So the first lady, Melania Trump, tweets a picture of herself and her husband Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, holding an infant boy whose parents were killed, while shielding his body during the domestic terrorist massacre in El Paso, Texas. Both the President and the First Lady are smiling — the President is also making his trademark “thumbs-up” gesture, and his ear-to-ear rictus is closer to self-satisfied grimace than a mere grin. Here is a re-tweet of it:
In addition it turns out that the infant was discharged from the hospital and brought back, courtesy his Trump-supporting uncle, for a photo-op. The uncle (on the left of the photo) seems glad to be posing with the First Couple; the woman on the right, less so.
More context is necessary: the President’s entourage barred the press from covering or photographing the event. Later on, the President shared what was essentially a propaganda video on Twitter, casting his visit to the Dayton (not Toledo) and El Paso hospitals in the best possible light. Consider though, that none of the patients still hospitalized in El Paso wanted Mr. and Mrs. Trump to visit them. Consider too that hospital officials in El Paso described Trump’s demeanor as “lacking empathy”, in that he was more concerned with the size of the crowds during his rally, last month, as compared with those drawn by Beto O’Rourke, than the agonies of the victims and their families. And — icing on the cake — aides claimed that afterwards Trump was upset that the stage-managed coverage of his visits was not more congenial to him.
Look at that photo in the tweet again. Take your time.
Some commentators have described the demeanor of the President and the First Lady (and please do not redescribe her as “more empathetic” than her husband, please!) as “ghoulish.” After all, the trips to Dayton and El Paso were intended to be a voyage of consolation and healing to the bereaved and the cities in which these horrors occurred. Smiles like these are inappropriate, to be sure. But they are not so much “ghoulish” as beneath ghoulish.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a “ghoul” as:
[O]ne who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive…
A ghoul would be happy to see horrors such as those that occurred in Dayton and El Paso. Ghouls rejoice in murder and mayhem. They would exhibit glee at the mangled bodies, the rivers of blood, the howls of the relatives and friends of the victims. They revel in horror. Ghoulishness recalls the Chas. Addams cartoon of movie goers in tears because of what is happening on screen while “Gomez” is snickering. It recalls the Joker convulsed in laughter while slaughtering innocents. Repulsiveness is perversely delighting for the ghoul.
What is going on with the so called “first family” is somewhat different. Far from delighting in the suffering, they are totally oblivious to it, glowing in the attention they are getting for merely being around. They know that intense agony is going on, but it does not matter at all to them. It is instead an occasion for self-congratulation. It is an opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
This is not ghoulishness. The victims and their families don’t matter enough for the Trumps to take pleasure in their suffering. They are not ghouls. They are beneath all that. To call them mere ghouls would be a compliment.
None of this is news, nor should it surprise anyone. From the praising-with-faint-damns of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists of the Charlottesville fiasco, to the thinly-veiled incitements to violence of the recent Florida rally, the fact that Trump and his enablers are deeply complicit with violent evil, even rejoicing in it, is an established fact. What is new is the lack of national nausea at this horror. We have been numbed to it all. Which, I think, is clearly what Trump and his orcs in the Republican Party have intended all along.
It is easy to excoriate them. (Not that they don’t deserve excoriation.) All too easy. They make it easy. Which is problematic, since it distracts us from a more fundamental question: what kind of nation is it that could elect a soul as sick as Donald Trump — someone who makes Richard Nixon or George W. Bush seem saintly by comparison — and not begin to suspect a malignancy in the body politic at large?
I do not want to hear “well I did not vote for him!” You may well have not voted for him. I certainly didn’t; neither did pretty much anyone whom I respect. This is not about “us” as individuals: it is, however, about us as citizens. John Locke, arguably the political philosopher most responsible for the style and substance of American liberal republican democracy, spoke of “tacit consent”, the idea that popular sovereignty rests upon a political community legitimating the ruling status quo merely by accepting it, by its silence. Did we consent to this? Well, we are not exactly raising hell about it, are we?
We let it slide when things got bad and then worse. We let it slide when, from Nixon through Reagan and Clinton and Bush-2, the rights and responsibilities of a liberal democratic republican citizenry were chipped away, for the sake of plutocrats, of neoliberal wags, of warmongers, and now of bluntly fascist demagogues. We have confirmed the worst suspicions of Plato and Aristotle, that the chief and inevitable accomplishment of democracies is to make it easy for demagogues to become tyrants, with applause from many of those tyrannized. This was not supposed to happen, nor was it fore-ordained that it would happen. We let it happen. We did not want to be bothered.
Free-floating, nebulous guilt is hardly ever a good thing: it solves nothing and dissuades one from making restitution — what can be done anyway? Yet I think that it is time for the citizens of The United States of America to do some soul searching and maybe conclude that we kind of screwed things up, big time, and were in denial for a long time. This did not have to happen. “Conservatives” — and for the life of me I do not know what American “conservatives” actually wish to conserve, other than white cis hetero male privilege and economic power — willingly embraced this sub-ghoulishness. Liberals thought that one could make America “nicer” without actually addressing its founding flaws: the worship of mammon and its taste for empire. Leftists were too busy sniping at each other to anticipate that maybe, just maybe, Trump could win, absorb the Republican Party as his own LLC, and outmaneuver the opposition at every turn. We were asleep. We now have to confront the possibility, maybe the reality, that The United States of America has embraced its inner sub-ghoul.
Routing the Republicans in 2020 may be a necessary condition for exorcising this demon, but it is far, far, FAR from sufficient. There is much to admire in Joe Biden, and much to deplore, but his conviction that “getting rid of Trump” in 2020 is all that needs to be done to return to normalcy, i.e., the Obama interregnum, is flatly delusional. That ship has sailed. The old normal wasn’t all that normal. And there is no “normal” anymore.
In short it may be time for “patriotism” to undergo a sea-change. If The United States of America is a project, a hope, and an ideal, then it is time to resolutely confront the fact that the actually existing USA has become deeply out of sync with these desiderata, and that the only patriotic way to conserve the project, hope, and ideal is through a major, radical overhaul. Trump and his cohort are sub-ghouls, but they may well be effects of a deeper national sub-ghoulishness that needs to be identified and then excised. This is a mammoth task, and a vexing task, but an unavoidable one. A new Second American Republic, if you will, needs to come to pass. But before the phoenix can rise again, it needs to turn its old self to dust. Not a pleasant thought, but perhaps a realistic one.