There are many scary things about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. But in my mind the scariest is that Trump seems sincerely not to get a fundamental insight most of the rest of us hold to--that laws and principles are what keep any society, including our own, from sinking into barbarity.
If you’re paying attention, you’ve noted that this blindness of Trump’s, this basic contempt for law and principle, structures his talking points on nearly every topic. Whether it’s trade or ISIS or libel laws, Trump’s speech shows him almost uniformly hostile to any kind of overarching norms--the norms we consult when seeking sound policy. Worse, I suspect it’s this very aspect of Trump that’s made him so infectious. We’ve all been in grade school before, and we can relate. Trump appeals to the 3rd grader in us.
“Timmy kicked my dog, so of course I can kick his sister. What . . . I can’t even kick his sister? It’s not FAIR!”
Listen to Trump on whatever subject and you will see a deeply frustrated kid itching to drag everything down to tit for tat. Here he is again after the Brussels attacks:
I think we have to change our law on the waterboarding thing, where they can chop off heads, and they can drown people in steel cages, in heavy steel cages, and we can’t waterboard. So we have to change our laws, and we have to be able to fight at least on an almost equal basis. We have laws that we have to obey in terms of torture, and they have no laws whatsoever that they have to obey.
With Trump it’s always the “they can” but “we can’t”. And for him the problem, bizarrely, is somehow our own respect for laws and principles.
For Trump, principles are little more than troublesome barriers that keep him from getting his meaty hands on the world and doing whatever he wants with it. (Meaty but smallish hands, I should say.)
And his sense of the world is really quite odd. Consider just this sentence: “So we have to change our laws, and we have to be able to fight at least on an almost equal basis.” Are you f***ing kidding me? There is nothing even remotely equal about the basis from which we fight ISIS. We fight from a vastly superior position. And we’ve earned this position because, through long struggle, we’ve developed a civilization that makes this position possible: one grounded in law and principle; one grounded in the rough-and-tumble need, through lawful institutions, to develop a broad consensus.
But note the degrading affect Trump’s rhetoric has on this whole process. Because is his rhetoric is that of a grade-schooler trying to justify himself, the political context into which he projects himself, in the minds of his followers, itself becomes something like a huge classroom. A global-sized classroom in which Trump is standing on a desk making his case.
And in our International Classroom, if student Donny can’t do whatever he wants when angered, then who is it that’s stopping him?
Who else but Teacher.
Trump clearly doesn’t like it that we “can’t torture”. As Trump might say, pointing his finger toward the blackboard: “Teacher doesn’t let us torture. It’s NOT FAIR. They can torture, but we can’t.”
Obviously “Teacher” in this grade-school struggle is everything and everybody that would hold us Americans back from behaving like our gut instincts tell us to. Teacher is the one, for instance, who would prevent us from hunting down and killing the family members of suspected terrorists. Teacher is the one who says torture is always wrong. Teacher is the one who would remind us that bombing whole regions into the Stone Age is genocide.
Of course Trump is ready with his answers: “But they hit us first.” “But they are cutting off heads.” “But they are getting away with murder.”
They are getting away with murder, the logic goes, so we should be able to get away with murder too.
I remember back during the lead up to the Iraq war listening to the Fox News crowd trying to justify our going in. “Look what they did to us on 9/11. We need a Strong Response.”
Never mind that the 9/11 attacks weren’t orchestrated by Iraq, which considered al Qaeda an enemy. Never mind that there was zero evidence of active jihadist cells in Iraq. No. To hear the way some Americans talked in those fateful years, it seemed any Muslim power was ripe for attack because, don’t you see, “They did this.”
Of course the danger in this kind of thinking was clear to many of us back in 2002. But by now, after all the mayhem the Iraq war unleashed, the danger in this thinking should be clear to any moron who can add 2 + 2.
Somehow it still isn’t clear.
In fact we’re no longer in a grade school classroom, where basic rules of behavior, rules of engagement, are first taught. We can no longer afford to pretend these rules are irrelevant--as I believe most Trump supporters are pretending. Like it or not, we’re now in an adult world. And we face ever graver challenges. In such a world there’s simply no room for this “It’s NOT FAIR” brand of pleading and whining. We need to do decide what will work, what will succeed, not what will make our gut instinct feel better.
Oddly, if you listen to Trump’s words carefully, the thing that seems to make him maddest about ISIS is that we aren’t allowed to behave like they do. Clearly, Trump and his followers, to make themselves feel better, are pretending to believe ISIS would dwindle if we just followed our gut instinct and gave them tit for tat.
Recent history proves how delusional this is. The jihadists, as everyone knows, want us to sink to their level. When we sink to their level, they grow.
But my main point here is not just about the fight against terrorism. It’s rather more about Trump as a social being. Because if you listen to him, you’ll hear this same approach of his repeated in almost every context. And so it’s not only: “They can torture and kill civilians, but we can’t.” It’s also: “They can say nasty things about me, but I can’t ruin their careers by suing them for libel.” And: “They can disrupt my rallies, but we can’t beat them up in response.” And: “They can say things about my small hands, but if I talk about my dick being just fine during a debate, they blame me for not being presidential.” And now: “They can post things about my wife, but I can’t post things about how ugly Cruz’s wife is.”
It’s all just NOT FAIR, Donald, is it? And when you become president of the United States, you’re going to make it all “fair” again, right? Fair on the battlefield, fair in the press, fair to your sense of the grandeur of your own ego.
The Trump campaign is in fact making a grand contribution to America’s collective reversion to childhood. It’s working, sadly, because Americans do have legitimate grievances, and because, again, all these millions of aggrieved people have been to grade school.
“I wanna kick his sister, I wanna, I wanna, and if you don’t let me, it’s NOT FAIR. He kicked my dog first.”
What would policies formulated through Trump’s 3rd-grade lens do to America’s standing in the world? I don’t know about you, but I kind of strongly doubt they would work. As I’ve hinted already, I think Trump’s supporters mostly know this too. They know one can’t really solve complex problems with such policies. But somehow they’re just itching to pursue these policies even so.
Why? Just because. Because otherwise it’s JUST NOT FAIR.
My new book Idiocy, Ltd. is now available through Amazon.