On a Tweet-Drizzle on Trump’s Honest Dishonesty

I suspect many poll respondents do not separate “appearance of emotional authenticity” from “verbal approximation of factual truth” in polls such as the one Mr. Bouie finds “bewildering,” in which “45% see [Trump] as honest and trustworthy, but it goes lower, to 36%, for Clinton.” Setting aside, as we must in order to comment on the political campaigns, the encompassing inanity of the terms of discussion, we can further observe that the answer “he is more honest” replicates the same pattern: The answer itself may be an “honest” as in “honestly dishonest” answer in the minds of such respondents, meaning they can both “honestly” and “dishonestly-honestly” judge Trump “honestly a liar,” a liar true to himself as a liar, while Clinton remains for them a “dishonest truthteller.”1

Bouie is hardly alone in his mystification. In an essay from May2, David Frum predicted that the reaction to Trump’s dishonesty, or his honest dishonesty, would be “the hardest [part of this story] to explain after it’s all over”: 

Trump did not deceive anyone. Unlike, say, Sarah Palin in 2008, Trump appeared before the electorate in his own clothes, speaking his own words. When he issued a promise, he instantly contradicted it. If you chose to accept the promise anyway, you did so with abundant notice of its worthlessness. For all the times Trump said believe me and trust me in his salesman patter, he communicated constantly and in every medium that there was only thing you could believe and trust: If you voted for Donald Trump, you’d get Donald Trump, in all his Trumpery and Trumpiness.

Trump may be relentlessly mendacious, but he is not simply mendacious, or, to put it paradoxically, and not for the last time, he is so simply and obviously dishonest that there is, in this sense, no question of his honesty and openness. As Frum puts it, Trump “appear[s] in his own clothes, speaking his own words.” He gives “abundant notice.” Trump voters know that they will get the authentic Donald Trump.

This paradoxical conversion into a version of virtue, of a diametrical opposite of virtue may in a lover or an artist or in the daily life of a citizen of this world count as a necessity, perhaps a dreadful necessity or nothing honorable in the old sense. In a leader the quality is contrary to the minimal functional requirements for any form of non-tyrannical governance, especially to those of a self-governing liberal-democratic republic. This disrelation between Trumpism and rational political discourse makes it incompatible with American-ideological conservatism, which means to be reasonable, but not with the reductive, likewise emotionally rather than rationally authentic version of American-national conservatism, the conservatism that would be conservatism for us because we recognize it and the recognition of it, and so on, as altogether ours and ourselves all together.

The rump of faithful “movement conservatives” among the politerati strenuously insist that Trump is not authentically a conservative, and will have in mind his lacking commitment to small government or other elements of Reagan Era dogma. Yet we cannot say that Trump’s firstly and even only emotionally authentic form of conservatism is not a conservatism at all. The Trumpian conservatism that is conservatism because people who call themselves conservative deem it to be and thus convince their enemies as well to call them by that name connects here to the simplistic nationalism of the alt-right, the traditional conservatism of attachment to “one’s own,” however “one’s own” defines itself (always circularly: how one defines oneself pre-determines how one may define oneself): Thymos, emotional energy of collective self-assertion, the generation of the something worth dying for out of itself, is also authentically conservable.

Where we seem to differ, or are not in fact all together, is over what “our own” can and should be, not over its indispensability, which would be the indispensability of us to ourselves, whoever we are or manage to find in the historical mirror. The merely or mainly emotionally authentic nation is and cannot be the state from which the citizen expects reason strictly, or the liberal state, but that latter state cannot be at all without knowing that other, its contradiction, as also itself.

Notes:

  1. My own drizzle of tweets replying to Bouie and Digby, on which this post expands, can be found here. []
  2. Donald Trump and the Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy – The Atlantic []

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