Beyond the Political Etiquette of Previous Generations

I’m tired of hearing about how Donald Trump, the president-elect, is breaking the old molds and doing things in a new and different way. It hasn’t been news for almost a year. He is, and will, and will continue to. And whether you like him or not, whether you agree with (one of) his many (often contradictory) promises and claims or don’t buy into it at all, can we just move forward past the failures of the pundits and the blame game and all the rest? [Yes, I know, some of it is important. The integrity of the US elections is at stake, and what was or wasn’t done needs to be investigated. Perhaps, just perhaps, as that happens, we will realize that we ourselves have done the very things that we are scandalized by when they are done to us. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will learn to change some of our behaviors.]

Whatever politics were at whatever time in the past you refer to; things are different… and they are still the same. At least since Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation we have not been the nation we were before nor had the government we had before. The truth is that the mold was broken long ago, before most of us could even vote. Whether we look at the great popular movements (and counter movements) of the ’60s, at Camelot, which Jackie Kennedy apparently created single handedly, or Nixon’s rise and fall — somewhere between McCarthyism, the now uncontested subverting the Vietnam peace talks, and the bungled break-in at the Watergate and the subsequent cover-up — or even Clinton’s shift of the Democratic party to a centrist party of milktoasts, we must recognize that with the increasing partisanship in this country and the now ever-present gridlock in Washington, D.C., things have not been working smoothly for a very long time. Blame it on who you will. There is plenty of blame to go around, and no party is blameless.

While Barack Obama may have been the first president who was a part of the digital revolution with children who grew up in it; Donald Trump is the first president of the rest of what that digital revolution portends — the first president of the reality-tv nation.

Trump’s telephone calls and tweets have, even before he has taken the oath of office, affected both this nation and others. They have caused nations to rattle savers, or sheath them; industry to announce changes and stop construction projects; and people all over to flop and run around like chickens with their heads cut off. They have caused his own party to make a u-turn on ethics in the congress.

Yes, the Trump administration will be very different from any other in recent memory. It must be: not because others have been feckless, but because congress is broken and its brokenness has affected the other two branches of government; because if it is not, we may very well find ourselves on the brink of revolution. The Trump administration will not pay lip-service to the  decorum of a past and lost system (though it claims to want to return us to its heyday), it will not base its actions and policies on the foundational principals of the this nation (though through its court appointments it will ensure the most regressive court this nation has ever known), nor probably even couch its policies in that language. Rather, it will be a transnational presidency based on the assumption that, with apologies to Ford and Detroit, as goes the Trump brand, so goes the nation. Of course,  Detroit actually produced something, and Ford paid his employees such that they could afford to purchase the product they made. But as we have learned through reality tv, what matters is not what is best, most helpful, maximizes utility; rather it is what can create drama, stir up emotions, and promise the impossible — hopefully making it true, at least for someone. And it is this type of administration which will dictate our international and commercial affairs, our military decisions and the future of this great nation. It is this administration which  will, by admitting what all know (or should have known) that the emperor has had no clothes. The new normal for this country’s governance and self-identity, it policies affecting education and science, the balance between natural resources and development, and our direction for the next several decades will be and is being hammered out.

All of us, if we have our wits about us, will try to be a part of that process, that new and different process, that terrifying and awesome process by which almost 350 million are governed and protected, how the single largest international monetary system and economy will will change the world.

I do not doubt that were Hillary Clinton to have been elected, the same would have been true in greater or lesser measure. The difference, however, is that while the Clinton Foundation may well have polished the Clintons’ name (and, as with most things Clinton, suffered from sloppiness, intermingling, and a perceived need for privacy and protection that both boggles the mind and far exceeds its value), it was and still is an actual charity doing work to transform the world into something better, improving the lives and welfare of a broad, and primarily under-serviced and under-recognized portion of the world’s population. Nothing even vaguely altruistic can be said about the Trump Foundation — it exists for the benefit of the Trump name and image, and that alone.

Eisenhower said, in the speech referenced above, that for the first time in the history of the US, we had become a purveyor of armaments. The industry of plowshares had been transformed but not returned to its previous role. He said that “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity” because of the money it controls. No president has taken heed of these cautions, and the power of industry and individual interest groups has only increased in the meantime.

Reading through several editions of Emily Post’s books on etiquette, one cannot help but be struck by the changes in the world by the time of the post WW II era. The section on chaperones seems quaint, on drinking, unimaginable, and that on private trains for a wedding might come from a British serial. However, it is in many ways these very transitions which are, for the very first time, taking place as the yet-to-come Trump administration prepares to take office. Mrs. Post always took pains in her editions to address both those accustomed to the old ways and uncomfortable with the changes, and those neither reared in nor now living in that world. Perhaps, that is the role of etiquette — not just to tell us how things “should” be done, but prepare us for the fact that these things change over time. They always have.

The question for us is whether this representational democracy can, indeed, govern a republic like these United States. Our challenge remains to discover and hold fast to some way that will allow this post-modern society [filled with a reality-tv-show-like media circus] can hold accountable its elected representatives, including the president (and the executive administration) to actually act in the interest of the πόλις, and make the hard choices required to prosper it rather than just to please its populace. Will it function in a way only designed to service the monied interests while giving lip service to gain itself the best ratings in terms of viewership and entertainment? Or will we insist that not be the case?

This week, the congress discovered to its chagrin, that business as usual didn’t quite fit the bill. But, as anyone who has studied systems knows, they tend to try to recapture any past stability they have had. Perhaps, it is time for an intervention.