Ethics & Public Policy Center

America Is Torn Between Trump’s Fibs and Progressives’ Fantasies

Published in The Wall Street Journal on February 15, 2019


As a teenager in the 1930s, my mother was an idealistic, card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Then came Stalin’s Moscow show trials. The scales fell from her eyes. She quit the party. Her Philadelphia cell declared her “an enemy of the people.” She was proud of that, but she went on listening to Paul Robeson records. As the years passed she gave up Trotsky for Adlai Stevenson.

My father, meantime, became an editor at the Saturday Evening Post in the days after World War II, when America was able to imagine itself as a Norman Rockwell painting. After that, he served for many years as an aide to Gov. and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. One night in 1979, he announced Rockefeller’s death before the television cameras. He thought it his duty as a gentleman to lie about the circumstances, and he never got over the shame of that lie.

I absorbed the point of view of both communists and Rockefellers. My parents had both started as magazine journalists, and I followed them in that work. It permitted a third way. In those days, inconsistency, ambivalence and political confusion could be ennobled as “objectivity.” It wasn’t yet considered unprincipled for a journalist to be able to see both sides of an issue.

My double-mindedness persists in the Age of Trump, as the passions of my parents’ 1930s seem to replay themselves in 21st-century variations.

One interesting similarity between the eras is the presence of accomplished illusionists in the White House—Franklin Roosevelt and Donald Trump.

But the two men are opposites in all other respects, with different politics and purposes and ways of doing their hair, and different places in history. They would not have liked each other. Roosevelt would have called Mr. Trump “that dreadful man.”

Only in the techniques of truth and lies, and in treating the presidency as performance art, would FDR and DJT have admitted a fleeting affinity. They have entertained the world with a few of the same tricks. Roosevelt was an impresario of fake news. Mr. Trump’s tweets might be seen as FDR’s fireside chats in a different idiom.

The ’30s are a vanished world. Much of the 20th century has become a sort of Atlantis, and analogies between the old time and our own are tenuous. A political archaeologist might find that the most reliable common denominator is what could be called the unchanging metaphysics of lying. As Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago, human beings have a “natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.”

Mr. Trump works with huckster falsehoods—the flashy superlatives of a car salesman. The progressive left works with conceptual falsities. Voters in 2020 will decide which style of lies they prefer.

Mr. Trump composes his reality after the manner of a Renaissance painter’s pentimento, except that he works at the speed of Twitter , making adjustments as circumstances shift. He slaps new paint over old facts when they become inconvenient. Mr. Trump’s abuses, he and his followers believe, somehow come right by coalescing in a larger truth—the mythic America that radiated from my father’s old Saturday Evening Post and came to its apotheosis in the Neverland of Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s.

The progressive left embraces new visions of perfection—tamer in its methods than its 1930s predecessors, but sometimes outdistancing them in the fusion of dogmatic correctness with a fairly advanced decadence. Progressives are busy reinventing the Kingdom of God on Earth, trying to make their version as different as possible from his. They contrive elaborate new genders, for example—ones the deity didn’t think of. They invent vocabularies, terms ecstatic and bristling—“cisgendered,” “heteronormative,” “intersectionality”—designed to bully reality into compliance.

Their version of the kingdom mixes hopes of social justice with sexual nullifications and revenge fantasies. In my mother’s time, the far left in its dreams crushed capitalism and ushered the workers into paradise. Today they sweep white civilization and toxic males into the dustbin of history.

Affirmative action, now a permanent fixture of American society, remains out of step with the country’s basic idea of fairness.

“Diversity,” politicized and bureaucratically institutionalized, forms the basis for systems of un-American coercion.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of valuing a man’s character over the color of his skin remains the gold standard, and yet even his greatest admirers claim it doesn’t really apply anymore—or never did.

The progressive notion of gender as a “social construct,” rather than sex as a fact of nature, contradicts ages worth of human experience about the biological roles of men and women in the drama of procreation and survival.

The rule of law is cast aside for a 13th-century dream of open borders and sanctuary cities.

The left disparages masculinity as evil and Western civilization as monstrous, hoping to extinguish the intellectual and moral legacy that created the U.S. in the first place. If we are not careful, the strategy might work.

The 1930s came to a violent end on Sept. 1, 1939, when the Nazis marched into Poland. Thus began World War II. Three weeks later, I was born in a small hospital in downtown Philadelphia whose normal business was performing illegal abortions. I am delighted that they made an exception in my case.

Mr. Morrow, a journalist and essayist, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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