Have They No Decency?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Before lightening and the Electoral College struck, making Donald Trump president, he famously boasted that he could walk out onto Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and become even more popular than he already was with his base.

He was probably right – literally, even back then, before the Trump-induced accelerated degradation of the ambient political culture was fully underway.

Inasmuch as the one thing that Trump is good at, besides feathering his own nest, is conning desperate, benighted people, it is not surprising that he would pick up on this. His sense of what he is able to get away with is well honed.

At first, Trump’s Fifth Avenue quip seemed like nothing more than a smart-alecky way of pointing out that his supporters like it when he violates longstanding norms. What is the harm in that? Many of the norms he was violating leave plenty to be desired.

Therefore, at first, to those who hadn’t been paying close attention, Trump’s run for the White House wasn’t all that worrisome. There seemed to be something fundamentally wrong-headed about him, but then the same (or worse) could be said about all those other dodos seeking the GOP nomination in 2016.

It was obvious that Trump had it in for Hispanics and Muslims; that was his whole shtick. He found supporters aplenty on that account. Still there seemed little cause for concern. After all, an uncouth, self-aggrandizing, made-for-reality-TV tycoon, with a buffoonish streak, couldn’t possibly win; and, even if he somehow did, American democracy could withstand the shock, and repel the threat he posed.

That comforting thought was the product of two delusions: that, running against him, Hillary Clinton was invincible, and that American democracy is a lot more democratic than it actually is.

If it were even just a tad more democratic, then, when a large enough slice of the electorate came to realize the magnitude of the mistake they made in voting that excuse of a human being into office or in not fighting hard enough to stop him, his government would fall. A new election would then restore the bad old ways which, for all their faults, were way less imbecilic and vile than the new, Trumpian ways.

The first delusion was correct in a way: Clinton did get between three and four million more votes than Trump did. But then the second delusion kicked in. In our so-called democracy, it can and does happen that the candidate with the most votes loses. This is what happened in 2016.

Clinton got more votes than Trump, but she didn’t get quite enough of them in the right places to keep the Trumpian menace at bay.

Thus for the second time this century, the minority ruled. The first time, we also ended up with a buffoon, an especially lethal one. Trump has yet to get as many people killed as George W. Bush, but, by any other measure, he has been way worse.

Poor W. — his reign as the worst American president in modern times lasted only a measly eight years!

One would assume that now that people have gotten a real world taste of life under the Donald, that his chances of being reelected would be nil. But, as this point, if polls and pundits can be believed, this is not the case.

As George Carlin put it, we should “never underestimate” – W. would say “misunderestimate” – “the power of stupidity in large groups.” Or, as H.L. Menken said: “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Menken was right about the forty percent or so of the public that even now goes gung-ho for that very loathsome and “very stable genius” who spends his days collecting emoluments and watching Fox News.

Even so, had our “founders” not, for all intents and purposes, constitutionally enshrined the principle of “no backsies,” we would by now have seen the back of him.

I say this not so much because Trump governs incompetently or because he careens from outrage to outrage, but because he is despised by the elites that normally call the shots in our Land of the Free, and by the leaders and functionaries of America’s national security state. The Pentagon brass are not too crazy about him either.

As a sleazy real estate developer, casino impresario, and reality TV personality, who knew little and cared less about the craft of governance, and even less about statesmanship, Trump is, for them, the president from hell.

But that wasn’t why they had it in for him from Day One. That had more to do with him becoming a “transformational” figure, a serial violator of the norms that sustained the status quo.

Trump was backed by some of our most venal capitalists, but he also unnerved substantial sectors of what C. Wright Mills called “the power elite.” The movers and shakers of “respectable” corporate media were especially incensed.

Along with the vast majority of their class brothers and sisters, they were determined not to cede so much as an iota of power to such a vulgar lowlife.

The talking heads on MSNBC and CNN and their colleagues in other respectable media outlets were wise enough not to try to defend the “swamp” that Trump said he wanted to drain. How, after all, could they defend a government on sale to the highest bidder?

What they could do, though, is attack Trump’s notion of what is involved in “draining” it. In this, they were, for once on the right track.

