Politics & Policy

Culture Rot: Donald Trump Is the Effect, Not the Cause

Trump speaks at a rally in Warren, Mi., March 4, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)
A sick society breeds gutter politics.

A few years back, I began reliving, in reverse, the most treasured part of my upbringing. On sunny summer Sundays, my son, age seven and falling in love with baseball, would curl up next to me on the couch to watch the game. The great American ritual of a man passing on to his boy not just the national pastime but a cultural heritage; the odd bits of hard-knocks wisdom sprinkled around the infield-fly rule. There was even symmetry across the decades: The Mets providing just enough drama to break your heart in the end.

There was, however, a vexing intrusion on the ritual: the remote control. And not because we didn’t have a remote control for our black-and-white RCA TV set in the Bronx circa 1966; it was because we didn’t need a remote-control back then. And not because there were only six other channels, as opposed to today’s 600; it was because, as his wide-eyed seven-year-old was taking it all in, my dad wasn’t worried about having to switch off Viagra commercials between innings.

So what is the natural progression from turning the campus and pop culture over to Amerika-hating radicals, to the vigorous years-long media defense of Bill Clinton’s right to turn the White House into a cathouse, to the inability of a father to watch baseball with his young son at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon without being ready to address erectile dysfunction?

It is the cretinous Donald J. Trump campaign.

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It is a political-debate dais, once the majestic lyceum of Lincoln and Douglas, on which a debauched near-septuagenarian touts his, shall we say, Trump Tower as a credential for the most important political office in the world. Truly.

In 1966, which is not exactly millennia ago, Trump’s vulgarity would have had him banned from appearing on anyone’s black-and-white TV — even after midnight. Today, he is the front-runner. Today, in fact, he is coveted not by the blue channels but by the news channels. He is ratings. He sells. He is Viagra without commercials.

Trump is what he is, though. There is some shock, but no surprise. What John Podhoretz nails as the “living civic nightmare” that is the GOP sweepstakes is not about a demented demagogue’s march to the 2016 erection election. It is about what has become of us.

Trump is coveted not by the blue channels but by the news channels. He is ratings. He sells. He is Viagra without commercials.

Trump’s appeal is said to be his penchant for giving voice to the angry masses. But he is not a fit vessel for fighting the social suffocation brought on by political correctness. Trump says out loud things that no healthy person would even think, much less say — I mean, Ivanka is so hot that if she wasn’t my daughter, I’d probably be dating her? Whose mind works that way?

Yet when the gutter became the mainstream, it wasn’t Trump who brought it there — certainly not alone. It was Marco Rubio, the eloquent, electable, sunny self-styled Reagan reincarnate, who steered the debate to the mogul’s nether region. Why? Because he figures it’s what works.

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And it does. Not only was the “You know what they say about men with small hands” riff endlessly looped on cable news; not only did it titillate the base; it got attaboy raves from flack after stodgy GOP establishment flack — whose huzzahs were so numbingly duplicative they could only have come from prepackaged talking points.

Trump may be rich because of his daddy, but he is famous because he is vulgar. And when Rubio went lowbrow — Rubio, who is not vulgar by nature; Rubio, who finds himself flagging, at the most critical time, after a week of trying to be what he is not — it was not because he is foolish. He was just giving the people what they want.

#share#Yes, our politics is rotting. But politics is a lagging indicator. It was our decrepit culture on display in Detroit on Thursday night.

I’m hardly a prude. If I were sitting in a bar talking trash with five other guys, I might do the small-hands bit, too — it is the Irish curse, as it were. But we used to know that there is a difference between a gin mill and the campaign trail — and a difference, further still, between the campaign trail’s rough-and-tumble and the decorum of a debate stage. It is the difference that tells you that wearing shorts on the beach is not license to wear shorts at a wake.

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Before our very eyes, the corruption of cultural standards begets the corruption of law and politics. The coarsest part of the debate was Trump’s boorish boast (for which I’m willing to take him at his word, lest the next debate sink to a new low). The most egregious part, though, was Trump’s vow that, as commander-in-chief, he would compel the finest, best-trained armed forces in the history of the planet to commit war crimes — because there are evil people doing unspeakable things, as if that never happened before.

Before our very eyes, the corruption of cultural standards begets the corruption of law and politics.

For a number of years in the mid-aughts, we debated the merits vel non of waterboarding. I defended the legality of this interrogation method — in the restrained practice of the CIA, not as cruelly administered historically — mostly based on a strict interpretation of the federal torture statute. It was not an endorsement of the tactic in any particular case. The opposition’s point was well taken that the existence of a legal justification (which they did not concede) would not necessarily make the use of waterboarding good policy. We volleyed ticking-bomb scenarios and slippery slopes back and forth.

As a lawyer, I instinctively believed we should be able to write rules clarifying the extremely rare circumstances in which aggressive tactics could be used. Critics forcefully countered that the very writing of rules was an authorization that would be stretched to cover non-dire circumstances. Jonah Goldberg reminded us about the “hidden law,” which as applied here, counsels forbidding across the board that which should be forbidden in almost all situations, in the belief that if a dire emergency did arise, good people would act outside the law, do what had to be done, and hope that others would understand and forgive.

#related#What I most remember about the waterboarding debate, though, is that it was an anguished one. We confronted excruciating choices, aware that we were talking about the outer margin of right and wrong — and burdened, as serious people must be, by the very real possibility that we were on the wrong side of the margin.

Most of that happened only eight to ten years ago. Now a man running for the Republican nomination to be president of the United States has repeatedly promised to discourage terrorists by having our soldiers kill their families — women and children — and to liberally use interrogation tactics more extreme than waterboarding. And he’s winning.

Donald Trump is not the cause of deterioration in our politics. He is the effect of deterioration in our culture.


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