The most fundamental moral principle in the universe may well be: “You break it, you buy it.” But a close second is: You can’t call women cruel and misogynist names, defame ethnic groups, discriminate based on religion, accuse opponents of being “un-American” and “treasonous,” excuse and encourage violence by your supporters, threaten political rivals with prison, tear migrant children from the arms of parents and then credibly call for national “unity” when it is politically useful.
This is the horrible reality of our political moment. The president of the United States says something entirely presidential — “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony” — and it did nothing more than add another layer to his lies. More specifically, President Trump wants Americans to join him in a fake reality — to prove their loyalty by taking outlandish hypocrisy at face value. It is like the sophomoric entrance ritual to some secret society. Eat this cow eye and pig intestine, and we will be bound forever by our willingness to do asinine things on command. Trump’s call for national unity is the functional equivalent of an offal banquet.
It would be different if Trump had accompanied his words of reconciliation with any sense of remorse. But this is a difficult thing for a narcissist to fake (though some have that talent). I come from a religious tradition where anything can be forgiven — but only if repentance involves demonstrated sincerity. Trump could not maintain his ruse of reconciliation for 15 seconds. He used his call for unity to blame the news media for hostility and negativity. This is like a leper blaming the mirror for his sores.
Here is the reason that Trump’s deception is so destructive: He is asking for voters to ignore consistency, rationality and morality in the midst of a midterm campaign that he has infected with bigotry. Having started his presidential campaign with the false charge that Mexico was sending “rapists” to America, Trump is returning to a similar theme in the last days before the midterm election. A migrant caravan headed for the southern border — in Trump’s depiction, and against all evidence — is infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners” and may be organized by Democrats. Democratic policies, according to Trump, would invite the MS-13 gang members and terrorists into the country on competing murder sprees. And Californians are so enraged by sanctuary cities that there are riots in the streets.
All this is an elaborate deception designed to incite those who are already inclined to believe it. Trump’s electoral strategy is damaging to the country, because the systematic organization of racial and ethnic hatreds is damaging to the country. This approach is damaging because it invites partisans to live in a dream world of ideology and conspiracy that is immune to evidence, immune to persuasion, immune to reason. And it is damaging because it provides permission for copycat prejudice.
So one Republican accuses his opponent of being an “Indo-American who is a carpetbagger ” with financial support that may be “coming from overseas.” Another says his opponent is “not a good example of a Mexican.” Another accuses his Arab American opponent of being a “security risk” who wants to “infiltrate ” the government. Another accuses his opponent of supporting immigration policies responsible for the rape of children. And a Republican party ad attacks an African American candidate as a “big-city rapper.”
It is not that such tactics have never been employed before. But they have never been employed, at least in my memory, in a political environment where conspiracy theories and ethnic slanders have presidential blessing. Trumpism has been poured directly into the GOP mainstream, and the poison is tainting the whole.
It is typical of political polarization to separate the children of light and the children of darkness. But those who believe in democracy and the possibility of moral leadership generally have a different view. They find light and darkness in every human soul — including their own — and attempt to cultivate the light as best they can. This cause is not easy, but it is never finally lost, because the light is never fully extinguished.
We have a president who summons the darkness. It is sad and sick that so many have responded. And it would be nice if more Democrats began appealing to our better angels, in addition to talking about health-care policy.
But the promise of equality and solidarity has a power of its own, and it has defeated far more impressive enemies.