The death of decorum.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Donald Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march to the nomination has intensified “establishment” Republican criticism of The Donald, especially after his big win in the Super Tuesday primaries and his trademark insults and evasions during Thursday’s debate. Indeed, Trump has been explicitly targeted by super pacs, sitting Congressmen, Mitt Romney, a Twitter campaign, and an anti-Trump statement signed by 100 foreign policy experts. Many Republicans are publicly threatening to sit the election out or even vote for Hillary if Trump is the nominee. As usual, too much of the focus is on personality rather than the long-term cultural trends that have culminated in the Trump candidacy.
In his critics’ view, Trump’s juvenile vulgarity, ignorance of policy and facts, checkered business history, dubious hiring practices, shady schemes like Trump University, blatant lies and flip-flops, and low national poll numbers in a hypothetical contest with Hillary Clinton all point to a disaster in November, with the Democrats taking the presidency and perhaps the Senate, with one or more “living Constitution” Supreme Court justices to follow.
Or not. Perhaps this is an election when millions of people, including some working-class Democrats, are eager for revenge against the arrogant elites of both parties who look down on those who have guns and religion, but no Ivy League degrees and polysyllabic vocabularies. Maybe there are enough voters sick not just of illiberal political correctness, but also of many nominal conservatives who have mastered the “preemptive cringe” and meekly follow the progressives’ rules and overlook their hypocrisy. Maybe they’re disappointed at handing Congress to the Republicans, only to watch Obama run wild with executive orders and directives to undemocratic federal agencies that are creating and enforcing laws in violation of the separation of powers.
For those people, Trump is their megaphone, the guy who says to the whole nation and the political and media gatekeepers what for seven years his supporters have been yelling at their television screens. He’s the self-proclaimed “strong leader” who will take charge and “make America great again” after eight years of Obama’s systematic demolition of their country. And maybe there are enough of them to win in November, particularly given Hillary’s long record of duplicity, abuse of power, and hypocritical money-grubbing.
So Trump either destroys the party and hands the government over to a felonious incompetent who will continue Obama’s assault on the Constitutional order and the Bill of Rights, or he rebuilds and expands the party by drawing in the ignored and sometimes scorned white working class, a voting bloc bigger than Hispanics and blacks combined–– those same consistently loyal Democrats whom the Republican leadership keeps telling us are the key to Republican victory and so must be pandered to.
At this point, deciding between these uncertain outcomes is a fool’s errand. More interesting is the tendency for many Republican Jeremiahs to talk as if Donald Trump appeared out of nowhere to crash the usually sedate and decorous electoral dinner party. In fact, he and his over-the-top campaigning style are the inevitable outcome of the vulgarization of the culture that made a quantum leap in the 60s.
I don’t mean to imply that before the 60’s America was a land of political decorum and manners, its government ruled by bewigged Solons who calmly and rationally debated and then crafted laws. More often they matched Tocqueville’s description of the House of Representatives in the 1830s: “One is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly. Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number.” And Tocqueville liked Americans. Indeed, the foundation of European anti-Americanism is the disdain for crude, brash, cursing, tobacco-chewing, free-speaking, equal U.S. citizens. Or as the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine described Americans, the dwellers in “that pig-pen of freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.”
From the Republic’s beginning, elitists both native and foreign have disdained that strain of the American character memorably embodied in Cooper’s Natty Bumppo and Twain’s Huck Finn––the frontiersmen and fierce individualists, the straight-talking, profane scorners of Easterners, effete city-boys, and all those tin-horns and tenderfeet with their books and big words and snooty manners. Donald Trump’s campaign persona is a contemporary avatar of that sort of American.
Yet despite that celebration of such American characters, as a whole, the culture upheld standards of public decorum and behavior even as they were routinely violated. Such hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld put it, was the homage vice paid to virtue. Then came the 60’s and the “if it feels good do it” mantra. No longer were the rules and manners to be respected even when broken. They had to be dismantled, deconstructed, and reviled as the instruments of oppression and tyranny––to be replaced, of course, by new ones, like political correctness, infinitely more tyrannical and oppressive.
