Decency in American politics is something of a myth. In his 1884 race against James Blaine, Grover Cleveland, accused of fathering an illegitimate child, had to face jeers of “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” (Cleveland provably did laugh at this after being sworn in as President). Jefferson faced a slew of character assaults, and Burr killed Hamilton over a personal, not political, insult. Since the beginning of the republic American politics has been anything but an arena where ideas and not individuals are the focus of debate.
The acts of respect and acknowledgement that your opponents are also human being which constitute the tolerance of the decent individual seem to be wholly lacking in American politics today.
However, Donald Trump and his supporters have taken this dearth of decency in national politics to a whole new level in this race (and no, I am not referring to Trump’s discussion of his little hands in the primaries). From continuing to call a former Miss Universe Miss Piggy to using cruel caricatures on-stage for his fellow candidates to telling the mother of a crying child to get out of a rally to insulting a disabled reporter, The Donald has proven to be uniquely lacking in decency. His supporters try and play this lack of human decency off as a part of his campaigning strategy, or as a mere front. It is a persona, or just part of a negotiation, or just a media deception, or telling it like it is. Whatever the excuse Donald the person, we are assured, is not at all like Donald the Candidate or Donald the Reality TV Star or Donald the Husband or Donald the Businessman.
This simply cannot be true.
There is no such thing as a differentiation between private and public virtue. If an individual is dishonest, cruel, and perverted in their capacity as a private citizen, then there is no reason to expect differently from them if they were to achieve public office. If a candidate runs roughshod over the basic norms of human decency on the road to White House, they probably are not going to experience a 180 degree change once they are sitting in the Oval Office and become a paragon of honor and virtue.
This is one of the key problems with Donald Trump. He has a well- deserved reputation for being all of those things mentioned above. He cannot stop oscillating between merely mean and completely crazy. He packed more indecency and craziness into this week than most politicians do in there entire careers. He falsely accused a woman of having a sex tape, encouraged America to go watch it (!), and then had the news that it was actually he himself who cameoed in a Playboy sex tape in the 1990s (I wonder what Jerry Falwell thinks about his son’s endorsement). Trump routinely demeans whole categories of individuals for no discernable reason, other than perhaps to boost himself by booting them.
And not only is he a loose cannon, he is a coward. He saves his worse insults and most petty (and bizarre) accusations for late night twitter sessions, blasting people in 140 character messages. When he comes face-to-face with the people he insults though, he wilts. Carley Fiorina and Hillary Clinton both called him out in person for things he said on Twitter or in interviews about them, and both times he backtracked and tripped over his words and refused to admit to saying what he said.
To paraphrase Richard Harding Davis, Trump’s rudeness is exceeded only by his rudeness.
Trump may be a sign of the times, but he has not been without harbingers. The Clinton primary campaign in 2008 questioned Barak Obama’s birth—Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal and not Trump is the godfather of the so-called birther movement—and the endless string of mocking insults and accusations veiled and otherwise of racism, sexism, classism, and so-on which Democrats cast at Mitt Romney in 2012 must appear to them to be ironic now.
That is perhaps the major reason why Trump is still not dead in the polls, even after inflicting approximately a thousand self- inflicted wounds: many Americans simply do not seem to buy it now when a candidate is accused of hating minorities or women or of being a threat to the republic or whatever. That rhetoric, which has been unjustly applied to Republicans from Clarence Thomas to Samuel Alito to Jeb Bush to Mitt Romney and many more, now means that when a GOP candidate comes along who really is those things than those accusations, actually true for once, are not taken seriously by many voters. Instead these accusations are seen as one more cycle of partisan mainstream media attacks.
This is a problem, and a difficult one to solve. We need to develop decency in American politics, but decency does not sell. It is not involved in soundbites with snappy little nicknames or false accusations. At the end of the day the media would rather report on jerks and blowhards more than discussing genuinely good human beings. Maybe decency has never existed in political discourse, and maybe it never will. After all we are still broken human beings, a truth unfortunately reflected in our politics today as much as it ever has been. I am not sure how we go about making politics a discourse and a dialogue and not a petty shouting match.
Nominating someone other than Donald Trump in four years is probably a good place to start.