We live in an age of trumpery

Supporters of Donald Trump attend a political rally in San Diego May 27. (Newscom/ZUMA Press/Daren Fentiman)
This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

We live in a perilous in-between time, full of violence not only in those whom we call enemies but also in ourselves. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in early 1960, "The most obvious characteristic of our age is its destructiveness." 

The violence of our time is compounded by the fact that we also live in an age of "trumpery." I borrow this term from Shakespeare, who foresaw Americans' current plight when he coined trumpery to mean "fancy garments or showy rubbish." 

Gary Schmidgall, who has studied and taught Shakespeare for 40 years, laments how the 2016 political campaign has been a "race to the bottom of the rhetorical barrel" led by none other than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

Yet this age of trumpery is not only about one presidential candidate. Rather, it concerns a deeper cultural dynamic that reveals unwelcome truths about our own moral and spiritual malaise.

The problem of trumpery is not just its rhetorical tendency toward bombastic idiocy. The age of trumpery has no need for facts, truth or even a dictionary. Lexicographers have created a "Trumptionary" that includes terms like "Trumpdom," "Trumponomics" and "Trump-speak." 

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Trumpery rejects rational discourse. In doing so, it reveals a deeper orientation to violence and a will for domination. Everything becomes us and them -- either you are inside the magic of an overwhelmingly white in-group or you are against us. Notice Trump's recent grotesque insinuation that President Barack Obama was responsible for the horrific attack that killed 49 people in Orlando, Fla.

Language and politics are all about force -- the force of punishment, of more bombing, and the force of exclusion, whether in the form of a law or a wall. 

As the great 20th-century public theologian John Courtney Murray warned in his classic We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, "The barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy." 

Murray defined barbarism as "the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws." He described the barbarian as anyone who "makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs." 

Social media replaces the "ball-point pen" and is used by the barbarian to vilify opponents and willy-nilly assert blatant falsities as fact and truth. The advertising copy he carries is self-validating. 

Reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws depends upon a community of character oriented to truth, love and justice. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in June, "the classic conservative belief" is that "character is destiny." Brooks argues that the Republican Party can't (and shouldn't) unify around Trump "for the same reason it can't unify around a tornado." Trump incessantly "undermines cooperation, reciprocity, solidarity, stability or any other component of unity." 

For those who are under the illusion that they can convert Trump, Brooks says this is a "sign both of intellectual arrogance and psychological naiveté." 

Trump appeals directly to anti-intellectualism and naiveté. As The Boston Globe's Matt Viser recently reported, for voters who are confused by Trump's contradictory statements, he has a ready reply on every issue: "Believe me." 

"Believe me" trumps facts and public accountability. Journalists and news organizations who document inconvenient facts are summarily banned from the Trump campaign. 

Contrary to popular opinion, explains Adam Davidson, co-founder of National Public Radio's "Planet Money," when you evaluate Trump's business record, "you quickly find that there is nothing of substance." Davidson finds no vision for the future, no history of excellence, no record of bringing jobs "back" to America, and no record of "righting a sinking ship." 

Trump's true calling, Davidson concludes, "seems to be acting like a successful businessman -- a performance made all the more impressive by its distance from reality." 

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is not a Hitler or a Mussolini. The problem is how citizens are smitten by a demagogue who feeds off anti-democratic anger, xenophobia, economic vulnerability, and the racial anxieties of white Americans in this volatile moment of epic global transformation.

As our culture consumes the mythology of the individual self-made billionaire (it's telling that the candidate will not reveal his actual worth) and the illusion of success, too many seem ready to dispense with the messy work of citizenship in a constitutional republic. 

We are told that it's time to dispense with the "establishment" and tear everything down. It's time to "make America great again." Great again? For whom? For what? Trump swims in the established system of power. No one else plays the system better for his own branding. No one else is more willing to sell people who are poor and vulnerable down the river.

Merton lamented how destructiveness is sold as "creative advertising." Trump's history of creative advertising tends to focus on self-branding regardless of the economic consequences for others. 

We need to look in the mirror. 

Notice the dynamic of how Trump's xenophobic rhetoric is being reflected in our nation's playgrounds: children bullying other children, telling classmates, "You'll get deported," or "You weren't born here," or "You were born in a Taco Bell." 

Notice the overly punitive nature of the criminal justice system that has become a school-to-prison pipeline.

Notice the domestic and global reach of a militaristic capitalism. The U.S. commands a 33 percent share of global arms exports, remains the top global seller of arms for the past five years, selling arms to at least 96 countries. 

At home, in the nearly 1,300 days since 27 children and teachers were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been more than 1,200 mass shootings in the United States. Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson's gun sales over the past year boosted profits by 50 percent and its sales have risen more than 200 percent since Obama was first elected. 

The problem is not just one presidential candidate's will to dominate. The deeper dynamic concerns our own self-destructiveness, what Merton called the "death-wish" within American culture. Our self-destructiveness is rooted in "the material and depersonalized abundance" we currently enjoy in the United States. 

The problem of our own material abundance, Merton argued, is not only that it stifles and corrupts the spiritual depths of being human, but that it imprisons us in "the frustrations and self-contradictions of materialistic affluence, coupled with frantic and useless activism," which help to explain "the death-wish of our warfare, economy and culture." 

The Christian struggle of our time is how we witness to the contradiction of the Cross in the midst of these personal and collective contradictions. Pope Francis' universal call to contemplative mercy is as urgent as ever. Contemplative silence is not about escaping the world, but entering it with Christ, loving our neighbor and enemy as ourselves. 

The way of the Cross, however narrow and countercultural, may be the only way to be transformed by God's desire to heal our broken and shattered bones. 

[Alex Mikulich is an anti-racist Catholic theologian who serves as assistant director of mission and ministry at Loyola University New Orleans.] 

This story appeared in the July 15-28, 2016 print issue under the headline: Our age of trumpery .

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