The uproar about President Trump’s “shitholes” comment from the other day continues unabated. A good deal of the outrage is deliberately styled, leading to a one-upmanship contest to see who can be the most creatively insulted—which, of course, does not make the umbrage behind it insincere. A good deal of it, too, constitutes a full-frontal orgy of hypocrisy: It’s not like the tenured elites of so-called developing countries eggshell-walk their own vocabularies when they talk privately about America and Americans, or that partisan Democrats do so when they discuss among themselves the Administration here at home.
But all of this is obvious and none of it is very interesting, except to voyeurs of “the strange and unusual,” to quote Winona Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice. What has so far gone mostly unremarked about this, and by now a long skein of preceding incidents, is that Donald Trump has, from the highest pinnacle in the land, erased utterly the distinction between private and public etiquette. He is well into the process of destroying the constructed social reality wherein the concept of the “unseemly” can possibly have any meaning.
Why does this matter? Because society does not regulate itself through formal law alone. It and the law both depend on informal norms webbed through quotidian human interactions over time and space—generation to generation and cores to peripheries—that come to form what some call social vernaculars particular to each culture. These norms inhere in culture in the form of stories about good and evil, right and wrong behavior. As Richard Thompson Ford recently put it, “common norms are the mortar that holds the bricks of legal reasoning—and of civil society—together.”
It’s not clear if Donald Trump understands any of this. His view seems to be that if something is not technically illegal, if it’s just a tradition or a convention, he is free to ignore it—and he evidently delights in doing so as part of his general penchant for bad-boy bomb-throwing antics. Those antics draw attention to him, something he is truly expert at in an age when technology-aided exposure is its own reward, regardless of virtue or merit. In that sense, Trump is just a Kardashian with a political attitude and a good sense of what late-model celebrity culture traffic will bear. And his base, apparently attracted to fantasies of transgressive behavior that release steam from the boilers of their status insecurity, loves it. I wonder how many of them have lately been able to tell their bosses for the first time, directly to their faces, what a “shithole” they are plighted to work in.
Again, all obvious and not very interesting. The question, I think, is how did this happen? It’s one thing to have in the Oval Office a pussy-grabbing bigoted bully with the vocabulary of a 12-year old; it is quite another when that person feels no need to seriously hide who he is or what he really thinks. This is new. Lyndon Johnson, for example, was a man with a highly colorful vocabulary, an outsized ego, and a distended sense of personal privilege to sometimes do unseemly things in private. But only in private: Johnson’s public demeanor—before, during, and after his presidency—rarely if ever exuded unseemly tones. What has changed, and why?
Back when LBJ was President, American culture was headlong into decompressing from an extended period of high stress. Depression, hot war, and cold war lasting through two entire generations had put a premium on social discipline, conformity, deferred gratification, and stoicism in the face of anxiety. Affluence and the norming down of early Cold War commie hysteria and rocket rattle, among other things, in time called forth rock-and-roll, bikinis, and, in due course, an almost irresistible urge to break down the supposed barriers between the gussied up, staged personality of the public self and the authentic, private inner self. If you were alive and sentient at the time, you could almost cut the collective psychic breeze with a knife.
Thanks to the crowning triumph of the therapeutic, too, Americans began to credit the mental health value of sharing feelings, and also, just by the way, generally to shift their attitude toward commercial messages of all sorts from “wow, look at that cool new thing” to “these lying creeps are trying to steal my money.” By the time these sensibilities blossomed forth in what became known as the Sixties’ counterculture, phrases like “let it all hang out” and “get real” possessed self-evidence meanings. By the time, very soon thereafter, weed arrived en masse, myriad popular lyrical phrases like “come on baby light my fire” and “love the one you’re with” illustrated the merging of the new authenticity with sexual “liberation” (read: laxity).
It did not take long before shrewd political consultants figured out what this meant for their business—or for ambitious politicians to hire those consultants. Indeed, they very quickly followed the advertising geniuses who bent the countercultural meme to sell, say, automobiles: “Join the Dodge Rebellion”—remember that one? The name of the political game became faking sincerity in order to pose as just a regular guy—showing the supposed authentic self to the electorate so as to gain authority and power over them, all the while pretending that gaining authority and power was not the aim at all.
In every presidential campaign since 1976, and most sub-presidential campaigns as well, this trend has grown steadily. The folksiness of campaign styles, complete with wives giving speeches about personal family life at national political conventions, is now standard “political intimacy” fare—as is the by now obligatory soap-operatic interlude during the State of the Union address. It could be that of all the factors bearing on the outcome of the November 2016 election, the specter of Hillary Clinton trying pathetically to pass herself off as an authentic Everywoman was the key to the outcome. Listening to her trying to fake a Southern accent in her pandering was a telltale low point.
As Goethe might have quipped today, “We wished for authenticity, and now we’ve got it in spades, in a form most of us detest.” We never imagined that authenticity could be so profoundly ugly. But there it is, ugly to the point of disgusting, and we as a society have only ourselves to blame.
We’ve known for many years what kind of person Donald Trump is—maybe not as well as native New Yorkers have known, but still. And yes, similar characters have been around since the Revolution, and sometimes they’ve made their way into politics—think Huey Long, Big Jim Folsom, and others. They’ve been larger than life, loose with the truth, and unashamed of their personal proclivities. But none of them ever got anywhere near the Oval Office with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson nearly 190 years ago. And Jackson was a war hero, a genuine champion of the common man in a still-elitist age, and not a lumbering buffoon in his public demeanor. Trump is in the Oval Office in large part because he seems authentic. Except for his tax returns, he tries to hide nothing about himself of political import. For those who harbor politically incorrect views, the act is thrilling, liberating, and affirming. What we see is what we get, and again, thanks to the aforementioned technology-aided exposure of his authenticity, we get it 24/7.
Does this mean that Trump’s views on issues are not important? That what he has done and will do in office has no bearing on his political future? No. What is amenable to forms of at least semi-rational analysis still counts. But only a fool would dismiss the significance of how this President, and really all national political figures current and prospective, either does or doesn’t meld well with the cultural zeitgeist that cherishes unvarnished authenticity above all else.
There is no more unseemly behavior in American politics. It’s just an unbleeped shithole as far as the eye can see.