"Shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion." — T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)
It has been six years since I last saw Capitol Hill and the Republican Party in the rearview mirror. Ever since, I have been relentlessly critical of the GOP because, as nearly as I could determine, it is contemptuous of anyone who is not wealthy, runs government institutions into the ground, and plays to the America people’s worst instincts.
Five years ago, having seen the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower on the road to becoming a nihilistic cult of goose-steppers and power-worshippers, I wrote that Republicans would roll back the Enlightenment if they could. My principal error was underestimating the speed and thoroughness of that transformation.
That said, I did not consider myself a Democrat or generally a person of the left. Establishment Democrats, caught between their base and the people who finance their elections, have crafted equivocating and backpedalling into a fine art. There were times when it appeared Barack Obama was hesitant to take his own side in an argument. To borrow from Yeats, they lack all conviction, while their opponents are filled with passionate intensity.
Further to the left, the prospect is just as depressing: people dedicated to empty posturing, petty sectarianism and obscure causes, like combating “cultural appropriation” or nattering on about “trigger warnings” that no grown-up would waste his time on. The Hillary-versus-Bernie vendetta, carried to extraordinary lengths while the very fabric of our representative institutions was under siege, revealed a self-destructive and unhealthy mentality at work. One need hardly point out that the Stalinist-versus-Trotskyite feud of the 1930s, which the Democrats’ recent squabble tiresomely resembled, helped pave the way for the extreme right to take power in Europe.
Nevertheless, one must never be tempted into false equivalence: a head cold, however uncomfortable, is not Ebola. Donald Trump is the political equivalent of Ebola. There should be no temporizing on this fact, no retreat into “both sides do it,” and no complacency that our institutions will magically prevail intact. Nor should we buy into the notion, popular with some on the pseudo-intellectual left, that Trump is the catharsis that the system needs for the dialectical process to work.
Which brings us to a remarkable essay in the London Review of Books titled “The Age of Detesting Trump.” Its author is David Bromwich. Based on past writings, he seems like someone whose political views are left of center, but one could also have instantly guessed, as is the case, that he is a professor of literature at Yale.
Breaking a vow not to use vulgarisms in my writing, the only way to describe the piece is as a museum-grade example of academic bullshit artistry.
Like a lit professor wearily endeavoring to explain mirroring in Macbeth to numbskull freshmen, Bromwich, cloaked behind his repeated equivocations, false equivalences, faulty generalizations and rhetorical pirouetting, is telling us that Donald Trump is not so bad; it’s Trump’s critics who are really at fault. It is a white flag of surrender waved by someone so world-weary and blasé that he cannot think of anything worth defending, just like one of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men.
Right off the bat, Bromwich goes all Miss Manners on us. He explains at some length why The New York Times’ headline, “Putin Butts in to Claim There Were No Secrets, and Says He’ll Prove It,” is unforgivably rude, like a student surfing on a smart phone during an intro to modern lit class. It’s not so much that it was an insult to Vladimir Putin as it was a disparagement of Trump.
Maybe so, but why, then, would the Gray Lady actually pen an editorial just in the last week entitled “Yes, the Trump Administration Has Ideas, and Some Are OK,” which put the kindest possible gloss on his proposals (such as selling off national infrastructure to private interests), if their newfound role is to libel Trump? The Times also bowdlerized its account of Trump’s visit to Poland, editing out the fact that much of the friendly crowd greeting him was hand-picked and bused in for the occasion.
A very large number of those on the left who hated Hillary Clinton and either stayed home, voted for the Vegetarian Party or actually cast a protest ballot for Trump on the theory that she would still win and they could remain morally pure, have seemed to settle on the proposition that there is no evidence the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee or interfered in the election. The psychological impulses behind this are pretty obvious, but even on this subject Bromwich equivocates so thoroughly that one can’t be sure what he believes.
His thrust initially seems to be that the evidence is lacking, but he later scolds the Hamlet-like Obama for being so “moderate” that he publicly withheld what he knew of the Russian interference. But if there were no interference, as Bromwich insinuates, then Obama’s nonfeasance was a nonissue.
