The way people, both in the street and in the press, talk about Donald Trump testifies to the proliferation of the most toxic fallout from that gross misnomer, the Age of Reason. Collapse of reason.
It’s not that people these days have less intelligence than they used to. I suspect that commodity is spread more or less evenly from one generation to the next.
It’s just that most people no longer base, nor argue, their views from the platform of reason. Typically, they are motivated by ideology, emotions or some other gonadic emanations.
Hence spittle-sputtering rants are accepted as a valid way of making a point. “I hate him because he’s hateful” or “I love him because he’s lovely” are seen as sufficient rationale for judgement, especially in the sphere of politics.
I’m not merely talking about public opinion, although that may serve as a useful indicator.
The problem is so widespread because those who form public opinion – journalists, broadcasters, politicians – seem to disengage their mental faculties even when they possess them.
Rather than enlightening the public, these professionals are conning it: even today’s pros are cons. And the public is easily conned.
This point was made on Sky News this morning by one broadcaster who’s an exception, a sixtyish peroxide blonde speaking in a pleasant north-country accent and sounding the way a nice cup of tea would sound if it could talk.
She complained that her listeners are so worked up about Trump that they spit in the face of God who gave them minds in the first place. “He’s a racist, sexist, misogynist” and so forth, the whole litany of self-righteous abuse gushes out.
“What’s your proof?” the cup of tea would ask. “Specifically about his being misogynist, for example?” “He abuses women!!!” “As much as, say, Bill Clinton? Or the whole Kennedy clan?”
The good woman wouldn’t say she liked Trump or agreed with anything he did or said. She’d simply ask for factual support, which would turn those frenzied harangues into sound arguments.
Yet she has found out that merely asking such questions exposes her to the volume of abuse that’s only a couple of decibels below that levelled at Trump himself. Well, if she thinks this is bad, she should look at the US scene.
I remember the time, 45 years ago, when I first came to the US and started reading American papers and magazines. Some of their writers were conservative (in the American sense of economic libertarian über alles), some neoconservative, some liberal (in the American sense of self-righteous socialist).
My temperamental inclination being what it is, I naturally gravitated to the National Review crowd, which was as conservative as one could get in the States and, at the time, as brilliant.
But even writers who espoused different philosophies tried to argue their case, using sequential logic and a broad base of evidence. And most of them, right, left or centre, wrote well, some extremely well. I might not have shared their views, but I appreciated their minds and craft.
That’s why reading US commentary on the current presidency makes me so sad. Professional writers, those who happen to disagree with some, or incomprehensibly all, of Trumps policies, make no attempt to put together persuasive arguments.
Instead they resort to hysterical harangues, the likes of which I never heard 40-odd years ago, or at least never read in reputable publications. Comparing Trump with Hitler has wide currency, for example, which goes beyond idiocy, approaching the domain of mental illness.
According to my New York friends, people in supermarket queues openly talk about murdering the president as the only way of preventing the USA from becoming like Nazi Germany. No wonder: with such opinion formers, what other kind of opinion could be formed?
Margaret Thatcher used to elicit similarly violent emotions, but at least they didn’t spill over into the mainstream press. Instead they were mostly contained within the proverbial groves.
Back in the late 80s, I recall, my American son did a semester at the LSE as an exchange student. On his first day, he saw a poster in the lobby, announcing a student debate. The subject was: “Resolved: this house will assassinate Thatcher”.
His sensibilities, at that time largely shaped by the old vintage of National Review, were offended: at Yale they expressed their political views, no matter how idiotic and extreme, in a more reserved fashion – at least publicly.
I’d like to say that Trump’s admirers make more sense, and perhaps they do. But only by a microscopic margin. Like the other lot, they won’t listen to any arguments, or even fleeting opinions, that contradict their burning passion.
It ought to be possible for heirs to the civilisation taught to think and argue by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas et al to debate a proposition dispassionately and soundly.
Some such arguments would carry the day, some wouldn’t. But they would all be respected, rather than dismissed out of hand as emotive delirium with no intellectual component whatsoever.
Commentators, professional or amateur, should be able to analyse Trump’s presidency policy by policy, and explain cogently why they agree or disagree. On that basis, they could then pass judgement on this presidency overall, one way or the other.
But only on that basis. Anything else is pathetically unsound – and they aren’t even aware of this any longer. The litmus paper essential to intellectual tests is no longer in production.
The problem is that today’s lot aren’t really heirs to Western civilisation. The religious, cultural and intellectual ganglia tying modernity to that civilisation have all been snipped.
The assumption was that it would be possible to sever the roots of Judaeo-Christianity and still enjoy its cultural and intellectual fruits. The hare-brained hysterics of Trump’s fans and detractors alike prove it hasn’t worked out that way.
T.S. Eliot diagnosed the condition accurately: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready-made… You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.”
We are passing through the third such century. And there are many still to come.