On a piece posted earlier today, I asked how so many “decent people” can approve of Trump (and in particular can approve of Trump’s “insistence on conflict”).
One response to that particular phrase (“decent people”) declared that the answer was simple: these people are not “decent.” That judgment was then substantiated by a portrait of what makes Trump such an atrocity, followed by the conclusion that, “You may indeed be more forgiving than I, or more optimistic, or you may feel that you need to express things this way for the audience for your article, but it’s way outside my view of reality.”
I think it would be useful to step back and ask, what is it that is at stake in this difference of views.
What is NOT at stake is how awful we think Trump is. Nor is it how terrible it is that we have so many countrymen who either cannot see Trump’s awfulness, or who don’t mind his being so awful in so many ways relevant to any “decent” set of values. And if we agree on all that, I don’t think it’s even about words like “decent.”
The issue, rather, should be seen as ultimately about how America might be made more whole.
The Immediate and Long-Term Crises
The immediate crisis we face is how to deal with Trump’s dangerous presidency. We need, first of all, to survive the coming months/years. And we need to minimize the damage he does to the nation. But, barring a catastrophic war, there will be a post-Trump America.
But though we can rid ourselves of Trump, we will still be left with this other frightening reality: roughly 1/3 of Americans could look at this abomination and approve of what they see. That, in my view, is the scarier reality of America today.
(It was one thing to have a fringe of John Birchers and such in the 50s and 60s, it is another to have a proportion of people supporting the crazy, comparable to the proportion who elected Hitler in 1933.)
The frame of consciousness in which these Trump-supporting people now exist — most of them having bought a ton of lies, most of them having had their worst sides fed and manipulated by effective right-wing propagandists — has for a generation represented an increasing danger to the health of America. And this warped mind-set finally has borne the rotten fruit of the election of a man to the presidency who — I would assert– would have been unthinkable in any other era of American history.
And I would assert further that America cannot ever be healthy (as healthy as we have known it) so long as so many of our countrymen remain caught up in that mix of thought and feelings so flush with lies and toxic passions.
If that is true, it seems to me to follow that we — who hate all that Trump represents in America in this moment — as much thought and care as we give to the question of how to rid ourselves of Trump should also be devoted to the question “How can we best deal with the Trump supporters, with the goal of bringing them back (over time) to greater contact with reality, and to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature?'”
(Indeed, the goal of changing their state of consciousness is also one of the most important parts of a smart strategy for getting rid of Trump: the Republicans in Congress look at Trump’s support among the voters they themselves need for their re-election, and on that basis judge how politically risky it would be for them to oppose Trump. Little would do more to bring Trump into an impeachment process than reducing his support.)
Of course, we see no such balance in the devotion of thought and effort from liberals. The drama is all about Trump, the Mueller investigation, etc. (Which I follow assiduously as well.) The question of how can we best relate to Trump’s supporters to move them gets hardly any attention.
(That’s somewhat understandable. What has taken more than a generation to degrade — since the likes of Limbaugh and Gingrich began their propagandistic missions — will also take many years to transform back into anything healthy. Moreover, it is hardly clear what approach to such a salvage operation can be effective.)
This will be a very difficult Swamp to Drain!
But another important reason for the lack of effort, I would maintain, is visible in the exchange about whether these people can in any reasonable way be considered “decent.” If one dismisses as bad people because of their their lending their support to a political party I have written has become an instrument of an evil force, and then to a political abomination like Donald Trump, one will envision no possibility of their having any “better angels of their nature” to which they might be returned.
I have been writing for more than a dozen years about Evil. (I believe that the crisis we are in does indeed involve a kind of “battle between good and evil.”) But I do not believe “evil” is best understood in terms of a division of humankind between the good people and the evil people. Rather, as I write in a piece called “Understanding Evil,” that battle should be understood in terms of two sets of forces that operate in coherent ways in the human world through the nexus of cause and effect.
We are all enmeshed in a world that both nourishes us and damages us. Depending upon the time and place in which we are placed, we develop with different ways (and different extents) in which we are whole and in which we are broken. And depending on circumstances, we may play a constructive or destructive role in the world.
A study of history suggests that in the right (or perhaps I should say, wrong) circumstances, a great many (most?) people can be led to act as instruments of evil. Consider how the Hutus murdered their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda. Or how the Serbs committed their hideous atrocities against the Bosnians. Or the Germans with the Jews.
(And that’s just considering some of what happened in the 20th century. How about the way almost all Southern whites over most of American history supported the racial oppression and terror against blacks. And the Crusaders who butchered whole villages of Jews as they made their way to fight for Christ in the Holy Land.)
We can dismiss all these people as bad people. We can deny there’s any way any of them might reasonably be called “decent.” We can write them off.
We might feel disgust for them, as we contemplate what parts of themselves they expressed. (Indeed, one of the biggest burdens I myself carry from all these years at staring at the darkness that has risen in America is that my sense of my species — my gut feeling about humankind — has become darkened by a sense of disgust I did not have before.)
But I believe that feelings of that sort are not what the healing of the world requires. (Or at least, not only those feelings.) Rather, we are called upon at the intellectual level to recognize the mixture of good and evil — some of it more visible, some less, at any given time — in almost all of us.
And we are called upon at the heart level to feel compassion even for those who have been pulled into the darkness. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” (as Augustine said).
Not just because it is more kind. And not just because it is more true to the reality of the human condition.
But also because finding the best way to reach out to those people seems a good deal more likely — than just dismissing them — to get us a nation that realizes those values we hold dear.