The impeachment hearings are revealing just how pervasive Trump’s style of discourse has become on the right. The Fox News/talk radio machine — part mob, part cult, part business racket — has come up against a variety of honorable, respected professionals, trying to testify honestly about the abuse of power. The reaction? Sean Hannity railed against Yovanovitch as a “narcissistic diplomat snowflake.” Tucker Carlson dismissed acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. and State Department official George Kent as “washed up bureaucrats.” To Christian Whiton, they were “deep state crybabies.” To Rush Limbaugh, they were “professional nerds.” A guest on Laura Ingraham’s show went after Kent’s reliance on his water bottle: “I mean, fish are not this hydrated.” Jeanine Pirro called Kent a “bozo in a bow tie with a water binky.”
I imagine that Yovanovitch, Taylor and Kent have endured worse taunting — though probably not since fifth grade. And I sympathize, in a limited way, with the predicament of the taunters. They are clearly struggling to develop a coherent defense of Trump and need some way to fill empty airtime.
But the triumph of ad hominem arguments on the Trump right also has a deeper and darker meaning. Fox News is no longer content to spout pro-Trump propaganda. It must destroy Trump’s opponents, even if they are honorable people. Especially if they are honorable people. The goal is not to dispute their testimony — which, on the facts, seems indisputable — but to discredit them as witnesses and as human beings. The immediate response to the release of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony was for Ingraham to call his loyalty to the United States into question — despite a Purple Heart giving evidence of such loyalty. Attacks on those who dare oppose Trump are reflexive and brutal. To hell with past service. To hell with facts. All that matters is muddying, blunting or silencing an accusation against the dear leader.
This is a deeply immoral impulse. And it is part of a broader crisis in our political culture — a crisis of missing limiting principles.
Partisan extremes in the United States have become entirely consequentialist in their ethics. The overriding goal may be the end of Roe v. Wade — or its preservation. It may be passage of gun control legislation — or protection of the Second Amendment. In each case, the objective — always measured in saved lives — means everything.
But if the objective means everything, then how do we judge the character of leaders or the morality of political methods? If ending Roe, for example, is really all that matters, wouldn’t a corrupt or lying politician who opposes Roe always be better than the ideological alternative? This is a point I have sometimes pressed with pro-Trump, pro-life evangelicals: Would you support a rapist who opposes Roe over a pro-choice Democrat? How about a serial killer? The result is usually uncomfortable silence. If political outcomes are truly all that matter, there is no way to draw necessary moral lines.
This helps explain our current Wild West of political rhetoric and ethics. The problem is not merely a lack of civility. Many in the Trump cult have given preemptive permission for nearly any violation of morality or law. Since Trump is on “our” side in the culture war, any excess can be forgiven. There is no penalty for corruption, deception or cruelty. And more than this, many Trump supporters have begun to enjoy the transgressive side of our brutal political culture.
Why should we care? Because democracy is hard to sustain in the absence of certain values. Self-government requires ethical hierarchy — a belief that honor is better than dishonor, fairness is better than exploitation and truth is superior to lies. American freedom is not based on relativism; it is based on the belief that the dignity of human beings is a knowable, universal truth. And the success of that principle is demonstrated in the way we treat each other.
There are categorical commitments to respect and truthfulness that can’t be subordinated to partisan outcomes. And they point to an essential, post-Trump task: restoring a decayed moral environment.