out their effective roles as “eminence grises”, secret operators who talk a high-ground moral speech on the front scene, but fabricate their designs behind close doors, in the dark of their private retreats and secret meetings.
Herb van Fleet:
It’s not enough to give us the text of Cicero’s rhetoric, it’s a must to indicate the source and its date.
The source of the quote is in a 1965 speech by Millard Caldwell, Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
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Herb van Fleet:
You simply overlooked the very first sentence of your quotation: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious.” And sure enough, Trump is a fool, even if only an apparent one, and most certainly a very ambitious one, but he’s not the end of the world. Soon enough there’ll be more presidents, and more, and more. And Trump will just become another memory in the history books, just as Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan have become.
So Trump’s style is without exact precedent? But is it a diktat of history that the president has got to be yet another lawyer or another professor from one of the Ivy League schools? Trump’s a new show, and those who are sensitive to the operatic features of political life can certainly applaud the novelty, suspense, and excitement value it provides to all.
The media and commentators of all stripes are delighted with this new opportunity to show off their own sententious wisdom and superior clairvoyance of future catastrophes. At least Trump gives them a good fodder, drama and unpredictability, a perfect stimulant for any of his run-of-the-mill critics to display his own wisdom and sagacity while savaging the big fool of a president. Imagine what they would have had to write about if Hillary had become president. The torpor and boredom are enough to make us wish for any other candidate.
As Cicero clearly warns, this is not the end of the world. But all the media writers and producers are incredibly happy to have a reason to adopt an apocalyptic tone and predict the imminent end of the world. We all know that all those warnings and predictions are the product of over excited minds who cannot digest a new phenomenon and simply spread fear to push their own well established agendas.
It may not be the end of the world, but Trump’s presidency may well hasten the end of our Great Experiment. Recall the caution given by John Adams over 200 years ago, “ “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” This scary sentiment was echoed by British Historian Arnold Toynbee more than 150 years later, “History shows that great nations rise and great nations fall, but the autopsy of history is that all great nations commit suicide.” It may be that Trump will serve as our country’s Dr. Kevorkian.
Herb van Fleet:
Or it may be not. It’s easy to catch the apocalyptic mood, and it makes for exciting writing. Just look at the daily issues of the NY Times. There’s not a single article that does not read impending catastrophes in whatever Trump does or says. All this could be another huge mass illusion, so easy to spread in the US. Only time will tell. Meanwhile anybody can try his hand at playing Cassandra. Even you. But it’s a game, that everybody takes seriously. Remember all those personalities and celebs, including many from the Hollywood and show community, who swore that they were going to move to Canada or somewhere, or threatened perhaps to commit suicide? None ever did. Time has a way to put things in perspective.
Herb van Fleet:
I was intrigued by your great quotation attributed to Cicero. It nearly sounded as if Cicero had read Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Cicero was a giant to the early Italian Renaissance scholars, and they combed the dusty libraries and basements of old monasteries searching for any surviving manuscripts of his lost works.
So I was curious to find the origin of this Cicero quotation. It is mentioned in exactly the words you used in Wikiquote, but this one is labeled as “disputed”, as being not authentic. It is listed among the “misattributed” quotes. It is said to be “a paraphrase from a 1965 essay by Justice Millard Caldwell. The paraphrase appears to be from the Second Catiline Oration but drastically changes the rhetoric.” So those words are not actually from Cicero but from a modern scholar who’s read enough of Cicero’s harangues, pleas, essays, and diatribes to take the liberty of inventing a text that could have sounded as if from Cicero himself.
Wikiquote adds an example from the Second Catiline Oration by comparison: “But why are we speaking so long about one enemy; and about that enemy who now avows that he is one; and whom I now do not fear, because, as I have always wished, a wall is between us; and are saying nothing about those who dissemble, who remain at Rome, who are among us? “.
It is intriguing that Cicero, in his own words, emphasized that he was no longer afraid of the outside enemy “because, as I have always wished, a wall is between us”, which allowed him to contrast that visible, objective enemy with the one disguised, hidden, already fomenting his nefarious designs from within the nation itself. Survival in Antiquity was a serious matter, and walls were the most important protections against enemy attacks and invasions. And so they remained, well into the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, at least.
By the way, reading that list of quotations from Cicero is truly astonishing. The man was a tower of energy and immense versatility in playing with abstract concepts. They were like the many balls mixed with balloons a master prestidigitator keeps in the air, all in motion and perfectly aligned. No wonder Cicero was considered an incomparable genius to the scholars of antiquity.
No more astonishing is another quote, also shown in Wikipedia among the “Quotes about Cicero”, one from the European Renaissance, this time from the French sage Montaigne, expressing a serious doubt about the value of Cicero’s rhetorical dissertations. Of course, Montaigne had to read the whole text of Cicero’s books, with their ponderous rhetoric, whereas, we, modern readers, are lucky to have this formidable ready-made collection of Cicero’s best cogitations and go straight for the nuggets.
“But to confess the truth boldly (for once you have crossed over the barriers of impudence there is no more curb), his way of writing, and every other similar way, seems to me boring. For his prefaces, definitions, partitions, etymologies, consume the greater part of his work; what life and marrow there is, is smothered by his long-winded preparations. If I have spent an hour in reading him, which is a lot for me, and I remember what juice and substance I have derived, most of the time I find nothing but wind; for he has not yet come to the arguments that serve his purpose and the reasons that properly touch on the crux, which I am looking for.”
(Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of Books’, 1580, in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, ed. D. Frame, 1958).
When I wrote “No more astonishing is another quote…” about the one from Montaigne, I probably meant “No LESS astonishing is…” Editing is the tool of reason.