For those who claim that Donald Trump has been pasteurized and homogenized by the presidency, his sour, 100th-day speech in Harrisburg, Pa., was inconvenient.
Trump used his high office to pursue divisive grudges (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is a “bad leader”), to attack the media (comprised of “incompetent, dishonest, people”) and to savage congressional Democrats (“they don’t mind drugs coming in”). Most of all, Trump used his bully pulpit quite literally, devoting about half his speech to the dehumanization of migrants and refugees as criminals, infiltrators and terrorists. Trump gained a kind of perverse energy from the rolling waves of hatred, culminating in the reading of racist song lyrics comparing his targets to vermin. It was a speech with all the logic, elevation and public purpose of a stink bomb.
On a selection of policy issues (Chinese currency manipulation, NATO, NAFTA), Trump has been forced to accommodate reality. But those who find the president surprisingly “conventional” must somehow dismiss or discount this kind of speech, which George Wallace would have gladly given as president. They must somehow ignore the children in the audience, soaking up the fears and prejudices of their elders. They must somehow believe that presidential rhetoric – capable of elevating a country – has no power to debase it.
It is not sophisticated or worldly to become inured to bigotry. The only thing more frightening than Trump’s speech – arguably the most hate-filled presidential communication in modern history – is the apathetic response of those who should know better.
For vigorous and insightful criticism of Trump, we should turn to someone who is not an American at all. He is a Czech intellectual, playwright and politician – who also happens to be dead.
I viewed Trump’s speech immediately after reading Václav Havel’s essay “Politics, Morality and Civility” (in an edition recently issued by the Trinity Forum). Havel surveyed the post-communist politics of his time and found leaders willing “to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering a colorful range of attractive nonsense.” Sound familiar? His diagnosis continues: “Making the most of the situation, some characters with suspicious backgrounds have been gaining popular favor with ideas such as, for instance, the need to throw the entire government into the Vltava River.”
The great temptation, in Havel’s view, is for people to conclude that politics can’t be better – that it “is chiefly the manipulation of power and public opinion, and that morality has no place in it.” This demoralized view of politics would mean losing “the idea that the world might actually be changed by the force of truth, the power of a truthful word, the strength of a free spirit, conscience and responsibility.”
“Genuine politics,” argues Havel, “is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us.” And this responsibility grows out of a moral and spiritual reality. “Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed ‘from above,’ that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten.”
Any kind of serious social renewal begins, in Havel’s view, with each of us. “That is: in all circumstances try to be decent, just, tolerant and understanding, and at the same time try to resist corruption and deception.” But political leaders can and should carry this work forward. “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence.”
Read the whole essay – a Czech giving voice to real Americanism. It is certainly not the spirit of Trumpism, which exemplifies the moral and spiritual poverty Havel decries: the cultivation of anger, resentment, antagonism and tribal hostilities; the bragging and the brooding; the egotism and self-pity. All is visible. None will be forgotten.
The alternative is the democratic faith: that people, in the long run, will choose decency and progress over the pleasures of malice. The belief that they will choose the practice of kindness and courtesy. The conviction that God blesses the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the stranger. Faith in the power of the truthful word.
It is the job of responsible politics to prepare the way for new leaders, who believe that all of us are equal in dignity and tied together in a single destiny. But this can only take place if we refuse to normalize the language of hatred.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.