Note: This column was written in December 2020. I leave it to readers to judge its pertinence in the light of subsequent events.
When the Simpsons’ television was out of commission, singing together seemed like an excellent substitute—that is, until Lisa brought them up short by asking if the family knew any songs that weren’t commercials. For the past four years, Donald Trump has done for our social intercourse what advertising jingles did for the Simpsons. He gave us something to talk about.
During that period, even respectable intellectual fare was often spiced up with a hefty side order of Trump. I have in my hand an informative and insightful essay by the intellectual historian Peter E. Gordon on The Authoritarian Personality, a famous social science project conducted after World War II, in which Theodor Adorno valiantly attempted to correlate psychological measurements with political attitudes. Gordon examines the dissonance between the narrowly empirical, results-oriented goals of the project and Adorno’s more global, ideological displeasure with American culture. In commenting on Adorno’s 1950 essay on Freud and fascist propaganda, Gordon calls attention to intriguing remarks about why many people love a leader precisely because the leader makes no show of loving them. He signals the applicability of these remarks to Trumpism. Gordon’s title is “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump.” The same is true of Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein and featuring an all-star cast of authors. For the most part, they reassure us that traditional coups d’état are unlikely here, given American division of power, the size and localization of the American polity, and other factors. This fine effort, too, comes with obligatory references to our controversial then-president. A few years down the line, will the diligent topicality make these sober discussions appear dated? They feel a bit dated right now.
Not that the Trump phenomenon will rapidly become ancient history—nor will his election and administration become footnotes. Trump is not poised to fade away like the Ford interlude or the one-term chief executives, overshadowed by Congress, who occupied the White House in the late nineteenth century. Quite apart from his executive commissions and omissions, Trump will continue to preoccupy those who talk politics for at least two reasons. The first is his breaking of many taboos and unwritten rules about how a prominent statesman ought to speak and behave. Don’t think that his replacement by a classic lifetime politician will eclipse the last four years. From the onset of his candidacy to the aftermath of his election loss, President Trump has exhibited a style as distinctive as the unusual set of qualifications he brought to the White House. He thus highlighted the fragility of a system that relies heavily on unofficial traditions, assumptions about public civility, and personal magnetism not correlated to the customary attributes of statesmanship.
Then again, Trump mobilized tens of millions of voters on his behalf. Would most of them rally behind any Republican candidate, even an unconventional one? I suppose so. But millions who flocked to Trump’s banner would not have signed on to traditional Republicanism as we have come to know it. These voters do not identify with, and are unimpressed by, boilerplate social, economic, or foreign policy conservativism and its considered intellectual arguments. We are foolish and impractical to pretend otherwise. That is why Donald Trump continues to fascinate his detractors as much as his admirers.
Politics is a great American spectator sport: How will we manage without him? In a preelection podcast on Torah, politics, and civility sponsored by my university, I asked the virtual audience what they would talk about when they don’t have Trump to talk about anymore. Some were happy to move on: In fact, they attended my talk because they felt isolated in overheated family or communal confrontations and wanted to be told that one-sidedness and incivility are not normative features of political discussion. Others said that their socializing had continued to revolve around well-established subjects like Talmud, Torah, food, and tuition. But some admitted that they would miss having Trump to kick around.
Those New York Times vignettes about disastrous holiday visits and families torn apart by voting preferences may not pertain to most people. Nonetheless, it seems the past half-century has witnessed a coarsening and “weaponization” of political debate, both among the visible elites and among the people we meet in real life. The impact of this tendency goes beyond the sphere of politics and its votaries; it touches the fabric of our social relations. Take an area I know: A generation or two ago, clergy fastidiously shunned partisan endorsements from the pulpit. Nowadays such vehement, blatant interventions are common. As congregations become more homogeneous, those who dislike the preacher’s line are presumed to worship elsewhere, if at all. This situation is not good for religion or for civility and it provokes thoughts of drastic remedies.
Civility, I was told as a child, meant staying away from two potentially offensive subjects: politics and religion. This piece of wisdom was not invented in the immigrant world of 1950s Brooklyn; it has been attributed to the sardonic Flaubert. My father, I am pleased to recall, did not adhere scrupulously to these taboos. But a lifetime later, I wonder whether the aspiring bourgeois of yesteryear had a point after all.
No, I don’t want the anodyne diet of small talk, as Prufrock says, “measured out in coffee spoons.” What is social life without serious discussion of worldly topics, however controversial? Let us not forget that political questions and sometimes even partisan politics may be urgent enough to impinge on our spiritual preoccupations and responsibilities. Nonetheless, precisely because the questions are serious, they may belong in thoughtful settings that facilitate the moments of grace when we come close to explaining ourselves to each other. To do so requires us to avoid resorting to “hot” topics as a way of making casual social encounters more voluble. In such an atmosphere, we will have to make the effort to be better informed and more soberly reflective. Inevitably, we will also have to question why various political issues are important to us, and why and when they are worth arguing about.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.