By: Jared Marcel Pollen
In this month, twenty-four years ago, Vaclav Havel wrote a speech entitled “Politics & Conscience,” a speech he intended to deliver on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the University of Toulouse that spring in 1984, a speech he was unable to deliver due to the fact that the Communist government of Czechoslovakia had revoked his passport. The piece opens with Havel recalling the sight of a factory that scored his boyhood walks to school:
“It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it… Still that ‘soiling of the heavens’ offended me spontaneously.”
This indignation, registerable even to a child, is based on the intuitive knowledge that some things constitute an affront to our nature, and cannot be covered up or explained away with any political justifications – not economic growth, modernization, job creation, the “greater good,” etc. For there is a natural ethic upon which all politics is founded, and then there are the ideological moralities that attempt to map themselves onto it. You can demonstrate this using any number of examples. Take, for instance, an abattoir: it is a house of death, designed for the sole purpose of slaughtering living creatures. Whether you believe the abattoir should be owned privately, or by the state, whether its employees should be paid fifteen dollars an hour, or twenty-five, whether those employs deserve to be unionized or not; or whether the abattoir deserves to be powered by clean sustainable energy or by coal – none of it changes the essential moral ugliness of its existence.
Just shy of ten years after writing this speech, Havel would become the first democratically elected president of the newly formed Czech Republic, a country I have been a temporary resident of for the last ten months. At the moment, I am in my attic apartment, overlooking a rank of factories that lie north of the Vltava river, their blinking candy cane stacks a distant feature contained within the segment of my skylight. I spend an inordinate amount of time with my head out this window, observing this scene, but my thoughts are not on smoke plumes or killing floors. These days, my thoughts are on the first year of the Trump presidency, now in the books, and the three years that are still ahead. These thoughts, however, are driven by the same indignation imbued by a floor full of hanging carcasses. Which is to say that Trump, and the cultural phenomenon that brought him to power, represents not just a corrosion of democratic politics (as if that weren’t bad enough) but a corrosion of moral conscience. It also represents the ascension of virtually every bad human quality to the level of power. The disgust I feel towards the Trump presidency, therefore, is not political, it is human. He is not merely offensive to politics, he is offensive to nature.
We’ve all entertained fantasies of a politician abandoning all standards of decency and good behavior. (I believe the strength of these malicious fantasies helped carry Trump to power.) What would happen if the president of the United States went Bulworth? What would be the reaction? Could anything be done about it? Where would the lines be drawn? Trump’s first year has shown us where a number of lines are now, if indeed there are any lines left.
We know now, for example, that you can say virtually anything and be elected president. We know that a person who is utterly ignorant of history and the constitution can slalom through an office that requires a daily knowledge of both, and that the office of will not automatically leaven its occupant towards moral seriousness. We know that the officials who have positioned themselves around the president will continue to defend him, and will have no shame in making themselves dishonest in the process. We know that some otherwise decent officials, like John Kelly and H.R. McMaster can be debased by virtue of their mere proximity to him. We know that the republican party will likely remain silent on the treasonous activity of the 2016 Trump campaign. And perhaps most disturbing of all, we know that a political party in the United States congress can remain noiseless and inert about the espionage of a hostile foreign power if that espionage pays dividends, even when the sovereignty of the country is directly threatened.
Another thing we know is that politicians no longer have to govern according to approval. There is a percentage of the populace, roughly 30-35%, which will remain loyal to the president no matter what, it seems (Trump indeed may be able to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing votes, as he proudly declared during his campaign) – while the clamor of the remaining 65% can be successfully ignored. Bertolt Brecht’s poem “The Solution” comes to mind, which contains a line that if the population stands divided from its government, wouldn’t it be easier for that government to dissolve the people and elect another? It’s a quip no longer reserved for fascist governments. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and the balkanization of media have made it a reality in democratic societies. Low voter turnout means that strong minorities can triumph over shaky majorities: a devoted 30% can be just as powerful as an ambivalent 48%. Trump entering the oval office with a 40% approval rating, well south of any incoming president, is an illustration of this. Indeed, the 2016 election showed that candidates don’t need to play for the simple majority the center has long provided; you can create an electorate, as one creates a market, and succeed by consistently delivering to that market what it wants. If Trump has any political craft at all, it is this.
Lastly, we have witnessed a truly transcendent level of untruth and fabrication not tempted by any previous administration. A year after shrugging off the profanity of the Access Hollywood tape, the president suggested that maybe it wasn’t even his voice on the recording. Sean Spicer was able to stand at the lectern of the white house press room and declare, on day one, that the president’s inauguration was the largest in history, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary. Shortly after this, the president himself claimed that it hadn’t rained during the ceremony, when there is a cache of footage showing that it had. It’s as if the white house were living inside a Samuel Beckett novel: “It is midnight. The rain is beating against the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” One of the ways in which Trump has degraded our discourse is that he has rendered certain language woefully insufficient for describing him. To say that any of these are lies, for example, is a bit like saying that heroin is bad for you. It delivers no satisfaction. These falsehoods represent something much greater: a fantastic solipsism and an all-out assault on reality.