Popular culture and public behavior were coarsened, a degeneration accelerated by the new technologies of mass communication, and by the consumer economy’s commodification of vulgar transgression. A half century later, our public square is now polluted by images and language and behaviors approaching the decadence of Nero’s Rome as documented in Petronius’s Satyricon.
And this cultural degradation infected the presidency. It is no surprise that the baby boomers, the generation most warped by, and responsible for this decline, gave us Bill Clinton. The dignity and decorum of the presidency, usually maintained even by those whose private behavior was morally reprehensible, were mortally wounded during Clinton’s tenure. We can complain about Trump’s vulgarity and coarse insults, but those are nowhere near as serious as Bill Clinton’s sordid escapades with an intern and a cigar in the White House.
And let’s not forget the Clintons’ petty filching of White House china, renting the Lincoln bedroom to well-heeled donors, the farewell pardon given to fugitive and generous Democrat donor Marc Rich, and the perjurious testimony and brazen lying to the American people about the Monica Lewinsky affair. Trump’s antics so far have not matched that level of besmirching the dignity of the presidency. And for those seriously considering voting for Hillary out of anti-Trump pique, ask yourself this question: Will the office of president be enhanced when occupied by a probable felon and serial liar with no achievements other than marrying a successful politician?
Let’s also consider the current president’s decidedly un-presidential behavior that his Ivy League patina can’t hide. His rhetoric has not been as coarse as Trump’s, but it and his rabidly partisan actions have been as ruthless and nasty, from siccing his partisans on their “enemies” and advising them to “bring a gun to a knife-fight,” to unleashing the IRS on political opponents and publicly disrespecting the Republican Congressional leadership with a school-yard taunt like “I won.”
As for the dignity of the presidency, how is that honored by giving the Queen of England an iPod loaded with his own speeches, being interviewed by a YouTube carnival attraction like GloZell, exchanging banter on late-night talk shows, hanging out in the Oval Office with a rapper who sings lyrics like “Snatch your little secretary bitch for the homies
/Blue-eyed devil with a fat ass monkey,” and taking a selfie with Denmark’s prime minister at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, followed up by Michelle making him switch seats like a peccant schoolboy? And let’s not forget his blowing off the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, one of the last century’s foremost statesmen and stalwart allies of the U.S.; skipping the funeral of Antonin Scalia, historically one of the Supreme Court’s most influential and consequential jurists; and passing on the memorial march for the victims of the Paris massacre last year, an event attended by 43 other heads of state.
Donald Trump is just the next step in this culture-wide process. Like sex and violence in the movies, public vulgarity has nowhere to head but to the lowest common denominator. Considering the sordid images, coarse language, and obscene public behaviors saturating our culture, why are we surprised at someone like Trump, who comes from the glitzy world of casinos and reality television, where he has mastered the techniques for leveraging celebrity into social and now political capital? Once we twice elected a blank-slate, smooth-talking huckster like Obama based not on demonstrable achievement and abilities, but on wish-fulfilling fantasies and duplicitous rhetoric, why wouldn’t someone like Trump arise in his wake? If, as some critics are saying, Trump is the Republicans’ “Frankenstein’s monster,” isn’t Obama just as much the Democrats’ creature?
There are many valid reasons to distrust Donald Trump or fear his presidency, but harrumphing over his vulgarity and coarseness or “demeaning” of the presidency is preposterous. A coarse and vulgar culture will create a coarse and vulgar candidate, something we should have realized when Bill Clinton was given a pass for befouling the White House, and Barack Obama spent his precious time with a woman whose only claim to fame is sitting in a bathtub filled with milk and Fruit Loops.
Editors’ note: The Freedom Center is a 501c3 non-profit organization. Therefore we do not endorse political candidates either in primary or general elections. However, as defenders of America’s social contract, we insist that the rules laid down by both parties at the outset of campaigns be respected, and that the results be decided by free elections. We will oppose any attempt to rig the system and deny voters of either party their constitutional right to elect candidates of their choice.