Likewise, Bromwich tortures the transcript of James Comey’s congressional testimony to concoct an exegesis that exonerates Trump from having asked the former FBI director to end the Russia investigation. His interpretation is at odds with what the plain words would seem to mean, making it a textual interpretation worthy of a French deconstructionist. But let the record show that James Lankford, Republican congressman from Oklahoma and a nearly-down-the-line partisan Trump supporter, uttered the thesis at the hearing, and Bromwich was taken with it.
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Why do we even have to bother with such tutorials when Trump himself told Lester Holt and a national TV audience that he fired Comey to make the Russia investigation go away? Likewise, why do Trump’s apologists keep insisting there was no election interference when Trump himself has conceded it did happen, and supposedly told Putin to knock it off?
In order to relativize Trump and his minions, it is necessary to engage in false equivalence, and here Bromwich does not disappoint. He makes heavy weather of the reported allegation that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, contacted the Russian Embassy to establish a back-channel communication link with Russia during the transition.
He is outraged, not at Kushner’s action but at the intelligence agencies for monitoring it. Bromwich is apparently unaware that the Russian Embassy is sovereign territory, and, as such, is fair game for legal eavesdropping. He also forgot the fact that neither Kushner, nor anybody else on the transition team, was empowered to conduct diplomacy until Jan. 20 of 2017 at noon. It’s in the Constitution; you can look it up. And the odd little tidbit that Kushner apparently wanted to utilize the FSB’s own secure communications channels? Nothing suspicious there!
Bromwich wants us to believe there is absolutely no difference between the government monitoring the communications of an adversarial foreign power an the government eavesdropping on private conversations in the Yale faculty lounge. This is the luxury of outraged innocence, of never having worked in the morally fraught world of government national security policy.
One could go on in this vein but by now the reader will have gotten the picture: Bromwich’s sensitive soul is wounded by the fact that people utter mean things about Trump. But he says nothing about the 20-plus million people likely to be thrown off health insurance because Trump lied about his intentions to give everyone better and more affordable care.
And what about the racism? Trump’s vicious misogyny? The open incitement of violence against protesters at his rallies? The campaign to delegitimize a free and independent press which has led to CNN tightening security for its employees?
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has this to say about the CNN case:
“[I]t’s hard to make sense of the entirety of this. Because at many levels it’s all nonsense and play-acting, like everything else in Trump’s phony world. But heads of state leading campaigns of lies and incitement and threat against a major news organization? That’s simply not normal or remotely in bounds of anything this country has ever accepted. It really is what we expect from brutalized quasi-democracies like Venezuela and now Hungary and at a more distant remove Russia. We’re not close to those. But we’re close enough to see parallels and many other things that have [been] and should be unimaginable.”
Bromwich believes that Barack Obama, the Clintons and the rest of the Democratic establishment were too centrist and compromising, leading to Trump’s victory. One could easily make that case. Yet when Rachel Maddow or some similar person wallops Trump, he clucks his tongue in aristocratic disapproval. So what, in his opinion, would work against Trump? Apparently, the only weapons in the arsenal for right-thinking people are high-toned defeatism and a fainting couch.
I would not for a moment suggest that everyone from the center on leftward must troop together in lockstep and squawk in unison like a flock of parrots; the GOP has the copyright on that. There is plenty of room for vigorous debate on policy goals and methods to achieve them. But if those Americans who are not hardcore Republicans cannot even agree that there is a fire when the house is burning down, and instead attempt to promote paralysis through extended concern trolling, then they are objectively doing Trump’s bidding.
The march through the institutions of Trump and his gang is going to change us whether we like it or not. The sane portion of the American people must certainly become more tough-minded, more practical and more strategic if Trumpism is to be defeated. If today the target is CNN, why won’t it be Yale tomorrow?
You don’t put out a raging forest fire with a squirt gun, and I dare say every thinking person will sooner or later be put to the test. To imagine that one can stand above the fray and scold those horrified by Trump because they are insufficiently schooled in the genteel way to criticize him, represents a decadent and desiccated scholasticism at its worst.