The political and media establishments in the U.S. — which have jointly wrought so much destruction, decay, and decadence — recently decided to unite against Donald Trump. Their central claim is that the real estate mogul and longtime NBC reality TV star advocates morally reprehensible positions that are far outside the bounds of decency; relatedly, they argue, he is so personally repellent that his empowerment would degrade both the country and the presidency.
In some instances, their claim is plausible: There is at least genuine embarrassment if not revulsion even among America’s political class over Trump’s proposed mass deportation of 11 million human beings, banning of all Muslims from entering the country, and new laws to enable him to more easily sue (and thus destroy) media outlets that “falsely” criticize him. And his signature personality brew of deep-seated insecurities, vindictive narcissism, channeling of the darkest impulses, and gaudy, petty boasting is indeed uniquely grotesque.
But in many cases, probably most, the flamboyant denunciations of Trump by establishment figures make no sense except as self-aggrandizing pretense, because those condemning him have long tolerated if not outright advocated very similar ideas, albeit with less rhetorical candor. Trump is self-evidently a toxic authoritarian demagogue advocating morally monstrous positions, but in most cases where elite outrage is being vented, he is merely a natural extension of the mainstream rhetorical and policy framework that has been laid, not some radical departure from it. He’s their id. What establishment mavens most resent is not what Trump is, does, or says, but what he reflects: the unmistakable, undeniable signs of late-stage imperial collapse, along with the resentments and hatreds they have long deliberately and self-servingly stoked but which are now raging out of their control.
Two of the most recent, widely discussed anti-Trump outrage rituals — one from Wednesday and the other from last night’s Fox News debate — demonstrate the sham at the heart of the establishment display of horror. This week, American political and media figures from across the spectrum stood and applauded a tawdry cast of neocons and other assorted warmongers who are responsible for grave war crimes, torture, kidnappings, due process-free indefinite imprisonment, and the worst political crime of this generation: the attack on and destruction of Iraq.
These five dozen or so extremists (calling themselves “members of the Republican national security community”) were the toast of the town because they published an “open letter” denouncing Trump on the ground that his “own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.” This was one of their examples:
His embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable.
Most decent human beings, by definition, would express this sentiment without including the qualifying word “expansive.” Even Ronald Reagan, whom virtually all the signatories claim to idolize, advocated for and signed a treaty in 1988 that stated that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever … may be invoked as a justification of torture” and that “each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under its criminal law.” The taboo is on “all acts of torture,” not its “expansive use” — whatever that means.
But the group signing this anti-Trump letter can’t pretend to find an embrace of torture itself to be “inexcusable” because most of them implemented torture policies while in government or vocally advocated for them. So instead, they invoke the Goldilocks Theory of Torture: We believe in torture up to exactly the right point, while Trump is disgraceful because he wants to go beyond that; he believes in “the expansive use of torture.” The same dynamic drove yesterday’s widely cheered speech by Mitt Romney, where the two-time failed GOP candidate denounced Trump for advocating torture while literally ignoring his own clear pro-torture viewpoints.
Here we see the elite class agreeing to pretend that Trump is advocating views that are inherently disqualifying when — thanks to those doing the denouncing — those views are actually quite mainstream, even popular, among both the American political class and its population. Torture was the official American policy for years. It went way beyond waterboarding. One Republican president ordered it and his Democratic successor immunized it from all forms of accountability, ensuring that not a single official would be prosecuted for authorizing even the most extreme techniques, ones that killed people — or even allowed to be sued by their victims.
Many of the high officials most responsible for that torture regime and who defended it — from Condoleezza Rice and John Brennan — remain not just acceptable in mainstream circles but hold high office and are virtually revered. And, just by the way, both of Trump’s main rivals — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — refuse to rule out classic torture techniques as part of their campaign. In light of all that, who takes seriously the notion that Trump’s advocacy of torture — including techniques beyond waterboarding — places him beyond the American pale? To the contrary, it places him within its establishment mainstream.
Then there’s the outrage du jour from last night. A couple of weeks ago, George W. Bush’s NSA and CIA chief, Gen. Michael Hayden, claimed that members of the military would never follow Trump’s orders if it meant committing war crimes such as torturing detainees or killing a terrorist’s family members (perish the thought). When asked about this last night, Trump insisted that the U.S. military would do so: “They’re not going to refuse. Believe me,” he said. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is about.” Of all the statements Trump made last night, this was the one most often cited by pundits as being the most outrageous, shocking, disgusting, etc. Even bona fide war criminals such as the Bush White House’s pro-invasion and torture propagandist got in on the moral outrage act:
Trump is wrong when he says military will do whatever he tells them. They'll resign before carrying out what they think is an illegal order.
