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Trump Is a Lesson in Dignity and Democracy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Democracy requires dignity to sustain itself.

This shouldn’t surprise. The ruling system that democracy replaced had been divinely chosen; the royals had God-given dignity, with all the trappings. For democrats to compete, they had to prove first that the electoral rabble could govern its passions and temper its prejudices, and next that their leaders would be chosen from the highest common denominator, not the lowest.

Democratic dignity is mutual dignity. That requires mutual respect and something more. The dignity of democratic institutions must be safeguarded even when the dignity of individuals collapses. Richard Nixon can be discarded if necessary, the presidency must be saved.

Since he began his campaign, Donald Trump has waged a sustained assault on democratic norms and democratic dignity. The first phase attacked individuals, Mexicans followed by Muslims. Trump targeted vulnerable minorities, as demagogues do, but he also belittled and taunted his Republican primary opponents, who felt compelled to adopt his schoolyard tactics in turn.

As the campaign progressed, Trump’s past comments were afforded new scope, and gravity, by proximity to new transgressions. A Fox News host’s recount of Trump insults directed at women inspired a vivid new attack on the host herself. Trump’s lashing of Megyn Kelly -- was she out of his league? -- provided the cathartic template for the general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton, which reached Peak Nuremberg with the spectacle of mobs chanting, “Lock her up.”

It’s impossible to calibrate the cost of this. The racism and misogyny and xenophobia, the deployment of falsehoods as a first resort, wear down a culture’s defenses. The virus seeps not only into the political arena, where hangers-on repeat Trump slanders and defend Trump outrages, but into schools and workplaces and homes. Democratic culture is self-referential, a perpetual mirror on itself. It cannot accommodate Trump’s rhetoric, or normalize his politics, without acquiring some of his ugliness.

In a lecture delivered to the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, Stanford University classics professor Josiah Ober said:

Citizen dignity is robust because it is protected by rules and by the cultural habits and interests of those who make, affirm, revise, and obey the rules.

The responsibilities of citizenship that emerge within a regime of civic dignity include respect and recognition of others. Respect and recognition entail self-restraint. We must voluntarily restrain ourselves from indulging in actions that would wrongly compromise other people’s dignity – even when acting arrogantly towards them might please us.

We rationally restrain ourselves from arrogant behavior for three overlapping reasons: First, because we expect that we will be sanctioned for it. Next, because we have come to believe that it is in our real, long-term interest to deny ourselves short-term gratification at others’ expense. And third, once we have internalized the value of dignity and have been habituated to it, acting arrogantly is no longer a source of pleasure for us.

Trump is a walking, talking violation of democratic virtue. He fraudulently calls the election, democracy’s foundational institution, rigged, and makes no promise to abide by its results. He attacks the free press and encourages his most thuggish followers to threaten journalists. He places himself at the center of national life -- “I alone can fix it” -- while absolving himself of his pernicious effects on democratic norms and decency.

If public polling is correct, we will emerge from the election with Trump far removed from executive power. If he slinks off into the night, we will be long scrubbing the toxins he released. If, as seems more likely, he seeks to monetize resentment, and exploit the moral vacuum in the GOP, Trumpism may not fade for years. This campaign has disgusted and exhausted many. It may not end in November.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net