How on earth did this happen? Some, like Robert Kagan, think it is solely the result of a prolonged self-poisoning of the Republican Party. A number of shrewd writers—David Frum, Tucker Carlson, Ben Domenech, Charles Murray, and Joel Kotkin being among the best—have probed deeper. Not surprisingly, they are all some flavor of conservative. On the liberal (or, as they say now, progressive) end of the spectrum the reaction has been chiefly one of smugness (“well, that’s what the Republicans are, we knew it all along”), schadenfreude (“pass the popcorn”), and chicken-counting (“now we can get a head start on Hillary’s first Inaugural”). Their insouciance will be stripped away if Trump becomes the nominee and turns his cunning, ferocity, and charm on an inept, boring politician trailing scandals as old as dubious investments with a 1,000 percent return and as fresh as a homebrew email server. He might lose. He might, however, very well tear her to pieces. Clearly, he relishes the prospect, because he despises the politicians he has bought over the years.
The conservative analysts offer a number of arguments—a shifting class structure, liberal overreach in social policy, existential anxiety about the advent of a robot-driven economy, the stagnation since the Great Recession, and more. They note (as most liberal commentators have yet to do) Trump’s formidable political skills, including a visceral instinct for detecting and exploiting vulnerability that has been the hallmark of many an authoritarian ruler. These insights are all to the point, but they do not capture one key element.
Politicians have, since ancient Greece, lied, pandered, and whored. They have taken bribes, connived, and perjured themselves. But in recent times—in the United States, at any rate—there has never been any politician quite as openly debased and debauched as Donald Trump. Truman and Nixon could be vulgar, but they kept the cuss words for private use. Presidents have chewed out journalists, but which of them would have suggested that an elegant and intelligent woman asking a reasonable question was dripping menstrual blood? LBJ, Kennedy, and Clinton could all treat women as commodities to be used for their pleasure, but none went on the radio with the likes of Howard Stern to discuss the women they had bedded and the finer points of their anatomies. All politicians like the sound of their own names, but can anyone doubt what Trump would have christened the Hoover Dam—or the Washington Monument?
That otherwise sober people do not find Trump’s insults and insane demands outrageous (Mexico will have to pay for a wall! Japan will have to pay for protection!) says something about a larger moral and cultural collapse. His language is the language of the comments sections of once-great newspapers. Their editors know that the online versions of their publications attract the vicious, the bigoted, and the foulmouthed. But they keep those comments sections going in the hope of getting eyeballs on the page.
Winston Churchill recalls in his memoir how as a young man he came to terms with hypocrisy, discovering the “enormous and unquestionably helpful part that humbug plays in the social life of a great people.” Inconsistency between public virtue and private vice is not altogether a bad thing. No matter how nasty the realities are, maintaining respectable appearances, minding the civilities, and adhering to the conventions is part of what keeps civilization going.
The current problem goes beyond excruciatingly bad manners. What we increasingly lack, and have lacked for some time, is a sense of the moral underpinning of republican (small r) government. Manners and morals maintain a free state as much as laws do, as Tocqueville observed long ago, and when a certain culture of virtue dies, so too does something of what makes democracy work. Old-fashioned words like integrity, selflessness, frugality, gravitas, and modesty rarely rate a mention in modern descriptions of the good life—is it surprising that they don’t come up in politics, either?
William James, a pacifist who understood this point, argued in “The Moral Equivalent of War” that “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built—unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt.” Just so. Trump might have become a less upsetting figure if he had not wriggled through the clutches of the draft in the 1960s.
Trump’s rise is only one among many signs that something has gone profoundly amiss in our popular culture. It is related to the hysteria that has swept through many campuses, as students call for the suppression of various forms of free speech and the provision of “safe spaces” where they will not be challenged by ideas with which they disagree. The rise of Trump and the fall of free speech in academia are equal signs that we are losing the intellectual sturdiness and honesty without which a republic cannot thrive.
There are other traces of rot. They can be seen in the excuses that political leaders and experts have begun to make as they cozy up to Trump. Like French bureaucrats in the age of Vichy, or Italian aristocrats in the age of Mussolini, they are already saying things like: “I can make it less bad,” “He’s different in private,” “He has his good points,” “He is evolving,” and “Someone has to do the work of government.” Of course, some politicians—Chris Christie, that would be you—simply skip the pretense and indulge in spite or opportunism as the mood takes them.
This is not the first age in which politicians have taken morally disgraceful positions, even by the standards of their time. In the 1950s and 1960s there were flagrant bigots in Congress. But many of them were in other ways public spirited—think Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, for example, who presided with dignity over the Senate Armed Services Committee for nearly two decades. Lyndon Johnson may not have opposed the evils of his time forthrightly, but he used the full extent of his wiliness to break through the institutionalized discrimination of the South. The villainy of today takes softer forms, but it is pervasive—politicians swallow their principles (such as they are) and endorse a candidate they despise, turn on a judge they once praised, denounce the opposition for behavior identical to their own, or press their branch’s prerogatives and rules to the Constitutional limit, and beyond.
The rot is cultural. It is no coincidence that Trump was the star of a “reality” show. He is the beneficiary of an amoral celebrity culture devoid of all content save an omnipresent lubriciousness. He is a kind of male Kim Kardashian, and about as politically serious. In the context of culture, if not (yet) politics, he is unremarkable; the daily entertainments of today are both tawdry and self-consciously, corrosively ironic. Ours is an age when young people have become used to getting news, of a sort, from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, when an earlier generation watched Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. It is the difference between giggling with young, sneering hipsters and listening to serious adults. Go to YouTube and look at old episodes of Profiles in Courage, if you can find them—a wildly successful television series based on the book nominally authored by John F. Kennedy, which celebrated an individual’s, often a politician’s, courage in standing alone against a crowd, even a crowd with whose politics the audience agreed. The show of comparable popularity today is House of Cards. Bill Clinton has said that he loves it.
American culture is, in short, nastier, more nihilistic, and far less inhibited than ever before. It breeds alternating bouts of cynicism and hysteria, and now it has given us Trump.
The Republican Party as we know it may die of Trump. If it does, it will have succumbed in part because many of its leaders chose not to fight for the Party of Lincoln, which is a set of ideas about how to govern a country, rather than an organization clawing for political and personal advantage. What is at stake, however, is something much more precious than even a great political party. To an extent unimaginable for a very long time, the moral keel of free government is showing cracks. It is not easy to discern how we shall mend them.
[Editor’s note: This article previously stated that Franklin Roosevelt named the Hoover Dam after his defeated predecessor; however, the dam was not officially named after Hoover until 1947. We regret the error.]