The following is not a Golden Age Theory lamentation but still, Trump’s election changes everything.
Defining Trump the individual is relatively easy. Trump embodies every mediocre, and facile facet of our nature and of our generation – in fact, there’s a Trump in all of us; each time we take intellectual short cuts; each time we chose insult over engagement; each time we lie or obfuscate rather than accept facts, each time we blame others and shift rather than welcome responsibility, each time we gloat in our own material successes and our victories, our ‘wins’; each time we reach for our phone to scramble, feverishly, childishly to spew out half baked, grammatically flawed, hopelessly immature ‘gotcha’ messages; each time we make a point only to score a point; and each time we go for what’s easier to us, we are Trump; all traits that Hollis Lomax displays with appalling regularity.
When it comes to Trump himself, the man whom we have chosen, in an act of epic self-mutilation, the key and perhaps the only point is to resist and oppose. This is not a case of Republican obstructionism to Obama just because they didn’t like him, didn’t like the temerity of his win or the audacity of his hope, especially coming from someone who doesn’t look like him. This is opposition to values, as simple as that. In this case, there should be no grace period, there is no honeymoon (a creepy reference in itself when it comes to a man with such low respect for women), there must be no normalization. The man has a track record, in words and deeds that mean that we don’t need to wait to oppose (see Masha Gessen’s eloquent manifesto for opposition in the New York Review of Books). It is enough, if one wants to claim any integrity, to have said no before, and no now.
At the same time, opposing Trump the man is not enough. He is the culmination of a long standing process of degradation of moral imagination, with ‘intelligent hearts’ gradually ceding space to cynics and brutes, in an act of democratic self mutilation that began with Reagan, followed by W, with Bush Senior and Obama as mere the bumps along this slow descent into political mediocrity and vileness.
As such, one can see Trump as a generational failure, in a number of ways. Over the last thirty years, successive generations, starting with the one that rode the waves of the Glorious one’s achievements after WWII, followed by the self proclaimed X and Y, have exhibited a number of shared and transmitted symptoms:
- A failure of humility, with self involvement substituting for self awareness
- The adoration for money, money and more money, and for those who make money for a living and for a passion, in what seems quite a perversion of a legitimate concern over inequity
- A failure of accountability, with the lies and crimes over the Iraq invasion and the financial crisis in 2003 and 2008 respectively basking in impunity, in a Texas ranch or an English cottage
- A failure of results, with those boasting of decades of experience in government having produced little for those who expect government to help
- A failure of decency, with political standards for debate and reporting falling prey to sensationalism, deception and audience pleasing reductionism
And so, from this overall failure of courage and of moral imagination, the White House now bids farewell to a beacon of elegance to the embodiment of intellectual and ethical vulgarity (although but Obama must also shoulder blame for this generational failure, with each one of us). We are left looking for bright spots and glimmers of hope (Canada, Pope, the new UN Secretary General, Asia, Africa, anyone?) but it will take a generation to fix this, a generation of individuals exhibiting and voting the behavior they think is the right one, the decent one, and the elegant one.
Maybe the signs are there, the people are there, in cities, states and countries around the world. But this is not about a new app, but something more meaningful, more lasting, less instantaneous, more intemporal, less new, more human, less technological – something that combines intelligence of heart with moral clarity and resilience. The kind of stuff one reads from Aeschylus, and not so much from CNN or Breitbart.
And it helps to stress, over and again, why this, including Aeschylus, matters. Is this the rant of a Upper West Side liberal? Is this the lament of a Professor Classical Studies? Perhaps. But that’s not the point., it matters because people will get hurt (and as always, in a perverse law of politics, mostly those who voted for the child). It matters because the US, as we know it, is at stake. And it matters because what he does, and what we do determine which values will shape, in very concrete and daily ways, the lives of our children for generations to come.
Ethical elegance, moral imagination and political courage are not theoretical concepts. They can be embodied or violated by every act or word uttered. And they have very real consequences. We have messed things up big time.