I try to be a reasonable person. I try to be someone who looks out on the world with trusting eyes. Over the decades, I’ve built up certain expectations about how the world works and how people behave. I rely on those expectations as I do my job, analyzing events and anticipating what will happen next.
And yet I’ve found that Donald Trump has confounded me at every turn. I’ve found that I’m not cynical enough to correctly anticipate what he is capable of.
I have consistently underestimated his depravity. I was shocked at how thuggishly Trump behaved in that first debate with Joe Biden in 2020. As the Jan. 6 committee hearings progressed, I was stunned to find out just how aggressively Trump had worked to overthrow the election. And then, just last week, in reading his federal indictment, I was once again taken aback to learn how flagrantly he had breached national security.
And yet I can’t quite feel ashamed of my perpetual naïveté toward Donald Trump. I don’t want to be the kind of person who can easily enter the head of an amoral narcissist.
I’ve been thinking about all this while bracing for the 17 months of campaigning that apparently lie ahead, with Trump probably once again the central focus of the nation’s consciousness. I’m thinking about how we will once again be forced to defend our inner sanctums as he seeks, on a minute-by-minute basis, to take up residence in our brains.
I cling to a worldview that is easy to ridicule. I hold the belief that most people, while flawed, seek to be good. I hold the belief that our institutions, while fraying, are basically legitimate and deserve our respect. I hold the belief that character matters, and that good people ultimately prosper and unethical people are ultimately undone.
I don’t think this worldview is born of childish innocence. It comes out of my direct experience with life, and after thousands of interviews, covering real-life politicians like Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Donald Trump, by his mere presence, is an assault on this worldview. Trump is a tyrant. As Aristotle observed all those many years ago, tyranny is all about arbitrariness. When a tyrant has power, there is no rule of law, there is no governing order. There is only the whim of the tyrant. There is only his inordinate desire to have more than his fair share of everything.
Under political tyranny external laws become arbitrary. Even when Trump doesn’t wield state power, when he is merely campaigning, Trump wields cultural power. Under cultural tyranny internal values become arbitrary too — based on his whims and lusts of the moment.
The categories we use to evaluate the world lose their meaning — cruelty and kindness, integrity and corruption, honesty and dishonesty, generosity and selfishness. High-minded values begin to seem credulous and absurd, irrelevant to the situation at hand. Trump’s mere presence spreads his counter-gospel: People are basically selfish; raw power runs the world. All that matters is winning and losing. Under his influence, subtly and insidiously, people develop more nihilistic mind-sets.
Trump has already corroded the Republican Party in just this way. Let me focus on one value that Trump has already dissolved: the idea that there should be some connection between the beliefs you have in your head and the words that come out of your mouth. If you say something you don’t believe, you should at least have a twinge of guilt about your hypocrisy.
I used to at least hear Republicans express guilt privately when they publicly supported a guy they held in contempt. That guilt seems to have gone away. Even the contempt has gone away. Many Republicans have switched off the moral faculty, having apparently concluded that personal morality doesn’t matter.
Trump’s corrosive influence spreads far beyond his party. Any stable social order depends on a sense of legitimacy. This is the belief and faith that the people who have been given authority have a right to govern. They wield power for the common good.
Trump assaults this value too. Prosecutors are not serving the rule of law, he insists, but are Joe Biden’s political pawns. Civil servants are nothing but “deep state” operatives to take Trump down. This cynical attitude has become pervasive in our society. Proper skepticism toward our institutions has turned into endemic distrust, a jaundiced cynicism that says: I’m onto the game; it’s corruption all the way down.
Over the coming months, we face not merely a political contest, but a battle between those of us who believe in ideals, even though it can make us seem naïve at times, and those who argue that life is a remorseless struggle for selfish gain. Their victory would be a step toward cultural barbarism.