The conventional view is that people have a right to be a jerk. They can think what they want and, with relatively few exceptions, say what they will. If a man says something vile or stupid, people will turn their back and shut their ears. And if they don’t—if they begin to listen or perchance to cheer—then perhaps what he said wasn’t so vile or stupid after all. Even if he should advocate what the law forbids, what of it? Laws can be changed, and change can be sought. That’s the theory of free speech in a liberal state.
This approach works well enough, most of the time, and it’s a whole lot better than many of the alternatives. But it leads inevitably to a system that is high on individual rights and low on community welfare. It purposely lavishes its protection on the right of the speaker to be an ass, and is largely indifferent to whatever effect his remarks might have on the community of which he is ostensibly a part. So long as he does not incite others to violence, the system doesn’t much concern itself with speakers who rend the bonds of community. The thought is that over the long run, these things take care of themselves. But sometimes, they don’t.
Donald Trump is a big fan of torture. With commendable candor, he has quit the Republican “enhanced interrogation” word game and called waterboarding what it is. At campaign events, he has promised that as president, he’d torture suspects with gusto, the prospect of which seems to fill his listeners with gratitude. Though he has assured his audience that “torture works,” he has also offered up what they most want to hear: He doesn’t much care one way or the other.
Even if torture doesn’t produce useful intelligence, even if it does nothing to improve national security, even if it made us less safe by intensifying radical sentiment, Trump likes it and promises more of the same. Why? “[T]hey deserve it.” He has pledged that, if elected president, he would “bring back a helluva lot worse than waterboarding.” If press accounts are to be believed, the crowds love it.
By now, Trump has offended nearly everyone. He has mocked a disabled journalist (Serge Kovaleski) and a national hero (John McCain), egged on supporters who physically assaulted a protester, ripped Mexicans as drug runners and rapists, insulted women who have the temerity to menstruate, called for a ban on Muslim immigration, and gotten into it with the Pope. A number of sites maintain a list of his many insults. Here’s one from the LA Times.
As a character in the long arc of American history, he is a mere footnote, a trifling irrelevance. He has no chance of being elected, and is hastening the decline of the Grand Old Party, or at least its current iteration. Ironically, his most important personal contribution to American history will be the part he plays in securing the election of either the first woman or the first Socialist as President of the United States. This alone is why so many Democrats silently cheer his campaign.
He trades on the timeless delusion that hatred and demonization are signs of moral clarity, and that mockery and belittlement are evidence of a healthy democracy. He’s a jackass. Yes, of course, he has a right to be a jackass, a right I would defend. But that changes nothing; he’s an ass. And what matters is not whether he has the same right as anyone else to be a jerk, but whether we care about the effect of his remarks on the national community.
No student of history should look with equanimity as Trump rubs the lamp that summons the worst demons in American life. His enthusiastic supporters—who embrace the torture of a human being for no other purpose than to inflict as much pain as possible—are familiar actors on the national stage. They are the cultural heirs of those for whom lynching was spectacle, who carved off chunks of burnt flesh to save as souvenirs. Their forefathers destroyed Catholic churches and persecuted Jesuit priests. They read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and believed it. They kidnapped Leo Frank from a Georgia prison and lynched him in Marietta. They supported the Klan after Brown v. Board. They cheered the police at Stonewall. They have always existed in this country.
But they have not always had their backs against the wall, and have never been as much of an endangered species as they are now. It is fitting that Trump’s latest rant for torture was delivered at a retirement home, for he appeals most to a dying demographic—a fact I have described before. His supporters are the angry, older, rural and suburban white men, who stand in lonely opposition to the growing ethnic, religious, and racial diversity, as well as the youthful social liberalism of the 21st century.
For the first time, the angry white American man finds himself on the wrong side of history. Trump’s supporters are increasingly frantic because the economic and social world they were raised to believe was their birthright is fast disappearing and will soon be gone forever. But until this group fades from the scene, it can wield extraordinary influence in select locations, and do great harm at both the individual and mass levels.
Donald Trump’s personal views are trivial and unimportant. But the feral rage he legitimizes and the damage it does to the community will be his enduring legacy. For that, he will be held morally responsible in the pages of history.