In a year marked by disasters—horrific fires, an endless string of hurricanes, and a relentless pandemic—it may be some consolation to think that we humans have the potential to learn from them: to see them not just as devastations in themselves but as portents of even worse to come.
The same can be said about the first presidential “debate,” when an unhinged incumbent shamelessly lied and interrupted his way around a decent if lackluster opponent and rudely ignored a beleaguered moderator who tried vainly to uphold the rules of engagement the two sides had agreed upon.
What we got, in short, was a lesson in the authoritarian style—a rejection not just of the rules themselves but of the norms underwriting civil democratic discourse. And it was the very determination of the incumbent to ignore those norms, not just to interrupt his opponent but to goad him into descending to his level, that we should take clear note of.
Not that it was new, that flouting of norms. We have seen evidence of it from this president’s first days of office. But it was the fact that he brought to this most public of democratic forums the kind of crude, undisciplined behavior he usually reserves for his Twitter account or his adulatory rallies that should make us sit up and consider what he was signaling as well as saying to the broad American public.
And we should make no mistake: Donald Trump’s manner was a declaration of indifference toward the values that make democracy possible, including—and possibly above all—respect for one’s opponent, a respect which necessarily entails a basic regard for truth, fairness, courtesy.
That last quality may seem out of place in relation to the other two, too redolent of genteel society and polite manners. But it may be the most important. Why? Because courtesy is an outward sign of honor, which is the willingness to live by and for some principle of virtue and not just to satisfy a hunger for dominance and power.
If honor is a vestige of the pre-democratic, aristocratic world, it is, perhaps paradoxically, a necessary vestige for a functioning democracy. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset expressed this well in his invaluable 1930 study of modern society, The Revolt of the Masses, notably in his discussion of what distinguishes the true elite in a democracy from the self-satisfied mass person.
The latter, the Spaniard wrote, particularly under the sign of fascism, enjoys something quite new: “the right not to be reasonable, the ‘reason of unreason.’’’ Ortega went on to elaborate that such a person
…wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his opinions are nothing more than appetites in words….To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions is identical with appealing to such authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunion is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. Hence the “new thing” in Europe is “to have done with discussions,” and detestation is expressed for all forms of intercommunion which imply acceptance of objective standings, ranging from conversation to Parliament, and taking in science. This means that there is a renunciation of the common life based on culture, which is subject to standards, and a return to the common life of barbarism.
The “common life of barbarism” threatens repeatedly to burst forth in modern democratic societies, and, as we know from the history of the last century, it has succeeded in seizing power on more than one occasion, in more than one nation. We cannot claim ignorance of what such barbarism leads to.
Nor can we claim, after that debacle of a debate, that we have not seen how it is threatening to do so again. We see it clearly when someone enamored of power feels no shame—and worse, fears no censure—in recognizing no authority other than his own, in proclaiming, without reasons or standards or even a shred of evidence, that he or she knows what is good and right for everyone.
We can be grateful at least for that clear and simple lesson. It is up to us to profit from it.