That’s worth remembering, as Democrats now map their course and the president once again sets his traps. If the impeachment trial played as tragedy, the State of the Union was farce; the next day President Trump shimmied straight from prayer breakfast to celebratory witch-burning. Trump’s recklessness, combined with Republican ruthlessness, practically dares Democrats to be just as cynical in their calculations, both now and in the coming campaign. Why forswear dark money while opponents soak in it, or work for compromise on legislation against opponents who only stonewall? Why play fair against an opponent who wants only to win?
Even before the overlapping circuses of last week, 2020 has been a series of feast days for the deeply cynical, led by a president for whom no insult is too low. Day by day, he labors to make sure government looks corrupt and ineffective and politicians entirely self-serving. Impeachment was no different: Throughout their defense, the president’s lawyers warned that future presidents should expect impeachment to be the norm any time the opposing party controls Congress. Democrats now warn that future presidents can defile the office however they like. Both arguments assume the worst about our public leaders — which serves to strengthen the president’s hand.
Cynicism is this president’s friend and fuel. It feeds belief in his conspiracy theories — nothing is as simple as it looks; there is always a dark agenda at work. No one deserves the benefit of the doubt, those who profess to act in the public good are just acting. Journalists don’t make mistakes, they lie. Democrats don’t want justice, they want revenge. On and on it goes, his dark rendering of reality designed to flatter his followers: They alone are smart enough to see through the virtue signaling and hypocrisy of their enemies.
The triumph of cynicism spells the end of trust. Goodbye to trust in facts, since there are always alternative facts. Goodbye to trust in compromise, because the other side will cheat. Goodbye to trust in experts, whether academic, journalistic or scientific, because their lenses are grimed with snobbery. And goodbye to trust in the rule of law, because the well-connected will always skate free. Right now, only 17 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing all or most of the time, close to a historic low. More than two-thirds say it is very important to restore that trust; many see the collapse of faith as a sign of national decline.
Cynicism presents as a survival skill; it’s actually the reverse. The research shows all the damage to health, happiness, marriage — even income. If we assume the worst of each other, we focus on protecting ourselves rather than pursuing progress; we don’t reach out for help; we avoid collaboration; we miss opportunities in order to prevent disappointment.
It was always clear that Trump would claim vindication and show no contrition. So long as he thrives on distrust and unites his tribe in contempt for their critics, the temptation to respond in kind will be fierce. This is where we live now — but that absolves no one of their duty. People do get away with murder; that doesn’t make the crime any less heinous or weaken the need to prosecute it. Maybe it is naive to believe that democratic values can withstand his disdain. But you will never win someone over by hating them back.