In some respects, these phenomena are amplifications of many of the things we’ve been conditioned to tolerate from elected officials, but they are not, I believe, the result of political decadence. Lack of political experience, or political normalcy hardly explains the catastrophe of Trump’s administration. The traits that make Trump so unsuitable for public office are the same things that would make him unsuitable for any position involving a modicum of responsibility for the livelihood of others. Trump is a terrible president for the same reasons he would be a terrible lifeguard at a swimming pool. Not only would I not trust him with the nuclear keys, I wouldn’t trust him with my house keys. Indeed, I don’t believe a single good thing can be said about him as a man – not even that he is “a patriot,” or “a good husband,” who “loves his wife and his children,” as has been said of so many unremarkable politicians with no discernable qualities for leadership.
I count these as among the easiest examples to list, and there are so many, ad tedium, ad nauseam. At only a year in, there is already enough of this stuff to fill whole books: Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury and David Frum’s Trumpocracy, to name the two that have been produced just in the first two months of this year.
Havel viewed politics, as I tend to, through an Aristotelian lens; which is to say, that the polis is an outgrowth of nature, and ourselves as we exist in nature, and not an artificial construct that operates on constructed moral precepts. Havel believed that human dignity, not the superiority of neo-liberalist ideology had defeated the totalitarianism that had oppressed eastern Europe for decades, and maintained that neo-liberalism was ethically unfit to replace the value-vacuum international communism had left in its wake. Post-cold war politics, he stressed, should be based on a kind of common humanity and idealism about the intrinsic ability to govern honestly. It’s hard not to cringe at this. We usually don’t think about politics in this way, and for good reason. The demons that drive the machine of an electoral system in an imperfect society all but demand the routine violation of ideals. But while all politicians are guilty of sacrificing principles at the altar of institutional pressure, it doesn’t present a threat to the social contract. The disregard the Trump administration has already shown towards democratic norms of governance are unique in that they reflect a much deeper characterological deficiency that damages the very trust between the people and the state.
What Havel often called “genuine politics,” he also sometimes called “anti-political politics.” (I’m less than sanguine, so I prefer the latter.) Since politics is almost by definition the conflict between two bad options, to suggest that it’s possible to govern according to pure ethics might seem like idiocy. Still, the capacity for this ethic needs to be in place if one is to govern at all well. A politician, ideally, should enter office by saying, “we will not compromise on this, this, and this,” only to find themselves, by force of circumstance and political education, compromising on many of them. To be able to hold this contradiction together with no loss of integrity or decency is the task of any good leader.
Thus, a politician who does not even have any ostensibly unshakable values to shake is not only unfit – they are precisely unfit, in the most basic way. And it seems fair to say that the current president doesn’t appear to possess even the basic integrity of belief in anything outside of himself. What are some of the values one could attribute to Trump’s rise? He has held to nothing: there’s been no coherent legislative agenda from the white house, except a slew of revanchist executive orders, and many of the promises Trump made during his campaign have been walked back, or abandoned altogether. He’s already admitted privately that he doesn’t care about his long-promised border wall and there is currently no proposal for its construction on the table. The United States still remains a signatory of the Paris climate accord, despite the president’s vocal resignation; transgender people are still actively enlisting in the military, despite his tweet that they have been disallowed; and despite Trump’s economic protectionism, NAFTA remains intact, as does the U.S.’s trade partnership with China.
There is one other politician in recent history who I believe views the polis as Aristoteleanly as Havel did. That was Barack Obama. One of the many things I admire about Obama is that he made a visible and concerted effort to collapse the space between political ethics and pure ethics. Which is not to say that he didn’t engage in some politicking of his own. However, he frequently repeated, especially near the end of his second term, how he believed most Americans wanted essentially the same things from their government, and stressed the democratic norms that transcended partisan agendas. And he knew that the language of politics, when introduced as a substitute for the language of common morality, was poisonous to the project of a healthy democracy. Not only has the Trump phenomenon widened this space, it has reached over to the other side and contaminated a greater civility, as factory stacks contaminate an oxygen rich sky.
It’s been asked if there will be a silver lining to the Trump era. The reinvigoration and mobilization of liberal forces has been one suggestion. It’s a good start. But the left, which is currently lost in its own pseudo-ethics of identity and dominance, seems unfit to take the lead in this. The other is the transformation of the democratic party, away from the Clinton neo-liberal center. Again, this critic is not optimistic. At this point, the democrats don’t appear tempted to start playing the same game as the republicans, who have long had their own rule book for governance. The election of Donald Trump has degraded many things in a very short time, and while the democratic party is by no means robust at the moment, it has not degraded itself through its opposition to him. That one party will not lower itself to the other’s level, even to grab votes, is an encouraging sign that a politics of conscience is still vaguely intact, even if it’s only working on one side of the brain.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, 3:AM Magazine, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He currently lives in Prague.