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Robert Jay Lifton and Nancy Rosenblum, New York Daily News. Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and author of “Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.” Nancy Rosenblum is an emeritus professor at Harvard University and coauthor of “A Lot of People Are Saying: the New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”
In June 1954, Army counsel Joseph Welch galvanized our country when he turned to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the notoriously corrupt crusader against alleged Communists, and declared, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy had falsely claimed that Welch’s young colleague was a Communist traitor. Welch went on: “Until this moment, senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”
Welch’s moral summing up came after 30 days of the McCarthy investigation hearings. It has taken longer to bring moral judgment to bear on President Donald Trump. Of course, ethical matters have been implicit in innumerable criticisms of Trump: his routine lying, his violation of fundamental political norms, his disregard for constitutional limits, his blatant obstruction of the coming election, his errant policies and taste for chaos.
But we clarify and deepen our judgment of Trump by bringing to it a specifically moral dimension. There are, of course, a multitude of vices of character, religious and secular, that could apply, as well as elaborate systems of ethical principles. Yet Welch’s trio — indecency, cruelty and recklessness — take us to the heart of the matter. They emphasize that Trump’s immorality, enhanced by his enablers, degrades democracy in America.
We begin with indecency. Trump’s modus vivendi is to taint and defame fellow Americans, precisely because they exhibit decency and fair-mindedness — people like Sen. John McCain, the grieving Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, honorable career officials like ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Anyone admired who is not admiring of him is liable to be attacked in repugnant terms. Truth-tellers who question him — journalists or scientists — are met with unremitting assaults on their honesty and professional reputation. Trump also levels vicious attacks on entire groups, including immigrants, protesters and Democratic “scum.”
Presidential indecency radiates throughout society. Its distinctive damage to democracy is that it sets an all-pervasive environment of disrespect and dehumanization. Trump’s targets are divested of every dimension of fellow citizenship. His unrestrained attacks remove inhibitions on violence. They suppress the negotiations and mutuality that democracy assumes and cannot work without.
Cruelty goes further. It lies in his infliction of pain and suffering. Trump seeks not only to combat but to destroy those he sees as opponents. He seeks to bring about a break in their life trajectory: separating immigrant children from their parents, firing a career professional who turns whistleblower. There is lethal cruelty in his insistence on opening up society in the face of resurgent outbreaks of COVID-19: his readiness to sacrifice for his personal electoral advantage thousands of people who will sicken and die from the virus.
As a result, people in public life fear his power to destroy their careers, and ordinary citizens fear his erratic and destructive behavior and the harm it may do them. A fearful citizenry becomes passive, immobilized and isolated.
Recklessness, or carelessness, consists of Trump’s complete lack of concern about the consequences of his speech and actions for others. It amplifies indecency and cruelty. Taking the word careless literally, we can say that our president fails to take care of the people and institutions of his country. The result of presidential carelessness is to make all policies ad hoc, all institutions disordered, all public expectations of continuity disrupted.
We see this, again, most clearly in his pandemic response, including Trump’s advocacy of the ineffective and dangerous drug hydroxychloroquine, disparagement of medical authorities, encouraging followers to reject elementary precautions like wearing masks, and most reckless of all, provoking protests for “liberation” from public health imperatives.
Trump’s indecency, cruelty and carelessness have no limits. It leads to our judgment that not only Trump’s discrete acts but the man and his entire presidency are immoral and a disaster for democracy. Directly confronting America’s descent into immorality is a necessary step in national renewal.