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America’s Moral Angst

Photo by Dave Hosford | CC BY 2.0

For all those who in 2016 closed their eyes, held their noses and took a leap into the unknown by voting for Donald Trump, it is time to pry open those eyelids, gaze upon what they have wrought, and smell the decay pervading the country’s public sphere. And indeed, it seems that growing numbers have, rather belatedly, noticed the signs of moral degeneracy coming from the Oval Office. What took them so long?

Actually, the time lapse is not really unusual. These Trump voters, having taken the leap sometimes for no other reason than they disliked Hillary Clinton (and her “politics as usual” ways), returned to their local lives and carried on as before. It was Mrs. Clinton’s defeat that satisfied them more than any concern with who had actually been elected. They had not paid attention to Trump’s malicious humbug.

These rather absent-minded balloters can be contrasted with another subset of voters, represented by the likes of former Klan leader David Duke, who went into their polling stations with eyes fully open. In February 2016 Duke had informed his white supremacist followers that “not voting for Trump was really treason to your heritage.” Later he would declare that “we are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” The “we” here are those American whites who feel that social justice and civil rights for anyone but themselves would be an affront to their “heritage.” Every nation has its bigots. These are America’s.

And here is at least one big structural problem with U.S. democracy—it is a winner-take-all system.Thus, the “nose holder” helped the bigot to win. And, there was really no excuse for this result except that millions were not thinking through the consequences of their actions. Could those who were motivated more to vote against Clinton than to vote in favor of Trump have really anticipated the present consequences of their actions? I am afraid the answer is yes.

Even before 8 November 2016, Trump’s ethical shortcomings were pretty obvious. All that bullying, slander and racial innuendo at his campaign rallies was spontaneous Trump—the real Trump—and not the product of some miscreant speechwriter or sleazy campaign director. The notion that gaining power would somehow breed a sense of responsibility in such a personality, if this happened to occur to anyone, is just rubbish. We have known this to be so ever since a certain German election in July of 1932.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that a president of Donald Trump’s temperament is not new in U.S. history. He is not the first man with anger control problems and a stark disregard for the rule of law to hit the White House. However, he is certainly the most blatant. Not that history is a guide for the average voter—the majority of Americans are not historically aware.The national history they are taught often does not go beyond what is needed to uphold an unquestioning pledge of allegiance. Put that ignorance together with prevailing inattention and you have an explanation of why it took so long for many U.S. citizens to realize that their president is a moral idiot.

From his first day in office Trump has, consistently and without embarrassment, packed the higher offices of government with unqualified fanatics, incompetent ideologues, and people who had as their goal the destruction of the departments they “ran.” That is, with reflections of himself. He has also been bombarding us with moronic tweets (which are often indicators of forthcoming moronic policies), and lying like a cheap rug. Indeed, the only time the man is not lying is when he is in the grip of a temper tantrum or identifying with white supremacists, as after the Charlottesville debacle.

Yet, as noted, many Americans are only now shocked at the president’s behavior. And what has been the trigger for this belated jolt? Family values—that is, the disregard of them as applied to those seeking to enter the U.S. in an undocumented fashion.

You see, many of those described by the president as “rapists” and “dope peddlers” seeking to sneak across the nation’s southern border are accompanied by their families. Donald Trump has declared this to be an invasion of “criminals,” and as a deterrent to the “invaders,” he had allowed the nation’s border guards to kidnap their children. By the way, the real scoop is that most of these “illegal aliens” are fleeing Central American violence which, historically, Washington has abetted.

Regardless, in Trump’s eyes the aliens are less than human. They are not worthy of legal due process or any sort of human rights considerations. The snatching of their children was an expression of this attitude. And, when the First Lady recently went to inspect the resulting kiddy concentration camps, she let every one know how she, and no doubt the rest of the Trump tribe, felt about the plight of these stolen children. It was right there on her jacket: “I really don’t care.” Trump said the sentiment referred to the couple’s attitude toward “fake news,” but really that was just a fake excuse. It was stupid callousness on Melania’s part. It was one of those “how low can you go” situations.

Corroborating Evidence

The misrepresented refugees along the southern border of the United States are not the only ones for whom Trump has disdain. Connections with organizations that defend the rights and contribute to the needs of the poor and oppressed are now, seemingly, held hostage to the dictates of Israel—an ally of the U.S. that regards its indigenous Palestinians much as Trump regards the “illegal aliens” on the Mexican border. Thus, the Trump administration withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 12 October 2017 citing alleged “anti-Israel bias.” One of the goals of UNESCO is “promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.” Given these ends and Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians, what Washington calls “bias” is in fact logical and necessary criticism on UNESCO’s part.

The same maneuver was repeated on 20 June 2018 when the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The Council is the world’s premier human rights body that reviews and brings to light abuses on a country-by-country basis. Lo and behold, the Trump administration accused the UNHRC of “chronic bias” against Israel. What is a human rights organization to do when confronted by a chronic human rights abusing state? Not be biased? Nor does the appearance of the occasional abuser state on its membership list negate the council’s mission. Membership is rotating and has not prevented the council from doing its job.

A recent Brookings Institution analysis stated that the goals of the Trump administration are ones of regression: “Weaken institutions not to its liking, abandon them if they do not comply with its demands … go it alone with little regard of the costs to U.S. interests” and do so in a manner that “absolves the administration from pretending to lead by its own example on human rights.”

It should be noted that this approach to the world is not the product of a thought-out strategy. The present administration is not eschewing human rights because it has some detailed, if oddball, game plan to promote the betterment of American citizens. No. It is doing so because the man who is president and the henchmen he has surrounded himself with are themselves pathologically unethical people. And, they in turn have found like partners both domestically and in foreign allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia, etc.). The dismissal of human rights comes naturally to these folks.

And all of this was predictable from the beginning of Trump’s campaign for the presidency—that is, if you were paying attention. Well, more and more citizens are now paying attention. They ask, “what kind of country do we want to be?” The word “want” is a misleading one. The U.S. has always been a divided country. What enough of the American people did in 2016 was to allow the bigoted, barbaric part of the nation, assisted by the inattentive, to gain power in the person of Donald Trump.

There are congressional elections in November 2018. We will see how many of those who closed their eyes, held their noses and took a leap into the unknown by voting for Donald Trump now come to the polling stations hoping to atone for their sins.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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