In twenty-four hours, I will be sitting in a bar somewhere on Elm Street in the City of Manchester, making myself pliant. Once I have acquired a transcendent acceptance of the universe and each of its many holdings, I will stagger across the street to the SNHU Arena, where I will submit to any number of ticklish searches before, at long and blessed last, I am permitted access to the great and mighty building wherein the President of the United States will address me and ten thousand other desperate plebs. We will come together in our listless indignation to imbibe the legendary wisdom of the orange savant. It shall be a privilege, an uncommonly beatific smile of fortune, and the ticket for this assembly before our lord and savior costs us nothing at all. Such is the charitability of the Donald; it would surprise me not at all if he showered us with golden coins and spurred us to spend at the bazaar.
[Holy mother of God. Are you sure you haven’t already started drinking?]
For your information, I haven’t had a drink since Sunday night, with supper. It is now Wednesday afternoon: the sun is still high and unclouded, and my cat is rolling around on the deck, basking in the warmth of a peerless summer day. And yet, it might be Christmas Eve, for all of the electricity in the air around us. Can’t you just perceive the rich anticipation, the exhilarating sense of glorious conquest that precedes the most preternatural days? Maybe you can’t. Maybe the promise of a visit from the great pillager-in-chief doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot for you. Perhaps, au contraire, it is enough to make you nauseous, to make you ashamed to breathe the same air and walk the same ground as that corpulent crook.
No mainstream historian will write a worthwhile chronicle of the Trumpish Age. A pusillanimous pen cannot convey the disorientation of our present political culture. The term polarization lacks acuity; our phenomenal discord of intellectual perception might be compared to a Rorschach test, the results of which reveal that the American people are blind. Their blindness presents a challenge, as unique as it is infuriating: try as we might to keep ourselves keen, we cannot predict where these poor, wayward people might stumble next, and we can’t stop them from walking and crashing into us. The political arena is host to a lethal game of bumper cars, but because the vast majority of the participants are blind, you can never hope to convince them they’ve lost.
To be fair, they are probably half-right, as their opponents surely haven’t won. The chaotic contest invariably comes to a draw, as was witnessed this morning at Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ve already written about the inflammatory bile people spew at New England’s favorite coffee shop, but this morning’s incident provided a different brand of foolishness. I was standing in line behind a young couple, probably in their early twenties. The guy was dressed in an old t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans, and the girl was wearing a white tank top and a pair of sweatpants. They were necking as they waited to place their order, and eventually, they started kissing, too. I wasn’t staring at them, if that’s what you’re wondering, but considering I was close enough to smell the impropriety, well, there wasn’t much for me to do besides observe.
Nor was I alone. An old, heavyset man sitting at a nearby table had been gawking at them as soon as they walked through the door, but only when they left did he lend his displeasure voice: “God! Did you see anything so pathetic? Coming in here dressed like they just got out of bed . . . just got out of the homeless shelter, really! Then they’re slumped over each other, suckin’ tongue, tossin’ their spit all over the place. It’s disgusting!”
I offered him the emptiest look I could muster. “Doesn’t seem like people have much respect for standards these days.”
“No kiddin’! I’m sick of seeing that kind of thing everywhere I go! People flippin’ each other off for no reason at all, people textin’ and drivin’, people thinkin’ they can say and do anything they want! What is up with people nowadays?”
“I hear what you’re saying: people really do feel like they can say and do whatever they please. A couple of weeks ago, I was at a different Dunkin’ Donuts in Rochester, and this customer got mad because the girl behind the counter almost messed up his order—so what does he do? He calls her the n-word! It was awful!”
The man grimaced and held up his hand. “Eh, you know, listen . . . that’s a different problem with the world these days: people gettin’ offended over every little thing. Take the n-word, for instance: when I was a kid, you could say the n-word whenever you wanted and no one said a thing.”
“But he was calling her the n-word as an insult. To hurt her.”
“Yeah, but she’s gotta get over it. I’m sick of everyone losin’ their mind every time someone says something a little touchy ‘bout race. I mean, you can hear those people say the nastiest shit about us on TV, no one even blinks, but call one girl the n-word and the sky’s about to-fallin’.”
You’re probably shaking your head in exasperation, wondering how such naked hypocrisy is even possible. The problem isn’t really his hypocrisy; it’s his reliance on a completely subjective set of standards to define decorum. Of course, decorum is invariably based on subjectivity, which is why the American people continue to argue about decorum on a daily basis. They bicker and fight over the potentially offensive nature of this or our tragic failure to observe that custom. They argue all day, every single day, and no matter how much smoke is blown, no matter how much noise either side will raise, we never make even the most modest progress towards a resolution. That is because we will never, and indeed we cannot ever, persuade the entire population of an arbitrary stance.
