Monday, October 15, 2018

Without Rules, Boundaries, or Mercy

Thomas L. Dumm
Amherst College 

Every day we see new evidence of the deep corrosion of American politics. The hollowing out of democratic representation from the 1980s to 2016 gave rise to the availability of a Trump. Perhaps for a long time we were misled by the purloined letter aspect of this corruption, and saw Trump as a cause, not a symptom. But we are beginning to know better, if we did not sooner, that the systemic undermining of representative bodies into white corporate minority holding companies was the prelude to Trump. In retrospect, a certain inevitability, as we wearily check in on each new news cycle.

What Trump is, is one thing. What is that thing? We need not hesitate to name it any more. But simply calling it fascism isn’t enough. We need to be constantly aware of the madness underlying it. Here is a description.

He is a person who is impulsive in action, likely to do things without thought of consequences or future discomfort to himself or to others. He does not seem capable of learning from experience, and he shows an unusual pattern of intermittent periods of productive activity followed by patently irresponsible actions. He cannot tolerate feelings of frustration as a more normal person can, and he is poorly able to rid himself of feelings except through antisocial activity. . . His self-esteem is very low, and he secretly feels inferior to others and sexually inadequate. These feeling seem to be overcompensated for by dreams of being rich and powerful, a tendency to brag about his exploits, spending sprees when he has money, and dissatisfaction with only the slow advancement he could expect from his job. . . He is uncomfortable in his relationships to other people, and has a pathological inability to form and hold enduring personal attachments. Although he professes usual moral standards he seems obviously uninfluenced by them in his actions. In summary, he shows fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe personality disorder.
This is an excerpt from a psychiatric report not permitted to be admitted into evidence concerning the state of mind of Richard Hickock as he was tried, along with Perry Smith, in March of 1960, for the murder by shotgun of four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas on November 15, 1959. It is taken from the famous account by Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. (New York, Vintage, 1965, p. 295) The reason it was not allowed because of the M’Naghten Rule, taken from English common law, that does not allow for speculation concerning state of mind of a criminal actor beyond whether he or she knows right from wrong. 

It is almost unnecessary to point out that this is an uncannily spot-on description of Trump. Whether one refers to narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, or even psychopathy, for many Americans it seems clear that there is something really wrong with the man. But for others, it may not be so clear, or perhaps it is that the form of Trump’s illness is something that is so widespread in American culture as to be understood as normal behavior by many. Maybe it is a Cold Blood world we are now living in.

In that sense, the pathological elements of Trump’s personality that have been refracted through the right-wing Fox-Breitbart media/fundamentalist Christian/capitalist resonance machine is no longer only an element of our politics, it may have absorbed so much of what we can affectively know about the whole of politics as it is now practiced as the national level, that we are confused as to how to respond. But one thing is clear -- we no longer need to speculate as to whether someone knows that what they do is wrong. We know that the elated hypocrisy of, say, a Mitch McConnell, is a clear indicator of his deep knowledge of the wrongness of what he does. They know what they do.

To follow upon Bill Connolly’s “How DOES A Democracy Die?”, the norm-breaking associated with a pathological personality disorder now is shaping the common sense of American politics. Everyone knows Trumpism is wrong. Everyone who embraces it does so anyway.

The examples abound, and have recently been highlighted by the sickening displays of grandstanding and hypocrisy that marked the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Those hearings were marked by the outrage of a wounded white male, in which the classic myth -- “A” students who captain the basketball team and do charity work cannot possibly be drunken rapists -- found its latest iteration (I experienced this phenomenon at work at Amherst College a few years ago – football players who write honors theses can’t possibly engage in sexual assault, argued the athletic director of the College in response to a column I wrote urging that we look into athletic culture as a problem…) . The outrage of Kavanaugh was immediately echoed by Lindsay Graham at a key moment – “I am a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up. But I won’t be shut up!” he raged. That Trump was able to pick up on this – “our young men are in danger” – and was able to reverse the accusation of the victim – women are destroying innocent men, the democrats are a riotous mob, etc., -- is no surprise. This is now a key element of the ongoing Republican playbook.

It may well be that it will soon be the same playbook for the mirror of the GOP, the Democratic Party.

Sometimes the smallest asides in an ordinary political column most importantly signal the depth of the degradation of party politics, in part because the writers of those notes assume that the fall has become complete. So it would seem, if one of the oldest and most conventional of political journalists is to be believed. I found it in the last line of an op-ed column in the October 11, 2018 New York Times, penned by Thomas Byrne Edsall. Edsall is perhaps one of the most conventional electoral politics reporters of the last thirty years, someone who has patiently traced the rise of corporate monies and their influence on both the Democratic and Republican parties, someone who has fervently believed in the conventions of party politics, and wrung his hands over the years as he has witnessed their fall from (relative) grace.  

In his column, “Is the Rust Belt Still Trump Country?”, he writes, in what feels like a throw away line, “No matter what happens in November, one thing is certain: For the Democrats to beat Trump in 2020, they will need a tough candidate prepared for battle in what has become politics without rules, boundaries or mercy.” In other words, the 2020 presidential election is to be a version of Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves!” In other other words, in response to the psychopathology of Trumpism, all politicians must become psychopaths.

This is not hyperbole. If Thomas Byrd Edsall is writing this way, it is the new common sense. Against which, we need to develop the resources of a new uncommon sense, one of mass protest, flooding of hallways, both real and virtual, and the sort of care of selves that will enable our traumas to become bearable as we seek the resources within ourselves and among ourselves to fight for democracy itself.



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