For Trump and now that the GOP is the Trump Party, for Republicans generally, draining the swamp means attacking professionalism and expertise in government, and, not coincidentally, attacking the federal workforce.

It does not mean, as it could and should, diminishing the power of those who seek to enrich themselves not by doing anything or creating anything socially useful, but by seeking what economists call “rents”; in other words, by using the state to secure property rights over scarce resources and wealth created by others.

And despite what Trump and the kakistocrats he has empowered sometimes find it convenient to say, neither do they want to diminish the power that lobbyists exercise. Quite to the contrary, their attacks on regulatory institutions and the people who work in them is largely the handiwork of lobbyists, as is their pandering to nefarious “special interests,” like the gun and Israel lobbies.

Anti-Trump pundits, Republican and Democratic alike, along with the superannuated prosecutors, Pentagon flacks, and G-men (and women) now working in corporate media are not exactly gunning for rent-seekers and lobbyists either.

They prefer to focus on Trump’s incompetence, intellectual laziness, moral turpitude and overall unfitness for the office he holds.

Could it be that they think that the pre-Trump status quo, norms and all, will resume after Trump is defeated in 2020?

That apparently is the view of alarmingly many Democratic voters who somehow manage to believe that it makes sense to nominate a relic from the bad old days, Joe Biden, a doddering doofus with impeccable rightwing (Clinton-Obama) credentials, to run against Trump for president.

Democrats can and probably will do a whole lot better than that. But even if they sweep the House and Senate, and put Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in the White House, we will not be out of the woods. Trump let the snakes out from under the rocks where they had been in deep sleep, out of sight and out of mind; they cannot be easily or immediately put back.

For a long time to come, America will therefore be plagued by people, capable, at the same time, of supporting a president who has made a laughing-stock of the United States, but who also think that Trump’s imbecilities are “making America great again.”

Those benighted souls likely would like Trump all the more were he actually to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, especially if his victim were brown or black or Muslim. Even Muslims as white, as literally Caucasian, as they come would do.

Hard core Trumpians are already standing by him as he overseas a Great Terror – not with the guillotine, or for the sake of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, for the sake of his own vainglory and bottom line.

By my lights, tearing children away from their parents and warehousing them in unsanitary cages for days, sometimes weeks, on end, is worse than shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue; and staging raids on workers, but not their bosses, while their children are off on their first day of school is too appalling to bear comment.

Trump and the miscreants who execute his orders are so gratuitously cruel and inhumane that it would be fair to deem them evil. Those who support them or who, more kindly and gently, acquiesce in their malfeasances are not much better.

Have they no decency? The jury may still be out on that, but over the past few weeks especially, the chances that any of them would end up exonerated in a world in which justice prevailed are looking increasingly bleak.

Their Democratic counterparts are less awful, of course, but it is hard to keep that thought in mind when their media flacks prattle on self-righteously about how we are engaged in “a battle for the soul of America.”

True enough, though talk about the soul of a country that has done all that Trump and his minions are doing and worse to children sticks in the craw.

I don’t just mean children caught up in the imperialist depredations and never-ending wars upon which our overripe capitalist economy relies in order to survive and prosper.

I also mean the children of slaves brought to the Americas from Africa, and the children of the land’s indigenous peoples. Before Trump, these crimes against humanity seemed like ancient history; for Trump and the kakistocrats he has empowered they function more like historical precedents.

In any case, in the final analysis, it is not the soul of America that is at stake so much as something more basic and more humanly estimable. Trump is not just a garden-variety narcissist. He is a sociopath who thinks and, when possible, acts in disregard of morality itself.

