Donald Trump and the Age of Barbarism

We can't shame the GOP, but we can name their behavior.

Trump Spent His Day Yelling About Impeachment (and Made a Joke ...

We all remember moments from Sept. 11, 2001. We remember those moments in up-close and high-def detail. The smoke, the dust, the death—these seared our minds and we vowed: never forget. We promised, as a nation, never forget. Three thousand people were dead in a flash of fire. I suspect most of us have faithfully kept that promise.

The election is a choice between freedom and barbarism.

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Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Will the Republicans remember? Can they keep their promise without reminding us of the hundreds of thousands who will have died by then from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus? Can they honor the memory of 3,000 Americans without dishonoring the memories of many, many more? I don’t see how.

I don’t see how they can in good faith recall America post-9/11 without recalling America post-pandemic, and inviting comparison. On the one hand, a GOP president, unpopular and divisive, found the will to speak for a nation in grief. On the other hand, a GOP president, more unpopular and more divisive, speaks for himself only, leaving mourners alone to cradle their pain, elevating trumpery over tragedy. We have now seen the equivalent of thirty-three 9/11s. We will see tens of times more by the time of its 20th anniversary. It might be best for the Republicans to break their promise.

Of course, they already have.

Hit the tip jar!

You don’t follow a man to hell without forgetting, without willfully forgetting, because remembering commitments to democracy, principle and the American way is at best painful, at worst an impediment to gripping power more tightly. As my friend Frank Wilkinson said, Donald Trump is not at odds with his party. He has not only the GOP’s blessing but its abetting. It has helped him break the law. It has helped him cover up crimes. (I’d add that it has helped him get away with treason.) The 2020 election, Frank writes, is a choice between competing futures: one democratic or one authoritarian.

Frank points out two problems worth prolonged discussion. The first is the problem of what to do when one party is lawless while the other upholds the rule of law. There is no immediate answer. There may never be an answer. Time will tell, obviously. But whatever its solution may be, it’s in connection to the second problem, which is that most Americans have not figured out the peril the United States is facing. Frank says:

Because neither the news media nor the nation’s larger political culture has reckoned with the GOP’s authoritarian evolution, the habitual response is to mislabel GOP authoritarianism as hypocrisy. Calling out hypocrisy is a pointless shaming mechanism for a party that has broken free of shame. Worse, it camouflages a war on democracy as democratic politics as usual.

There is no point in shaming liars, cheats and scoundrels, but there is a point in naming. It’s one thing to say the choice is between democracy and autocracy. But there’s something else going on, something more emotional and right, in saying the choice is between good and evil, and because “good and evil” is too childish, let’s put it this way instead: The 2020 election is a choice between freedom and barbarism.

You don’t follow a man to hell without forgetting, without willfully forgetting, because remembering commitments to democracy, principle and the American way is at best painful, at worst an impediment to gripping power more tightly.

“Barbarism” is problematic to be sure. It’s usually reserved for describing “uncivilized” societies. The word invokes days of colonialism and imperial hubris. In the weeks and months after 9/11, especially in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fox News commentators sometimes intimated barbarism when they said Muslims don’t understand diplomacy. All they understand is expressions of power. Even if we’re wrong about weapons of mass destruction (and we were), we’re still right to invade.

Despite its problematic history, it’s an ideal word to describe our times. The president and the Republicans are not only hostile to science, free speech, free press and the truth itself. They are not only dedicated to preserving the old sadist hierarchies of power. They are pushing Americans back into a workplace infected with a deadly virus in order to maximize short-term returns. They are treating people like a commodity, like “human capital stock,” not citizens with inherent rights and privileges. They are forcing human beings to choose between their health and their wealth. They are literally robbing them of their freedom to work for a better future for themselves.

Sure, we can use words like “fascism,” “white nationalism,” “autocracy” and such to characterize the president’s endless attack on institutions, laws, norms and values. But these are abstract and do not carry the weight of blood and pain that “barbarism” carries. When “assimilation” means conformity or punishment, that’s barbarism. When “liberty” means sacrificing the old and the weak, that’s barbarism. When “law and order” means tolerating homicide by agents of the state, that’s barbarism. When “security” means kidnapping infants and toddlers, that’s barbarism. When “peace and prosperity” means turning a blind eye to 100,000 dead Americans, that’s barbarism.

When the Republicans honored their vow to remember the victims the 9/11, they participated in a political community of shared values and purpose. We grieved as a nation. The body politic mourned as one body. They no longer participate, though. They have long since taken their ball and went home. So it’s no longer possible to shame them and so calling out hypocrisy is meaningless. Naming, however, creates a presence, a moral standard over which they have no control but they must nevertheless confront. If the Democrats have no good way of countering a lawless GOP without resorting to lawlessness themselves, name it. It’s not freedom. It’s no escape. A trap.

It’s barbarism.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.