Over the past four years, it has been hard to escape the feeling that much of America – and even some Canadians – had fallen under the spell of a cult.
That it is also a political movement does not diminish its cult-like tendencies: the imperviousness to fact, the repetition of certain prescribed slogans, the suppression of the critical faculties, the blind devotion to the leader. And while some of this is present in all political movements, the particular zealotry of Donald Trump’s followers – the willingness to believe what isn’t so, and to disbelieve what is – is something else again.
Indeed, it is not only their thinking that appears to have been taken over; it’s behavioural. What we are witnessing is not so much the expression of a particular theory of government as of a personality type; the replication, on a mass scale, of the leader’s own temperament and bearing, if not the underlying psychological disorders, as if the virus of Trumpism had infected, not just people’s minds, but their souls – their character.
Or, perhaps, revealed it. The funny thing is, you’re almost never surprised to find who turns out to be a Trump supporter and who is not. Though they may never before have uttered the sentiments you hear coming out of their mouths now, there was always, you find yourself reflecting, a certain predilection.
This has nothing to do with how conservative they are. Some of the most committed conservatives I know are revolted by the U.S. President and want only to see the end of him. It has to do with character. It has become, frankly, something of a litmus test.
I hesitate to say this. I’m a strong believer in the proposition that “reasonable people can differ,” that there are two sides to every story, that one’s opponents are at worst mistaken. But Mr. Trump, and Trumpism, represents the triumph of unreason and the suppression of differences. To pay the usual respects to such an unworthy opponent is to do dishonour to one’s worthy opponents.
Perhaps it was possible, very early on, if you had not been paying much attention, to see him as a sort of necessary evil, a shock to the system – uncouth, sure, a bit rough around the edges, but a rock through the window, as it has been put, of official Washington, a signal that people were fed up with politics as usual.
But it is not possible now. It is not possible to look at all that Mr. Trump is and all that he represents – the pathological lying, the habitual corruption, the serial groping, the casual racism, the glorification of violence, the winking to Nazis, the laziness, the impulsiveness, the childish tantrums, the bottomless ignorance, the vanity, the insecurity, the vulnerability (so skilfully exploited by the United States’ adversaries) to flattery, the bullying, the crudity, the indifference to suffering, the incompetence, the chaos in the White House, the attacks on America’s allies and support for its foes, the contempt for experts and for expertise, for norms and conventions, for checks and balances, for limited government, for the very rule of law – it is not possible to be exposed to all this on a daily basis for four years and shrug it off or explain it away or accept it as part of the deal without there being something wrong with you.
Because it is the deal – that’s all there is – and it was obvious it was the deal, long before it was revealed that Mr. Trump’s victory in the most recent election was achieved with the aid of Russian intelligence – with or without the connivance of the multiple members of Mr. Trump’s circle who were in contact with Russian officials at the time – and quite apart from the explicit and documented solicitation of interference by another foreign power in the coming election that was the subject of his recent impeachment and trial.
The Republican senators who nevertheless voted to acquit may genuinely be Trump loyalists, or they may merely be fearful of retribution from the President and his cult followers. But either way, it would be hard to ascribe their decision to a judicious weighing of the facts before them. Not when so many had announced their intent to acquit before the trial, not when the evidence of guilt was so overwhelming, not when the justification on which they eventually settled – “he did it, but should not be punished for it” – amounts not merely to a benediction on the President’s past abuses of power but an invitation to future ones as well. “Acquitted for life!” Rudy Giuliani tweeted afterward, not without cause.
To reach such a verdict, in such circumstances, is beyond a mere error of reasoning. It is moral error, and of a particularly egregious kind. These are not, after all, bar-stool yahoos or internet trolls, but senators who are supposed to know better. To say that one disagrees with it, then, is insufficient. It must be condemned, as surely history will condemn it. To be sure, there is danger in the other direction; people are all too ready nowadays to convert any disagreement into a contest of absolutes. So be it. We have to be able to see every shade of grey, including black and white.
We needn’t make too much of this. The people who have fallen under Mr. Trump’s spell, or at any rate bend themselves to his will, may have other compensating virtues; it may be a blight upon their character without being the whole of their character. But neither should we avoid it. It is not just a mistake to make excuses for Mr. Trump. It is a moral failing. It may only be blindness – while some might actively applaud him for his depravities, most just minimize them – but it is, at this stage, culpable blindness, if not willful blindness.
To say that Trumpism is a moral failing is not to place his followers, or his enablers, beyond the pale. I have my own moral failings and so do you. But it is worth identifying it in such terms; it is clarifying. Sometimes you have to, as it is sometimes said of Mr. Trump, tell it like it is.