To read the New York Times' analysis of the last debate between Biden and Trump is to imbibe complicity in our national decline. The NYT offers up a polished centerpiece of what has gone wrong in this country: the exile of ethics and, in its place, a staid acquiescence to the rulership of demagoguery and deceit.
Impressive in organization and voice, the NYT analysis showcased the views of no less than nineteen opinion writers. It even arranged pictures of their faces on a visual scale, from left to right. The scale went from 10 blue (pure Biden victory) to 10 red (pure Trump victory). In the middle, at zero (as two writers were) resided the opinion that the debate was a tie:
Only four of the nineteen opinion writers came down on the Trump half of the scale. But that's not the point. The point is that, in terms of who won, ethics was hardly a consideration for the writers at all.
Perhaps the statement by Liz Mair brings this out the best.
On 'who won', she writes:
Trump. The debate rules worked in his favor, he was more disciplined, and even though he lied through his teeth for much of the debate, he did it and often does it in a way that is convincing for anyone who doesn’t believe he is always lying. For better or for worse, that remains a decent chunk of the electorate.
There it is. It's okay to lie, as long as you're convincing. Winning is about convincing voters. Ethics is nugatory.
"That's how the world works," someone might say, even adding a shrug.
In response, I assert this: we Americans have been acculturated to accept that winning has nothing to do with ethics. We've been acculturated not to react with disgust at this conclusion. Furthermore, we've been trained to think that winning is, overall, more important than being ethical.
Think about that.
Here is the Orwellian breakdown. We've been taught to shrug. And, we've been taught to not even realize that we're shrugging.
And we've forgotten that we've been so taught.
Mair's statement reveals itself as fully shocking when you realize that the problem is not just that Trump is lying. It is what he is lying about and how much. He lies in huge, incessant ways about absolutely horrible things. Kids in cages on his watch? He lies. The advancement of racist fascism? Lies. Unnecessary deaths due to covid? Lies. Economy hobbled due to his covid response? Lies. Subversion of the Constitution. Lies.
And on and on and on. See David Rothkopf's new book, Traitor for the latest ethical analysis of Trump.
Now, Mair it is clearly aware that Trump is lying. She says so. She doesn't say whether she's aware that he is lying at the Darth Vader level. But that consideration doesn't even seem to matter, you know, because, when it comes to winning a debate, what is important is simply getting votes.
Are you still shrugging? It is, I admit, easy to accept that debates are just about getting votes. All else is irrelevant.
But let's take that deeper. Such an attitude leads to horrible things.
I hate to say it, but I get the impression that Mair and many opinion writers, if presented with the equivalent of an early stage Adolf Hitler, who is in a debate with some fictional opponent, in a tottering democracy, would claim that the Hitler-type won the debate. Why? Because the Hitler-type was more convincing.
Sure, maybe the Hitler-type advocated racism and anti-Semitism, stoking hate. But they convinced people to vote for them, right? So, they're the winner, right?
Doesn't that sound just a bit awkward to you?
We should never be calling such a person a "winner." If we do, we have bought into the trap of Arendt's "banality of evil."
Now, someone will surely say that Donald Trump is not like Hitler. Fair enough. But Trump is already evil. See Rothkopf's book. Or maybe just acknowledge that Trump is a full-bore hate-monger who is relentlessly pushing for violence. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN."
Evil should be a consideration in deciding who gets called a "winner." If you call someone a winner, it has implications. Calling a demagog a winner hides their evil. If you do this, you are helping to sow a fabric of banality over a monster.
How about this, a compromise: run another article, right alongside the one I reference above, the one where Mair and three other pundits say that Trump won. In this second article, point out that Trump is evil. Call a spade a spade.
Call Trump a devastatingly wicked influencer. Call him a talented con man. But don't, whatever you do, call him a winner.
As soon as you call him a winner, you've bought into the false framing, the framing that Trump has been trying to sell to you and to everyone else.
Frankly, even jaded voters, not that long ago, would've been horrified by Trump's lies. We Americans used to have better standards. We would never have let someone like Trump be called a 'winner' in any way that promoted him as a potential leader of our country.
What happened to us? What happened to the US?
We need to fix this. It can be done. In fact, here's the happy part of my blog. One of the NYT analysts did give an ethics-based opinion.
Will Wilkson shines a torch, leading the way where this country needs to be going.
Here is what Wilkson said:
Biden won. Character is on the ballot, Biden said, repeating a theme of his campaign. He’s right, and the contrast was evident all night. When Trump again scurrilously smeared Biden’s son, Biden honorably refused to take a shot at Trump’s kids. It can be tempting to think he missed a ripe opportunity to hit back, but the basic decency of Biden’s restraint did not go unnoticed and made the case for his candidacy in a way that Trump is completely helpless to rebut.
Character. Decency. Virtue. These are a good start. They are part of an ethical palette, the palette of rights, principles and genuine concern for advancing the common good.
Winning, when it comes to our leaders, should never be about brute force or brute persuasion. Look, even in football, despite all the bookie joints, there are rules. You don't break those rules, not without repulsing your fan base.
Politics is far more important than football. And yet we act like there are no rules in politics, none that shouldn't be broken, if you can get away with it. There's a name for that in the philosophical canon: nihilism.
If Trump succeeds, if he turns one side of the country against the other, such that our collective house cannot stand, there is no winner. We all lose.
In fact, even if you don't think Trump is evil, it should be enough that he is grossly unethical. Call him out. Again, we all lose if he succeeds in dividing us.
In conclusion, I ask the writers at the NYT to think about this. In fact, let's all think about it. Why do we shrug, qua analyst, when we think that someone might become president by riling up hate?
If we want to keep our republic, our best thinkers cannot pen opinion statements that are the equivalent of a written shrug.
We have to start thinking--believing--with passionate conviction, that no one who stirs up hate should be called a winner. We need to allow that belief to affect what we do.