As crazy as it sounds, you can actually write a coherent defense for what that man said at Dunkin’ Donuts. It just collapses as soon as someone else makes a contrary claim. That claim will fall apart pretty swiftly, too, just as soon as someone else comes along with a conflicting argument, and so on and so forth. That’s the problem with decorum specifically, and with subjectivity in general: it isn’t based on anything found in fact, least of all demonstrable, incontrovertible fact, so there’s no way to defend your position to the last, regardless of what your position may be. Nietzsche wrote a lot about this, suggesting that we abandon the concept of morality and replace it with the concept of values, but that is a discussion for another day.
Today, another pointless debate undoubtedly will emerge as to whether something a politician said is offensive, disrespectful, or improper. Nobody will win that debate, of course, any more than the blind partisans can win their game of bumper cars, but still, we engage our opponents in combat. Alas, our approach to combat is terribly misguided because we strike only at the surface. Decorum is not only subjective; it is also immediate, an outward expression of one’s muddled moral notions. The notions that comprise one’s moral system are seldom assessed, especially because an analysis of such would require sustained attention, which is unfathomable to the modern American culture of sloppiness and haste. Lacking discipline to examine these notions, clearly we are in no position to understand the moral system into which they culminate. We perceive that system only when it finds its momentary, cursory, thoughtless expression in improvised speech, speech which we judge as inoffensive or offensive instantaneously, though our judgment obviously is no more measured than our consideration of the preceding moral notions—our opponent’s or our own.
Consequently, there is only surface, only the superficiality of symbolic language. In our naivety, we believe that the politician’s statement is the source of his morals, and not only their inarticulate manifestation in words. Here we might recall Plato’s warning that a republic that cannot devise a clear system of decorum has no chance at surviving—not because the debates of decorum will tear the republic apart, but because the fact that the republic is debating decorum at all proves that the republic has insoluble fundamental problems. The rot is not exclusive to the question of decorum; there is a much more comprehensive cancerous force lurking beneath the surface, pervading the very core of the republic.
Come to think of it, the controversy centered on Trump’s visit to New Hampshire clearly illustrates the problem. Many New Hampshirites are outraged that Trump is visiting our state, polluting the air with his presence, yadda-yadda-ya. The question is: what difference does it make, where he is standing and making his speech? Would his speech be any less offensive if it were to be delivered in Vermont, or on the opposite side of the country? The problem is not that Trump is flying to New Hampshire and making a speech; the problem is that our republic is so woefully dysfunctional that a malignant imbecile like Donald Trump was capable of becoming our president in the first place. Of course, the factors and systems that culminated in Trump’s election are too complicated for that guy at Dunkin’ Donuts to consider, and while there will be plenty of people picketing outside the SNHU Arena, the vast majority of them lack the intellectual courage to dive into the problem: they are much more comfortable scratching the surface, critiquing appearances, and decrying the simple expression of one Donald Trump.
If we were to ask Plato to diagnose the fundamental problems in our republic, his first observation would be that America is not a republic at all. It’s not even a country: the United States of America is a business enterprise, a poly-industrial conglomerate specializing in expensive entertainment. It is the world’s most violent amusement park, the greatest attraction of which likely is its democratic spectacle. The performance is headlined by a mascot known as the president, a psychopath clad in the finest suits, who stands before the unwell masses and entices them with vacuous promises in a speech littered with puzzling platitudes. Unfortunately, the current mascot, a sarcastic clown in orange make-up, isn’t the most popular with the American people: he makes too many jokes at the audience’s expense, and he doesn’t know when he has taken the gag too far. He hurts their feelings, and so, a lot of the people in the crowd want to replace him with someone friendlier, somebody a bit cuddlier, perhaps.
Once the mean-spirited jester is replaced by a comedian more self-deprecating, then the unhappy patrons can overlook his other foibles, including his predilection for bankrupting them, terrorizing the helpless people of other nations, and lying to the world on a daily basis. No question, there is a lot more afflicting our so-called republic than Trump’s indecorous soliloquies, but I suspect that it will be of little interest to the people congregating with their banners and their bullhorns across the street from the Arena. Their misguided obsession with decorum proves that they promote bad decorum, too, which is why I cannot join them in their ire. Several of my left-wing contemporaries have asked me how I plan to tolerate the presence of so many Trumpeters, so many psychologically unhealthy scoundrels motivated by malicious intent. I can’t say I look forward to standing among them in the dome, but something tells me there won’t be any greater comfort outdoors.