By Dr. Joseph Chuman
There is growing consensus that the Trump presidency is a train wreck: Chaotic, unpredictable, destructive of American norms, engineered by a pathologically impulsive, grandiose and stunningly ignorant man who is narcissistically blind to his own ignorance. The question many, both inside the government and outside of it, must be asking is: How is this going to end? For the sake of the Republic, for the sake of freedom and democracy, may it come soon.
The political horror that is Donald Trump is mirrored in a succession of outrageous policies that reveal a dark and authoritarian streak. This is confirmed by his admiration for “strongmen,” the absence in his rhetoric of such fundamental American concepts as democracy and liberty, and his vesting of a “great” nation in brute power at the expense of cooperation and diplomacy. Add to this the collusion of members of his administration with Russian apparatchiks. If evidence is found that they conspired to throw the election his way, such would shade into treason, a high crime even his Republican sycophants couldn’t defend.
Fraying our moral fabric
Policy-wise the Trump regime is a disaster. But beyond his policies, the destructiveness of Donald Trump’s presidency and persona reaches more deeply to corrupt, if not destroy, the moral fabric of American society. Trump, like all presidents of the United States, presents two agendas. The first is vested in the policies that he promotes and executes. But the second is conveyed by the moral stature with which he comports himself. The American public projects a great deal of authority onto its presidents and much is expected. From George Washington forward, it is assumed that the president will be the conveyor of certain virtues, even as most have fallen short–honesty, magnanimity, generosity, the dignity of the office among them. The president in this regard is not only the chief executive; he is also a moral teacher.
The slash and burn, win-at-any-cost, and overt name-calling nastiness with which Trump carried on his presidential campaign has been ceaselessly expressed in his style of governing. Those who held out the hope that the demands and realities of the office would cause him to change, or that he would “grow” and “learn” as president (why do his defenders believe it acceptable for the presidency to provide a kindergarten experience for someone who has never served in government or has evinced the slightest commitment to civic values?) have been chasing a chimera, or are just trying to lead the rest of us on.
Continuously, blatantly lying
Take, for starters, Trump’s mendacity. All politicians lie. They make false promises; they exaggerate. We know that. But they give at least rhetorical deference to truthfulness. Trump, by contrast, lies continuously, blatantly, and transparently, with no regard for obvious fact or concern for the importance of truth as the fiber of human discourse and relations. The presumption that people are being honest unless shown to be otherwise is the warp and woof of any society. Society is built on trust, and trust stands on the presumption of truthfulness. For Donald Trump, truthfulness and loyalty to facts themselves are totally jettisoned in the service of power and triumph. It is winning at all costs, and truthfulness is utterly sacrificed. If you or I lie, it is bad enough. If the president of the United States, who is arguably the most powerful and influential person on the planet, lies – and does so cavalierly and consistently – then the destruction to the norm of honesty over time is incalculably great. How many people of weak moral compass are saying to themselves, either overtly or unconsciously, if the president of the United States can lie, why can’t I? Multiply this manifold, and the social fabric begins to unravel.
Then there is bullying. The name-calling, the refrain “Lock her up,” (it resonates with fascism) the attack on the press as “the enemy of the people,” his misogyny, racism and ridicule of the disabled are boorish, vulgar, even obscene. Remember, this is the president of the United States. He carries great authority to set the norms. By the power of office, he has given permission to every bigot and hater to come out of the closet. I can just imagine the fraught conversations parents must be having with their 9-year-olds and the parents’ need to diminish the place of the presidency to protect their children from the immoral boor who holds the office. What does this do to the stature of the presidency and its respected place in American society? And what does this do to the morality of children and the rest us? When we morally place brackets around the leader at the top, the whole moral architecture of society is weakened.
I want to delve further into this question of the impact that the current administration is having on the moral fiber of society, and how we need to respond, in my platform address of June 4. I have titled my talk “The Worse Angels of Our Nature: (Im)moral Leadership in High Places.” I hope you can join me.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.