This article is an excerpt from the newly released, The Fascism This Time; and the Global Future of Democracy.
The least virtuous man is the most powerful in the world.
Darkness has set in over the world. The crude braggart, the undisciplined liar, the hateful bully, and the sexual violator is the world’s most powerful man—and the consequences have been rippling through every thought about what it means to live in the world.
All across the world, murderers and thugs have risen to power. Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad have been winning in their genocide in Syria. Rodrigo Duterte has already killed roughly 12,000 and threatened to kill millions more in the Philippines. China is carrying out a cultural genocide of Uyghurs, while India is doing much the same in Kashmir.
Everywhere, the liberal and tolerant, the compassionate and sincere, are losing while racists and nationalists rise to the top. It is the stuff of myth and legend—”The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.” The moral order has been inverted, and now the least virtuous man is its most powerful, while under him sits an ever more ghoulish band of thugs.
Liberals do not tend to think in terms of a cosmic moral order, but rather in terms of consequences. Good consequences are readily apparent however they are achieved; and while bringing them about sometimes requires bold moral action, the proof is in the pudding, not some metaphysical sense of justice. Consequentialist thinking tends to focus on the outcomes of good policy and institutions—but this fails to explain what is so wrong with Trump.
We all know on some level that the world is not just—but we tend to imagine a just order in which the good prosper and the wicked suffer, the wise rule and the ignorant follow. And the closer we come to this order, the more we tend to feel settled and secure. We feel settled and secure because we know we can trust our leaders, if not to do what is right, then at least to try to bring about some good. The trust reverberates through business and society, law and family. The perception of a just world order helps us to function and get on with our lives, but without it our lives are pervaded with the existential anxiety that results from the thought that anything can happen.
As we all know from work, a good person at the top can change everything. If mistakes are made, then at least they are honest; if they do the wrong thing, then at least they believed in it—thus, we can forgive our leaders and live in peace with power. The world may not be as we want it to be, and it may fail to live up to our ideals, but when we can trust our political opponents to at least do what they believe to be right, then we can settle into accepting that at least some vision of the good will prevail.
However, there are no moral principles, and no vision of the good life, that might justify the actions of Trump—which is why he has to lie about almost everything he does. Universalizing his principles would result in a world of liars and bullies, each threatening the next, until we were all at each other’s throats, or else cowed into silence. It would be a crueler and less compassionate world, and it would quickly descend into war. And if everyone behaved the way he did, there would be no guarantee his supporters would even come out on top, for everyone would play by the same dirty rule book.
No one would want to be born into the kind of society he is creating if, in doing so, they might wind up at the bottom. The consequences would not be worth it, whatever the rewards. For life at the bottom would mean being a toddler in an overcrowded cell, separated from your parents, without access to shampoo, toothpaste, bedding, or flu vaccines. It is only as the beneficiaries of his largesse that people want to be part of the world he is creating.
And despite all the enthusiasm from evangelicals, support for Trump also goes against the golden rule. No one would want the minorities he attacks to do the same to themselves if they were in the majority, nor for their political opponents to govern by his standards. No one would wish for their children to do business with such a cheat or a member of their family to date someone so sexually exploitative. Trump is the man the Bible warned us about. He gloats about his power while mocking the disabled; preys on the weak while bragging about his strength; tears children from their mothers and tells their defenders to leave the country. He preens and gloats, bullies and mocks, all the while starving millions of children to no end whatsoever.
Trump lacks the discipline, discretion, decency, and decorum conservatives claim to value. He breaks the norms they struggle to preserve, shatters the institutions they claim to defend. He disparages the constitution, slanders his own office, and talks of dating his daughter. No wonder not a single major conservative intellectual supported his first campaign for the presidency, while countless others actively opposed him; and no wonder his advisors and close friends speak so ill of him.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a “f*cking moron.” Former Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn called him “less a person than a collection of terrible traits.” Former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon accused him of “treason” while comparing him to “an 11-year-old child.” Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said he was “an idiot with the intelligence of a kindergartner.” Former Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus simply called him “an idiot.” His former personal lawyer John Dowd called him “a f*cking liar.” And former ghostwriter of his bestselling Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, described him as “a horrendous human being who seeks only to become a dictator.”
Trump can seem an abomination not merely because of his lies and his racism or his hatred and ignorance. There are things more morally blameworthy than racism, things more dangerous than ignorance, after all. Trump behaves like a rash and intemperate child, proclaiming his greatness, ranting against adversaries, and insulting anyone who threatens his power. He brags of violating women, then, when they confront him, claims they are not attractive enough for him to violate. He stirs up hatred against minorities, then claims they love him. This is not simply racist or sexist but something more akin to sociopathy. But pathologizing him also fails to get at just what it is we find so wrong, for it medicalizes a moral problem.
Trump shows all the signs of a tyrant, but when the most powerful man in the world is a tyrant, we need a stronger language than racism, sexism, and sociopathy—and the language of an inverted moral order may better describe what we are seeing.
The inversion of the moral order ricochets through every institution and relation in our lives, for it subverts the incentives governing social life. Whereas the good usually profit in their relations, even amid their sacrifices—gaining in friendship what they lose in business, gaining in networks what they lose in assets—the inversion of the moral order scrambles these incentives, transmuting ruthlessness into a social skill and dominance into a virtue. Suddenly, we find ourselves praising qualities we know to be a threat to everything we hold dear because they are necessary to survive under an inverted moral order.
If the language of an inverted moral order does not appeal to you, though, consider the even stronger language of evil. The language of evil implies not simply a willingness to harm others but a special sort of pleasure in committing it. While the sadist takes pleasure in harm, evil spreads it and revels in its diffusion. Trump and his supporters now revel in their badness and gain strength through flaunting it, and there is something evil in this revelry. It is not simply liberals and minorities who oppose it, but rather good people the world over, whatever their political persuasions. And the good people who become his allies, like all too many evangelicals, quickly find themselves corrupted.
Fascism is frightening because it overturns the moral order and sets up an alternative order where evil has free reign. And while it often compromises with power, it tries to subsume it under its own inverted order, undermining its values and corroding it from within. And the problem with a fascist moral order, and all its evils, is that it always ends in destruction.
~ Theo Horesh, author of The Fascism This Time: and the Global Future of Democracy.