I’ll bet you keep forgetting that, in politics today, nothing matters. It’s understandable. We used to think that American public life included standards and norms that would allow us to determine whether the character and performance of our officials were laudable, merely acceptable, or completely in the toilet. We expected that words and actions would have consequences.
Donald Trump has made all of it obsolete, partially through his brand of blustery self-promotion, but also by harnessing the magically dark power of hyper-partisanship. Though he would love to take credit for it, he can’t be said to be the lone arsonist who started the fire. The partisanship necessary to reach our current state of near-madness needed a greater running start than just, say, the years since Trump began banging on about Obama’s birth certificate.
We should be talking first about stalwart heroic villains like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay: gold-medal, fully-rabid hyper-partisans who in the nineties did their best not just to defeat their opponents, but to portray them as enemies of humanity who should be banished from society and made to eat dirt. These views were amplified by the then fledgling Fox News Channel and disseminated to the frontal lobes of voters desperately seeking evildoers to scapegoat, fear, and despise now that the Soviet Union was gone and many of their jobs seemed to be disappearing as well. It was such a relief to know which Americans merited total contempt without having to do any actual thinking. Who knew that a canned point of view went down just as easily as Coke and KFC?
Almost logically, this fertile field then produced a crop of human weeds like Mark Sanford, the ex-governor of South Carolina who abandoned his family in 2009 for a shack-up with an Argentinian babe, covering his actions with a creative lie about going for a nice nature walk. Unfazed by tawdry history, in 2013 berserk hyper-partisan voters in legendary South Carolina provided Sanford with “forgiveness” seemingly not available from his wife and children, and a special election seat in the House of Representatives. Other than his party affiliation, nothing appeared to matter.
These and other pioneers of rabid politics were the vanguard of the Neo-Know-Nothing movement, and its easy-breezy, values-free voting. They played John the Baptist to Trump’s Jesus. (Sorry. That analogy even gave ME the dry heaves.)
Trump has taken things to a new level, of course. He has corralled the energies of a weird coalition of groups who normally might be beating each other with tire irons. Frustrated blue-collar workers, racists (Southern and otherwise), hypocritical Evangelicals, and blindly obedient Republican Fox News zombies, all contribute to this ungodly base of support. They are the citizens who are responsible for smashing the nation’s moral compass, and uncoupling the most basic decency and honesty from the office of the president.
The events of last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, are only the latest demonstration of Trump’s prowess in this work. On Tuesday following the tragedy, when we were treated to his gaseous, self-righteous tirade about the melee, he managed to violate the most fundamental values of the nation by legitimizing racism, insisting that there were some “very fine people” among the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who attended the rally.
The gasps of dismay were audible around the country. Surely THIS time, Trump had gone too far, and even his most glassy-eyed supporters would call him out.
Well, of course not. He hasn’t stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and shot anyone. Yet. Isn’t that the test he set for himself, to see if there might not be some unspeakable act that would cost him some supporters?
And here is where the Fear grabs us: if nothing matters, if his base will wink at the Access Hollywood video, the Trump University fraud settlement, his huge volume of subtle and not-so-subtle lies, the embrace of racism, then where does it stop? A rich imaginative life can come up with a boatload of dystopian scenarios based on the notion that the values and norms of America have been tossed out. But don’t worry: if any such thing happens, it will only be because it is absolutely necessary. We just need to trust him.