The important thing was what happened in the audience, where there were plenty of intelligent people of deep commitment to religious principle. They laughed and smiled and clapped as a president of the United States lied, bullied, cursed and belittled the faith of other leaders. That was the deeply disturbing part of the East Room moment, and should challenge us all.
How it is possible that they didn’t get up and walk out — that they seemed to participate actively in something they should know was deeply wrong? How could they smile and laugh? Because they are people. And, like all people, they too easily surrender their individual moral authority to a group, where it can be hijacked by the loudest, harshest voice. I know because I’ve done it.
In 1978, I was a college freshman, one of many insecure, homesick, frightened kids living away from home for the first time, although we would admit none of that to each other, or even to ourselves. Because of overcrowding, I was among 17 boys living in a physically separate annex to one of the large dormitories, without any kind of on-site supervision. I shudder now to think of it. My college had inadvertently created a “Lord of the Flies” dorm.
There was a boy in that annex who was mildly annoying. He was a bit arrogant and uptight and had potted plants in his immaculately neat dorm room. He went his own way most of the time. But somehow the group of boys decided that this boy was not to be tolerated. So the group messed with his belongings, trashed his room and performed other idiocies I can’t remember. I was part of that group. Some things I did, some things I helped do, some things I laughed about after they were done. I caused someone else pain.
Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself. I was raised by parents who constantly emphasized the importance of resisting the group. A thousand times, in many contexts, my mother said, “If everyone is lined up to jump off the George Washington Bridge, are you just going to get in line?” And yet in the face of whatever guilt or hesitation I felt, I surrendered to the laughter and the camaraderie of the group and maybe to a feeling of relief that I wasn’t the target.
I was a living example of something I knew then, and have come to know even better since, and these days we see it in places as storied and solemn as the East Room of the White House. We all tend to surrender our moral authority to “the group,” to still our own inner voices and assume that the group will handle whatever difficult issue we face. We imagine that the group is making thoughtful decisions, and if the crowd is moving in a certain direction, we follow, as if the group is some moral entity larger than ourselves.
In the face of the herd, and often to avoid being targeted ourselves, we go quiet and let the group’s brain and soul handle things. Of course, the group has no brain or soul separate from each of ours. But by imagining that the group has these imaginary centers of power, we abdicate responsibility, which allows all groups to be hijacked by the loudest voice, the person who knows how brainless groups really are and uses that to his advantage.
Even though he wouldn’t write those sentences, or read them, Trump knows all this. It is his gift, as it has been the gift of demagogues throughout history, to play on human weakness. He knows that good, principled people — who would never lie, curse or belittle the faith of another person — will go along, be swept along, at a rally, in a meeting, maybe silent, maybe smiling, maybe on their feet waving a MAGA hat. But they will go along. They will still their inner voices.
That’s the scary lesson of the East Room rant. There were good people in that White House on Thursday. And they went along.
We have passed through the legal and constitutional trials of the Trump era. They were painful, but we now face our greatest trial, because it is about each of us, alone. And especially about those who were, or are, Republicans. Will they assert personal, core values in the face of a powerfully human temptation to surrender them? Or will they still those inner voices, smile tightly in places like the East Room, and drift with the crowd? We will know in just nine months.