One could fill container ships with the volume of Mr. Trump’s boorish, inane, insulting or ignorant remarks. But let those go. Let go his incoherence on any matter of policy. Let go his lack of curiosity. Let go the necessity to construct a police state to fulfill his promise to deport Mexicans (invited into this country to work by our desire for lower prices). Pay no attention to his inability to learn. Pass over his refusal to release his tax returns or documents that show his financial connections to Russia. It is impossible to keep up with the instances where he has displayed his vanity and laziness and megalomania and misogyny and his capacity for lying. Forget about them. Step away from the man who does not pay his bills to the very working class men and women whose votes he most desires. Neglect, for a moment, his rhetoric which seeks to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. So just put those aside. For right now, think only of his cruelty.
A thought experiment: Imagine yourself in front of cameras and thousands of people. They like you. You are rolling, the crowd with you, the crowd pulling you forward, and you are responding to its energy. It is as if you can float on their enthusiasm for you. And in the euphoric cloud of good feeling, of an awareness that you have the power to move these crowds simply through your voice and presence and ideas, you do this, you perform a kind of show for your people. You mock Serge Kovaleski, a NYTimes reporter who suffers from arthrogryposis, a congenital condition which leaves one struggling to control limbs and joints.
Would you have done such a thing as an adult? Would you allow your children to do it?
Donald Trump did this.
Watch the video again.
Mr. Trump is 70 years old and running for the Presidency. He is not a 15 year old brat-boy in gym class or a 20 year old drunk at a frat. He expressed no remorse for this mockery. This was not a weak moment. This is one of those times where the actions caught by the camera reveal something deep and abiding within a person’s character. Serge Kovaleski was a stand-in for Mr. Trump’s disdain for the media. Fair enough. But to hold him up for humiliation because of his infirmity? To use his power to persuade in order to simulate for the crowd a caricature of a man, an image of an enfeebled human being? Then, to think nothing of what he has just done? No reflection, no second thoughts?
To Mr. Trump, human beings are props, things to be used to buttress his own position and ego. For Mr. Trump cruelty is an expression that might achieve an advantage. It is a style of power, an exercise of a counterfeit alpha-male status, a kind of braggadocio that proclaims that he is not plagued by empathy, that essential humane quality that gives us the capacity to imagine the lives and difficulties of others.
What might such a man do with the powers of the Presidency?
We bear a responsibility when we cast our vote. We … do. Voting is not a wild choice from which we can immediately distance ourselves. Our vote is a moral decision. In voting for President Obama, I must bear some responsibility for what I believe to be his bloody, heartbreaking failure of policy in Syria. In voting for Sec. Clinton, I must bear some responsibility for her awful judgment in using a private email server at State, for her avoidance of the press, for her sense of entitlement and for whatever she might do if elected. Whomever votes for Mr. Trump must bear some responsibility for his character, for his hateful words and for the actions he might take as President.
In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Billy wonders “How much reality can unreality take?” We are suspended in a time when facts no longer matter. One can always find a media outlet that registers exactly the dimensions of the world view one might espouse. But the physical world and historical forces and the decisions of powerful men and women crash through the lies we might tell ourselves, the illusions we might spin. Reality always overwhelms unreality. Therefore, better to be skeptical about the use of power no matter who wields it. Better to be skeptical about both big corporations and big government. Better to be very careful in selecting the men and women whom we choose to lead us.
What worries me most now is what happens after this election. As a polis, we are straining the limits of the democratic process through gerrymandering, through the demonizing of compromise, through the poisonous embrace of elections submerged in billions of dollars of dark contributions. We are a people who appear to no longer believe in sacrifice for the common good for the common good has been rendered tribal and has fractured. In Mystery Train, Griel Marcus observes that “our politics have robbed the good words of ethics of their meaning; an impenetrable official venality has robbed the good ideas of the last few years of their [weight] (83).”
America cannot defy the cost of these realities. We are paying for them. We will pay for them.
In August, Scott Anderson wrote a book length piece in the New York Times Magazine, Fractured Lands, seeking to explain how the Middle East came apart. He draws one critical lesson from his experience in reporting and writing this article:
“On a more philosophical level, this journey has served to remind me again of how terribly delicate is the fabric of civilization, of the vigilance required to protect it and of the slow and painstaking work of mending it once it has been torn. This is hardly an original thought; it is a lesson we learned after Nazi Germany, after Bosnia and Rwanda. Perhaps it is a lesson we need to constantly relearn.”
America is not immune to demagogues or to the damage their incendiary rhetoric creates. Mr. Trump is a danger to the fragile nature of our democracy. He has not sought to hide who he is. If he is elected, his supporters can never say, “Oh, I never imagined he would do that,” or “I thought he was another kind of man.” Mr. Trump stands before this electorate as the real thing: a man of ingrained, ineradicable, and essential cruelty.
Sec. Clinton is an imperfect alternative, but the only one we have.