Tone Matters, Mr. Trump

when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom,
the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

William Shakespeare
Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who visits this blog will note, it has been a year and a half since my last posting. Although this corresponds with Donald Trump’s rise to power, this is not the reason for my absence. I have finally buckled down on a long-planned novel and, by excluding nearly everything else from my thoughts, written the first twenty-some chapters, and developed a detailed outline of its plot and characters. However, now that I would like to take a rest from the book and resume posting (even if only on the occasional basis that is my habit), I find myself in a strange position. Although I would prefer to consider matters of more substance than Donald Trump’s public tantrums, the genuine threat he poses to our democracy and our natural environment make this impossible. Also, the first Independence Day of Trump’s regime has encouraged me to share my own thoughts about the state of our nation.

Although much can be said about Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda, other, more qualified writers have addressed this in considerable depth. Instead, I would like to focus on the tone of his speeches, tweets, and incidental remarks, which seem to come from a man unable to enter the kind of civil discourse that has characterized our democracy’s finest moments. Instead, he attacks even the slightest opposition with unprecedented levels of bile, vulgarity, and mean-spiritedness. This has been evident in his attacks on immigrants, journalists, the handicapped, and most disturbingly, on women including Mika Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Megan Kelly, and others.

Many commentators have warned against letting Mr. Trump’s endless twitter storms distract us from the larger issues raised by his policies, appointments, and executive orders. Some have even argued that his tantrums are deliberate attempts at distraction. This may be true, but I don’t think we can separate the substance of his presidency from the tone he has taken.

When I was a child, my mother taught me the importance of kindness and good manners. She was not simply responding to some outdated social code. She correctly understood that success in life depended on an ability to behave courteously, even with people I might find stupid and despicable. Civility is not a sign of weakness; it often takes real effort. As I age, I seem to encounter more situations where restraint is needed, and must exert more effort to do so. Also, I will admit that I have not hesitated to breach standards of behavior when confronted with people who truly deserve it. Anger and heartfelt profanity are often useful, but lose their power when they become our only way of facing opposition.

There is a quote that has been attributed to Oscar Wilde (I was unable to confirm his authorship): A true gentleman is never unintentionally rude.

This commitment to civility does not just belong in our personal lives. It is a foundation of democracy. The idea that everyone should be able to express their ideas freely, without either threatening or receiving physical or verbal abuse, has been recognized since classical Greece (it is true that Socrates was killed for exercising this right, but as I recall, his persecutors were conservative politicians threatened by his calls for change, and his appeal to the younger generation). If we look at the Declaration of Independence, its tone is high-minded, and reasoned, even though the men who signed it faced very real threats of treason, execution, and war.

The reason for this commitment to civility across time and cultures is simply that it works: it is the essential foundation of any social order that will endure. The explicit legal, institutional, and procedural structures of our laws and government derive from implicit canons of civil discourse, from respect for people and institutions, and from shared standards of fact and reason that have evolved across history. They are evident in the first codifications of law in the bronze-age Mediterranean. They were articulated in the thinking of both Classical Greece, and Confucianism and Taoism in the East.  They are honored by all the world’s religions. They resonate in the words that introduce our nation’s founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The problem is not simply that Mr. Trump offends standards of civility. His actions leave him and our country weaker. Old allies in Europe and Asia are already starting to distance themselves from our longstanding alliances. The toughness he boasts is not letting the US negotiate better trade deals; by pulling out of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords, he is leaving a vacuum that countries like China and the European Union are rushing to fill. He has squandered the USA’s moral authority in the world, and left us to face emboldened enemies with little more than threats and an increasingly over-stretched military. Even his political power inside the beltway is lessening, as members of congress recognize he offers little threat to their re-election, and increasingly speak out against his more outrageous behaviors.

Dictators have often started their rise to power by trampling standards of civil discourse, but they ultimately fall when the populace rejects the escalating spiral of cruelty and oppression required to sustain authoritarian regimes. Reason and civility have always reasserted themselves, although sadly, it can take time and often follows shocking convulsions of violence. In modern times, with people who have experienced reason and democracy, this reaction is even more inevitable.

Whenever Donald Trump tweets his latest vulgarity, his shills and sycophants repeat the same rationalizations: “He is a different kind of president”; “He is a fighter who strikes back”; “This is what the people voted for”; “This is a modern presidency”; and on ad nauseam. One of the most interesting of these rationalizations is the claim that when a person enters the presidency, its traditions and magnitude will change him in positive ways: that the nature of the office will elevate the office holder. They tell us that we only need to wait for this magic to work on Mr. Trump, and all will be well.

It is true that all the presidents I remember were visibly transformed by the office, but I am not waiting for this to happen with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. These men respected and opened themselves to the traditions and examples of the presidency. They allowed themselves to be humbled by the thoughts and deeds of people they recognized to be greater than they, and in doing so claimed their own share of greatness.

Mr. Trump will not rise in this way because he attacks the very traditions of reason, vision, and humility that define the presidency at its best. He has barricaded his fragile ego against the forces that shaped his predecessors, and surrounded himself with extremists and opportunists who reinforce his worst tendencies. He is trapped in a cage of narcissism and paranoia, and will remain a foolish, bitter person’s parody of power.

Embracing our traditions of reason and civil discourse is the surest way to resist Trumpism simply because doing so aligns us with the ascent of justice, reason, science, and compassion across history. Maintaining a civil political discourse will also help us further to isolate Mr. Trump as all but his most fanatical supporters peel away in disgust. Even congressional Republicans are starting to talk about working with Democrats on issues like healthcare.

There is another reason we must challenge Mr. Trump’s vulgarity. The endless onslaught of his rages can wear down even the strongest of us. How do we counter the feeling of emotional and spiritual exhaustion caused by venom he spews daily? How can we recover our faith in the fundamental decency of our fellow citizens when so many of them embrace this man’s outrages? How can we engage the power of non-violent resistance, but do so from a place of hope, rather than despair?

I believe the answer to these questions is to strengthen our connection to the historical, philosophical, and literary foundations of reason and civil discourse, to remind ourselves that the forces of history, and the voices of our greatest thinkers are on our side. We can begin by re-reading our own founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. I keep a small pocket copy of these documents close to my desk, and refer to it often; they are a model of reasoned thought. We can find encouragement in writings and examples of practitioners of non-violence, including Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

We can draw strength from embracing the ancient foundations of democracy. Over the last year, I have found strength in the Greek philosophers, including Socrates and Aristotle. I have found reassurance in the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics, in spiritual writings ranging from Lao Tzu to the Bible, and in the works of Milton, Locke, and other Enlightenment thinkers who inspired our own founders.

As a writer, I have revisited my literary inspirations, starting with Homer’s tales of both virtuous (Odysseus) and foolish (Agamemnon) leadership. I have found deep resonance in Shakespeare’s explorations of the personal, moral dimensions of power in his histories and tragedies. I have found comfort in the uniquely American voices of poets, from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, to more modern figures including Stevens, Frost, and Ginsburg.

As a scientist, I have found inspiration in the lives of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, and others who fought against ignorance to bring the modern world into existence – a world where reason triumphs over dogma, and truth is measured against reality, rather than political expediency.

These are not prescriptions, but only examples of things that have given me perspective, inspiration, and faith in the future. Reason and civility live in so many branches of our cultural heritage that anyone who looks will find them. These are the traditions that Donald Trump is attacking, because deep down, he and his supporters realize that that civility, compassion, and reason are the ultimate opposition to his vulgar stew of hatred and authoritarianism.

I also believe they are the soil in which our resistance will grow and bear fruit.

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