Thus, in addition to his many high crimes and misdemeanors, we should take special notice of his efforts to inflict gratuitous cruelties upon black and brown people, their children especially, people whom the Democratic pundits on MSNBC and CNN keep telling us left their homes in search of “the American dream,” whatever that is, but who really yearn for nothing more “exceptional” than the “four fundamental freedoms” that Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed people “everywhere in the world ought to enjoy” – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

It is the last of these four freedoms that Trumpism most directly offends; and its denial, much like wars of aggression according to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg established after World War II to deal with Nazi war criminals, “contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Neocons and liberal imperialists of both duopoly parties have been in plain violation of this cornerstone of international justice and law since Day One of the post World War II era, just as surely as the stewards of our capitalist system have been superintending an economic system that would deny many Americans, and many others around the world, freedom from want. But it could at least be said of them that the military adventures they champion and the economic policies they promote have helped keep the domestic economy going.

The damage Trump and his people inflict upon babies, toddlers, and young children — and the larger Terror they inflict upon immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers — has no redeeming features. All it does is indulge the malign fantasies of nativists, racists, and Islamophobes.

If the news cycle didn’t change daily or sometimes even hourly, this realization might eventually seep in enough to cause at least some Trump supporters finally to defect. But Trump always has something outrageous up his sleeve; he can distract from practically anything at practically any time.

There is a difference this time, though, because one of this week’s distractions du jour has legs, as they say on Broadway. It is probably not even Trump’s doing, though his eagerness to blame the Clintons suggests that it may well be. Trump often accuses his adversaries of what he is guilty of; it’s what the gamblers in his bankrupt Atlantic City casinos would call a “tell.” In any case, this latest distraction really is a dilly.

Jeffrey Epstein’s life, and then the manner of his death, is a distraction worth being distracted over – not just because it is the best thing to come along for “conspiracy theorists” since JFK was shot dead in Dallas, but because of the light it sheds on some of the worst sleazebags in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and on some of the most noxious academic mandarins and self-promoters in Cambridge MA.

It also raises questions of great interest about the trajectory of the CIA and FBI in the Trump era. Could they be morphing into Paper Tigers? Early on, when Trump started dumping on “the intelligence community,” even Chuck Schumer warned him to tone it down, because messing with those guys is like playing with fire, only worse.

It certainly used to be. Back in the day, the CIA was Murder Incorporated on steroids. Even if it had no role in JFK’s assassination, the conventional wisdom, far beyond so-called conspiracy theory circles, was that it might well have.

It was the same with the FBI. In the J. Edgar Hoover era, no sane person in government would dare cross them. Hoover had every major American politician, including the Kennedys, by the balls.

But what about now?

Trump is not the smartest creature on the face of the earth, but he does know enough not to trouble trouble when it is staring him in the face. What he wants, and always has wanted, is to enrich and glorify himself, not to write out his own death warrant.

How is it, then, that he is able to get away with murder, figuratively and perhaps also literally, or worse now? Maybe the conman realizes that the forces aligned against him aren’t all that they are cracked up to be. Conmen are good at seeing such things, after all; at figuring out what they can get away with. These are questions people will be pondering for years to come.

For now, though, bread and circuses are back big time, and who can resist – especially the bringing down or, at the very least, seriously discomfiting some truly malevolent personages.

Too bad though, that collateral damage is likely. I, for one, feel badly about the involvement of people of whom I know almost nothing, but whom I have admired from afar. Of the names named so far, Marvin Minsky falls in that category; so does George Mitchell, if only for his role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement that ended “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. May his good works survive Brexit, and Boris Johnson.

If only they could all be like Dershowitz or certain named and unnamed Princes and Prime Ministers. But this is the hand we’ve been dealt, so why not play it for all it’s worth — or, as they say in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler!

But the question remains; do Trump and his supporters have any decency in them? The facts likely to come out are not entirely irrelevant to an answer, inasmuch as corruption and moral rot, unlike tax cuts for the rich, really do trickle down. But there are already plenty of facts on the ground that are more dispositive.

In Trump’s case, the answer is already painfully clear. Decency is not his thing.

As for the people who like him no less, or even more, on this account, the question must for now remain open. There is always a chance that when the 2020 election finally does come to pass that the voters will again prove the pollsters wrong.

For now, though, as Trump continues to get away with a lot worse than shooting some poor sucker outside Trump Tower, it sure looks like at least a tentative answer is rapidly becoming apparent. Have they no decency? No, most assuredly, they do not.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).