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The Decency Trap

Framing indecency as uniquely Trumpian carries major political risks.

The Democratic National Convention made one thing clear: 2020 is shaping up to be the “decency” election.

The word was everywhere. Joe Biden, it was promised, would return “decency and normalcy” to America. Biden himself said that decency was “on the ballot.” The media coverage emphasized this too; “Joe’s Fearsome Weapon Against Trump: Simple Decency,” read the headline on Maureen Dowd’s column. The best reason for electing Biden, according to this message, is not what he will do. It’s who he will be.

This might be good politics, at least in the short term, but we should think very, very carefully about how far we want to go down this road.

It’s easy to see why Democrats are pushing so hard on the decency front. There are plenty of things that repulse people about Trump and the Republicans—anti-democratic, white nationalist, fundamentalist crooks dedicated to sending the planet down the tubes tend to arouse a healthy level of disapproval—but I think that Trump’s essential lack of basic humanity is what really tips many people over the edge.

Most people have some core human instincts that they can visibly tap into. They can show kindness to others. They can project grief or joy or love. They enjoy music, television, art, sports, something.

Trump has none of these abilities. His seemingly boundless capacity for narcissism and cruelty is clear, but it’s deeper—almost weirder—than that. There is a kind of blank space where a recognizable person should be. Trump doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t even like animals. There’s just nothing there. It’s unsettling and unmooring to witness. It makes people feel insane.

In 2016, Trump was able to convince enough (white) people that he would use this pathological personality to lift them up and destroy their (Black, Muslim, immigrant) enemies. And even as he and his party enacted an agenda of intense brutality against anyone who isn’t white and wealthy in this country, it remained quite possible that he could use the same playbook to win again in 2020. Now, though, nearly 180,000 people have died from COVID, and Trump’s inability to even pretend that he gives a shit has put that mission in mortal peril. Presumably, he will make some half-hearted, scripted attempt to mourn the dead at the Republican National Convention, which kicks off tonight, but this will likely be swamped by the convention’s more fascist exertions.

Enter Biden. The core promise that the DNC made to the country had little to do with the economy, or climate change, or even race in America. It was simply that there would be a nice person in the White House—someone who is moved by loss, who loves and is loved in return, who cherishes his children and his wife, who cares about literally anything besides himself. Someone, in other words, with an iota of decency.

It’s a message that works on a gut level, because Trump is such a sorry excuse for a human being. (Yes, you find yourself thinking, it would be nice to have someone running the country who doesn’t have the kind of personality traits you usually find in psychological studies of serial killers.) Biden, meanwhile, is clearly devoted to his family. He is in touch with his emotions. He is kind and sensitive towards kids who stutter like he did.

But here is where the message starts to break down a little bit—and it’s where such an intense emphasis on abstract qualities like decency begin to get dangerous.

For starters, everyone seems to have memory-holed Biden’s alleged history of—at best—inappropriate contact with several women. But fine, I’ll set that aside, since it appears that nobody cares. Let’s just focus on the broader question of decency.

Personal decency is certainly meaningful in public life. It’s good to be decent to others, and having a president who lacks Trump’s penchant for constant public cruelty would be a welcome change. But all of that means little if you don’t do decent things with the power you’ve been given, and our current emphasis on this relatively limited definition of decency and humanity carries grave risks, because it allows politicians—including Joe Biden—to get away with profoundly indecent acts.

Biden’s love for his family did not prevent him from spearheading the system of mass incarceration that has destroyed so many families in this country. The loss of his beloved son to cancer has not dissuaded him from his core support of America’s inhumane healthcare system. Barack Obama’s personal kindness was no barrier to his administration’s record deportations and mass drone strikes. The decency and integrity so many people have suddenly found residing in George W. Bush were not on display when he unleashed an orgy of blood and torture in the Middle East, or let New Orleans sink into the sea. Ronald Reagan’s supposed humility and optimism were not in evidence to the AIDS victims he ignored for years.

These are all acts of vast cruelty, but they keep getting pushed to the background in favor of a comparatively shallow desire for powerful people to be nicer at funerals. This makes a certain amount of sense—being nice at funerals is good!—but it is the very least we should demand of our political leaders, and it signals to them that, as long as they say a few of the right things at the right moments, they can paper over one misdeed after another.

Everyone who is currently going all in for decency should also reflect on the message that might send to Republicans if Trump loses. The party’s core goals of white nationalist revanchism and oligarchy preceded Trump, and they will outlast him. Imagine what Republicans might pull off if they find a candidate who clears the low bar of “not a complete sociopath,” and can successfully return enough white people to the fold to get back in power. After all, they already rehabilitated a string of blood-soaked war criminals without even trying. Democrats left the door wide open for them.

“Decency” is not nothing, and getting someone as relentlessly indecent as Trump out of office will feel like a breath of fresh air. But when we cling to decency above all else, we are setting ourselves up to be misled by the people ruling over us. We are asking to be scammed. And we are betraying the people whose lives will be ruined because of the things that supposedly “decent” politicians do.

Screenshot: PBS