Pleasantly Insincere or Sincerely Unpleasant

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Culture, Ethics, Politics
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Lots of ink has been spilled over intransigent presidential candidate Donald Trump, so it’s unlikely that I will have anything particularly original to offer. This post at Gin and Tacos, including the mostly excellent commentary, got me thinking. Whereas most politicians are pleasantly insincere, offering no end of platitudes and rhetoric designed to appeal to everyone while being almost wholly insubstantial, The Donald is sincerely unpleasant, whipping conservative mouth-breathers into hysterics over one threat or another, real or imagined. Neither is a particularly good option, but The Donald has, for the moment, at least two distinct advantages: (1) fear-mongering as motivation, and (2) hewing much closer to the truth than is possible for any career politician. Everyone gets the insincerity behind the typical politician, all predictable bromides and empty promises. It’s frankly sickening such drivel passes for leadership. Then along comes an outsider unwilling to play by the candidate’s rulebook, spewing heinous insults at every opportunity, and refusing to offer even the tiniest gesture of remorse when taken to task over his continuous onslaught of invective. It’s both refreshing and disgusting.

So let me bring forward something from Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness (reviewed here) that is on point: xenophobia. If one subscribes to Glubb’s description of the five ages, the first (pioneering or conquest) is characterized by enterprise, initiative, “optimism, confidence, devotion to duty, a sense of honor, a shared purpose, and adherence to a strict moral code.” These attributes arise out of strong consensus and confer high morale. Shared purpose and strong consensus are enabled by a fundamental sameness of the people, a group identity that makes snap, surface distinctions between us and them. In contrast, the last age (decadence) is characterized by “[f]rivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors …” Although Glubb and Ophul never quite spell it out, the current vogue of multicultural and pluralistic sensitivity are surely a profound weakening of consensus and morale that give the age of pioneers its élan.

Without suggesting of any intellectual awareness, candidate Trump has latched onto (among other things) fear of otherness, not far removed from simple fear of the unknown, and made it a modern touchstone. In doing so, he has struck an inchoate but resonant chord among Americans of northern European extract who were until recently a majority in the U.S. They know already that an unstoppable demographic wave is flowing over then, much like the related socioeconomic wave that has reduced the formerly great middle class to a fading memory. Thus far, Trump’s rhetoric has successfully stigmatized an incredible diverse people (Muslims) by substituting a tiny but noisy and violent fragment (Islamofascists) for the whole. (In parallel, try lumping all Christians into one undifferentiated group using the most crazily dogmatic of them as the model.) I anticipate renewal of white supremacy movements under a twisted nativist banner (e.g., taking back America!) completely lacking in even the most basic historical understanding of what the American melting pot has been about these past 300 years. Thus, we face our own fascist moment, rhyming (à la Twain) with those of the not-so-recent past, led by a despicable charismatic whose ravings appeal to the lizard brains in all of us.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that I wholly agree with Glubb and Ophuls, or even politically correct identity politics now emerging from higher education into everyday society. I am saying that this interpretation of our historical moment is worth some consideration.

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