Thoughts from Eulogy: how July revealed an altered face of public discourse
Historians of the future will likely have a bookmark permanently settled in the pages recounting July 2018’s Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki.
Speculations abound over what was said during the two presidents’ one-on-one meeting, which was followed by a joint press conference in which Trump appeared to accept Vladimir Putin’s denial of election meddling—despite claims to the contrary by US intelligence services.
And how was this met by senior members of the Republican Party?
In the most appropriate manner, of course, and with the use of all the right words. Long-standing GOP heavyweight John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan issued swift condemnations of the president’s remarks.
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”, said John McCain, as he accused Trump of “naivety, egotism, false equivalence and a sympathy for autocrats”. Paul Ryan took the occasion to remind the president that “Russia is not an ally”, and that he should be focused on “putting an end to its vile attacks on our democracy”.
None of this is surprising. McCain may have astounded the world by selecting Sarah Palin as running mate for his 2008 president campaign, and Ryan, it is true, has a rather curious fixation on the works of Ayn Rand and the radical self-interest her Objectivist movement encourages.
Yet there is little to suggest that either has ever strayed significantly from the norms of American foreign policy – particularly towards Russia, or for the matter, North Korea.
One of the most revealing elements of this whole episode, though, is that such rebukes of the president’s conduct no longer seem to matter to the party base. An Axiom/Survey Monkey poll found that 76% of Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of the Russian president.
If this seems normal, imagine what the American public’s response might have been if President Obama had acted in this way. Similar condemnation would have come from the likes of McCain and Ryan, of course, but this would have simply reflected the wider sentiment among the electorate.
Even Obama’s attempt at jump-starting diplomatic relations with Iran was considered a form of appeasement towards an enemy. One can only wonder what the reaction would have been if he had ignored his own intelligence service’s directions when dealing with Russia, long seen by the US as its chief antagonist even in the post-Soviet Union international order.
This is what’s particularly salient about the election of Donald Trump: it has literally changed how we talk about things. More importantly, it has revealed just how fragile the norms of public discourse truly are.
We can see how deep the impact is by observing similar shifts in public discourse that extend beyond the sphere of diplomatic relations between nations or deeply embedded assumptions about world order. To take a seemingly trivial example, reflect on the controversy generated in the lead-up to Sacha Baron Cohen’s new television series, ‘Who is America?’.
Even before the first episode aired, public figures duped into accepting an interview with the comedian pre-empted the broadcast to announce deep ethical concerns over the manner in which he had done so. Sarah Palin was the first, alleging that Baron Cohen had disguised himself as a disabled US veteran to secure her interview. On Facebook, she expressed moral outrage:
“Mock politicians and innocent public personalities all you want, if that lets you sleep at night, but HOW DARE YOU mock those who have fought and served our country. Truly sick.”
Her remarks made a global media splash, with practically every major news outlet in the US and UK covering the story. But none of it resonated with the public in either country. There were no social media mobs of the sort we have seen in recent years, attempting to hound a public figure out of a job for having said or done something it regards as being untoward.
Because in 2015, the current occupant of the White House uttered these words about Senator John McCain, who was subjected to severe torture as a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War:
“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.”
So, when Sarah Palin, who threw her weight behind Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, laments the ‘mockery’ of US veterans by a comedian, it just doesn’t carry the same sting that it would have a few years ago. It registers as hypocrisy in the minds of some, while to others, it clearly doesn’t matter enough – they still supported Trump.
True, there is benefit in dismantling some of the most brazen hypocrisies in American political discourse. And yes, ending the phoney reverence politicians render unto veterans, many of whom fall into destitution on their return from combat, could be a sign of change that is both needed and healthy.
But it depends on the circumstances in which that happens. It’s hard to see how a breakdown in civility, or the strengthening of relations with autocrats, is a way to inject moral clarity into how we interact with each other or relate to world events.
It’s not that the norms of public discourse simply broke down this July. The events of last month shone a light on its altered face. Is the change permanent?
If anything, the lesson here is that these norms, on echelons that vary from international relations to light entertainment, can be upended much faster than they are ever established. On a bright note, it means that real change is possible and can sweep through a culture and society in a short amount of time. But it is a stark reminder of how hard we have to work to preserve what we value.