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) March 4, 2016
But is there any doubt that Trump is right about this? Throughout the 14-year war on terror, a handful of U.S. military members have bravely and nobly refused to take part in, or vocally denounced, policies that are clear war crimes. But there was no shortage of people in the military, the CIA, and working for private American contractors who dutifully carried out the most heinous abuses and war criminality. The military official in charge of investigating war on terror policies, Gen. Antonio Taguba, said this in 2008:
After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.
In 2009, Gen. Barry McCaffrey said, “We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.” The notion that the U.S. intelligence and military community will collectively rise up in defiance of the commander-in-chief if they are ordered to obey polices that are illegal is just laughable.
It’s obviously a pleasing fiction to believe — it produces nice, nationalistic feelings of nobility — but everything in the past decades proves that Trump is right when he says, “They’re not going to refuse.” Some likely would, but nowhere near enough to preclude the policies being carried out. In fact, the primary argument used to justify immunizing America’s torturers is that they were just following orders as approved by John Yoo and company: reflecting a moral code that dictates that, even when it comes to plainly illegal policies, obedience is preferable to defiance.
Then there’s the feigned horror over Trump’s proposal to kill the family members of terrorists. Though they claim they don’t do it deliberately, the fact is that this is something both the U.S. and Israel, among others, have routinely done for years: They repeatedly bomb people’s homes or work places, killing innocent people including family members, and then justify it on the ground that a terrorist was among them. While they claim they don’t target terrorists’ family members, they certainly target their homes and other places family members are certain to be found.
When a U.S. drone strike in 2011 killed the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, and then another drone strike two weeks later killed his 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman (who nobody claimed was involved with terrorism), former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs justified it this way:
If you really think you can locate fine distinctions — we merely keep killing the children, spouses, and other family members over and over by accident, not by purposely targeting — at least don’t pretend that what Trump is advocating is something our civilized minds have never previously encountered. He may be more gauche for saying it aloud and gleefully justifying it rather than feigning sorrow over it, but the substance of what he’s saying — despicable though it is — is hardly categorically different from what the U.S. government and its closest allies actually do over and over. And that’s to say nothing of the unpleasant fact that we’re all now supposed to ignore lest we be smeared as Trump supporters: that even as he advocates clear war crimes, he also, in some important cases, is advocating policies and approaches less militaristic and warmongering than not only his GOP rivals, but the war-loving leading Democratic candidate as well.
As for his starkly disgusting personal qualities, none of these is new. Anyone who has lived in New York has known for decades that this is who and what Donald Trump is. And yet he was fully integrated within and embraced by America’s circles of power and celebrity, including by those who now want to pretend to find him so hideously offensive. As the New York Times put it in December, “For years, President Bill Clinton was the best friend Donald J. Trump always hoped to have.”
One can argue, with some validity, that there’s value in collectively denouncing the most extreme expressions of imperial violence and war criminality in the context of a national election, even if it’s tinged with some inconsistency and hypocrisy. That’s fine, provided doing so does not serve to consecrate feel-good fantasies about American government and society. Finding a villain we can collectively condemn by consensus is a natural tribalistic desire: Declaring someone uniquely evil and then denouncing him is an affirmation of one’s own virtue. It feels good. As an excellent New York Times op-ed last week by psychology researchers at Yale explained, “human beings have an appetite for moral outrage” because it’s often “a result of a system that has evolved to boost our individual reputations.”
Collective moral condemnation can be genuinely valuable if it’s grounded in honest moral line-drawing. But when it’s driven largely by self-delusion and self-glorification — by the fiction that what is being condemned resides in a different moral universe rather than just a couple of degrees farther down the road — it can be quite destructive: ennobling that which is decisively ignoble.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a tidal wave of establishment denunciations of Donald Trump. It’s now not only easy to do but virtually obligatory. But very few of those denunciations contain any real examination of what accounts for his popularity and appeal: why a message grounded in contempt for the establishment resonates so strongly, why anxiety and anger levels are so high that the ground is so fertile for the angry strongman persona he represents. That’s because answering that question requires what U.S. establishment guardians most fear and hate: self-examination.