As a writer, I have to confess that I’m in kind of a strange place at the moment. Much of what I’m seeing in the news just doesn’t interest me… which may just mean it’s summer. Everybody’s desire for serious, intellectually challenging news sinks a bit in the summer, which means journalists produce less of it, which compounds the drought for commentators.
But then there are the things that seem just too big for the sort of commentary for which I have time, not the least because of the time it would take me to figure out what’s right and how to articulate that conclusion.
Yesterday, for example, the Newport Daily News ran a prominent op-ed by Beth Coye titled, “The president is the enemy of the people”:
What must be done? Now is the time for Americans, especially current and former public servants, to defend our constitutional government. Leaders and organizations must speak directly to the American people about this dangerous domestic threat to our nation.
What does one do with that? Certainly, the topic spins off of President Donald Trump’s tabloid-style spats with the mainstream media, but Trump doesn’t include an “and so.” Here is a former Naval officer coming close to calling for a coup of the duly elected President of the United States. How do we come back from this ledge?
On a very different topic with interesting, inverted parallels, Pope Francis appears to have single handedly changed the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty. Entirely apart from the narrow policy issue, the pope simply can’t do that. In proposing a sort of evolution of doctrine, he is setting up a situation in which either the present embodiment of the magisterium is incorrect or past embodiments were. Yes, prudential applications of absolute truth can change, but if they aren’t consistent with truths drawn from scripture and revelation, then the claims of scripture and revelation fall apart. Moreover, this ground-shaking action from the pope comes just as more earth slides out from under the Church’s feet.
The president and the pope are herein only providing two examples that have been prominent over the past few days. Everywhere — at every level of community — we’re seeing this complete erosion of bedrock principles. The world seems to have veered off course, somewhere.
I had a similar thought, the other day, while listening to Jonah Goldberg’s conversation with David Bahnsen on The Remnant podcast, in which the two agreed that the president’s behavior does matter. We can’t accept the excuse that the other side does some immoral thing, so we have to do it, too.
Superficially enough, what came to mind was Rhode Island native Richard Hatch’s victory on the first season of Survivor — the breakthrough reality show. I found that outcome shocking and discouraging because Hatch had lied and manipulated his way to the million-dollar prize, and he drew others to affirm his reasoning, which I can paraphrase pretty closely as: “We had some really genuine personal interactions, but this is a game, and I had to betray you to win.”
No!, I thought-shouted at the TV. These things matter. How people in the public eye behave matters. The principle that a game — even one with big economic stakes — should be subordinate to genuine personal interactions matters. Otherwise, every relationship is a betrayal awaiting a big enough payout.
It matters that the president so easily and conspicuously abandons principle. Yet, he is the symptom, and the legitimate excuse of his supporters isn’t limited to the observation that the political Left fights to win by any means necessary.
The problem is that we ordinary people have realized that our elites, far from modeling good behavior, have been taking advantage of our values to treat society as a game to get what they wanted. At least Richard Hatch was honest about it. On a society-wide scale, the people who presume to rule the world use their advantages to hide it, and now (maybe because of the Internet) the people have caught on, and… Trump.
If we’re to get reality back on track, things will have to matter again, and we’ll all have to be able to trust that expressed agreements about process and principle are genuine. Belief in freedom of speech, for example, has to be honestly shared, not just contingently agreed upon until one party has the upper hand. (Perhaps the only way is to ensure that no party ever really has the upper hand in perpetuity.)
In the meantime, though, if we are just factions choosing champions to fight the dirty fight, we can’t reject the choice. Whatever else one might say about him, President Trump exposes the actual rifts between and beliefs of the factions; he attracts a high degree of scrutiny; and his judicial picks and policies (on balance) move power away from the centralized government that makes every election a fight or die battle.