The Uncouth. It is the movement of the great Uncouth that is taking over the world before our very eyes. Rude, lacking in good manners and grace, coarse, loutish, boorish, says the dictionary, lacking a context which subsumes the notion that such a quality is simply antisocial, or asocial.
What Trump and Putin have in common is their M.O. For Putin, this involves the cruel and, well, uncouth brutality exercised in the name of a nationalistic, imperialistic oligarchy by the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents in Crimea or Syria, and who knows where next.
Trump is comfortable with this sort of thing. It’s the model he’s used in building his business empire. He’s a fundamentally anti-small business, anti-labor charlatan who has profited by using deception and lies to exploit the honest labor and contractual commitments of scores and scores of little guys.
There is a frightening ideological and behavioral camaraderie between these two thugs, birds of a feather. But by comparison, Trump is a pie-eyed amateur. Putin with his deep KGB training in techniques honed over many centuries of soulless oligarchical dominion has poor Trump wrapped around his pinky, according to the recent intelligence reports, compromised beyond redemption.
The serious misgivings about Trump’s cozy relations with Putin deserve far more cautionary alarms. What we have here is a devil’s compact that threatens our society’s most valued dispositions toward democracy and all that concept entails.
First, there’s the passionate advocacy of democratic values that our Founding Fathers embraced as part of an Enlightenment century of resolute, epistemological commitment to humanist virtues, including the abolition of any shards of monarchy, on behalf of a genuine universal conception of the common destiny of humanity on this planet.
(I honestly believe that President Obama evolved over the course of his presidency to conform more and more with this point of view, as both Lincoln and FDR did before him, as well. To the degree he did, the president was blessed with a kind of clarity about our national purpose that might not have been so clear to him before, and was fully on display in his inspired “Farewell Address” from Chicago this week and other signature speeches such as his to the United Nations last fall.)
Secondly, there’s a kind of shallow liberal accommodation to a conception of democracy that an overlord class of elites permits, at least in appearance, for the sake of social control. This unhappy arrangement is undergirded by strong police and military constraints as elites often argue among themselves about the extent and degree to which the appearances of democracy should be allowed. There is no core human virtue associated with this faux-liberal approach, only pragmatism.
America, I’m afraid, has succumbed to this model gradually over the course of its history, while always capable, by a surge of idealism and the spirit of the Enlightenment, to snap back to its much more virtuous roots. Otherwise, it is lazy and uninspiring.
Thirdly, there is an open contempt for democracy that lazy democracy breeds, at least in terms of its commitment to diversity and pluralism. This is the ugly face of what arose in the U.S. presidential election in the past year, with an angry, irrational contempt for those of racial and ethnic difference.
This is where the so-called “alt-right” comes in, and its important role in the Trump electoral victory. Among other things, this is where Putin enjoyed his greatest interventionist success in the U.S. process this past year.
There is no virtuous love for democracy in this anger, just as there is none in the stone-eyed, black-hearted Asian steppes oligarchs like Putin who pull their strings.
People of weak minds and values are the playthings of tyrants and thanks to just this, the U.S. is now heading far down the road to tossing its great democratic experiment into the dustbin of history.
Virtue is the core disposition of liberty, not freedom for its own sake. Virtue, the sensitive regard for the wellbeing of women, children, poets and all others, is that which all the great moral movements of history have shared, and which their many radical and splinter heresies have sought to undermine.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].