In 2016 many of us watched Trump rise to power with horror and disgust, with the wry humor with which one observes dark comedy – and with increasing disbelief, as writers and thinkers we’d once admired fell in line with this new, leering, pussy-grabbing GOP.
And we’ve continued to treat this regime, as well as the racist and misogynistic Alt Right which has projected its god-emperor fantasy onto an addled and obnoxious elderly tycoon, as some kind of weird and unexpected anomaly. Un-American, some have said. Not truly conservative, others have said.
But perhaps we should not have been so surprised by what happened in 2016. This degradation has been with us all along.
Joseph Epstein wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “The Only Good Thing About Trump is All His Policies,” in which he states:
I approve of the Neil Gorsuch appointment, the moving of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the removal of often-strangling regulations from much commerce, the opening of the Keystone pipeline, the tax-reform law, and more.
I disapprove of the bragging tweets, the touchiness, the crude put-downs of anyone who disagrees with him (“Little Marco, ” “insecure Oprah, ” “Sloppy Steve, ” and the rest), the unrestrained vulgarity. America has had ignorant, corrupt, vain, lazy presidents before, but in Donald Trump we have the first president who is a genuine boor.
The problem in short, for Epstein and his like, is that Trump takes what they view as a good thing and wrap it up in an unseemly packaging. The office of the president, Epstein points out, has “a symbolic along with a practical aspect.”
But to my view, what Trump has done has simply show forth the so-called “conservative” policies of the American Right for what they are. Xenophobia has long been enshrined in our popular and populist prejudices, which is why the same wave of anti-immigrant feeling arises, over and over. My Jewish ancestors experienced it. Your Japanese, Italian, Irish, or Polish ancestors experienced it. Syrians and Mexicans experience it now. My English ancestors, who arrived on this continent prior to the Revolution, got a toehold in and identified themselves as the “real” Americans (forget about those who had been here already, for century upon century).
Systemic racism is the bedrock on which our culture and economy were built, though I often get unfriended and attacked for pointing this out. Your African ancestors were brought over as objects, as capital to be exploited for the sake of the gospel of White prosperity. The enshrinement of the Second Amendment as an immutable God-given right is connected with this systemic racism, with the fear of White anti-abolitionists who wanted to intimidate Black slaves and those who would take their cause. And no, White saviors from the Union did not wipe out racism when they fought that bloody war. Those who opposed Civil Rights and supported segregation are still living, today – many as politicians, business owners, and even religious leaders.Environmental degradation has always been viewed as an acceptable price to pay for the idol of economic growth. We’ve torn across this nation like a grasshopper over the harvest, devouring as we go, and attributing the wealth derived from rapid exploitation of vast resources to some fabled success of capitalism. What to do when our resources run out? Find new ones. Horde the remnants. Eat the poor.
Libertarian economics which harm the poor and instigate a mechanism of social Darwinism were the highlight of the much-lauded Reagan years. The urbane William Buckley loathed the poor and attacked the Church’s social doctrine. Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand devotee whose mission in life is to dismantle the social safety nets on which so many depend, is beloved of Catholic Republicans. The women want him, and the men want to be him.
Sexism too has a long history in our culture. Abigail Adams asked her husband to “remember the ladies” as the Constitution was drafted. Too bad he teased her and then ignored her request. The masculinity fetish of “winning the west” is connected, after all, with the subjugation of women as well as of “savages” – and of the land.
To this day, we have not even had a woman vice president.
This is only one side of our history, of course. We have heroes as well as villains in our tradition – from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, there have always been these saints and leaders who uphold a true vision of freedom – a Gospel vision. But it would be a mistake to think that the boorishness of our contemporary villains is a drastic turn away from some pre-existing purity.
All that Trump has done is present evil in the packaging it most richly deserves. And perhaps this is what his critics on the Right find most alarming: that he may just give the game away.
postscript: I stand, nonetheless, by my assertion that we must work with Trump’s critics across the board, whether left or right or in the middle – but we can not let the Reagan Republicans define the terms on which we will foster a true culture of dignity and respect for life.
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_F._Buckley,_Jr._with_President_Reagan_1986.jpg