Part 3—Pretending we weren't "benumbed:" Soon after the attacks of September 11, Tony Judt revisited Albert Camus' famous novel, The Plague, in the pages of the Guardian.
All in all, we're not sure we understand or agree with Judt's implied perspective. "In New York, in November 2001, we are better placed than we could ever have wished to feel the lash of the novel's astonishing final sentence?"
In that final sentence, which Judt later quotes, Camus' narrator reminds his readers that the human race is never free from the possibility of pestilence. Here is The Plague's final sentence, as presented in the current standard translation:
"[Rieux] knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books; that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city."
That final sentence warns us of what is eternally possible. In his treatment of Camus' novel, Judt helps us recall the basic ways we humans let plague re-emerge.
Camus, of course, had written a fable about a sun-splashed city, Oran. Beneath its sun-drenched surface, his story was meant to describe the way Europe had become the victim of a vastly destructive political plague.
In Part 1 of this report, we noted the way Camus' fictional townspeople were unprepared to recognize the onset of plague in Oran. In this passage, Judt also recalls what those townsfolk did after the plague had passed:
JUDT (11/16/01): Camus's account of the coming of the rats echoed a widespread view of the divided condition of France itself in 1940...Camus' townspeople engage in two forms of denial. When people start dying, they refuse to consider the possibility that an actual plague may be underway.
For a long time people don't realise what is happening and life seems to go on—"in appearance, nothing had changed"; "The city was inhabited by people asleep on their feet." Later, when the plague has passed, amnesia sets in—"they denied that we had been that benumbed people." All this and much more—the black market, the failure of administrators to call things by their name and assume the moral leadership of the nation—so well described the recent French past that Camus's intentions could hardly be misread.
After it's over, the deny that they ever were so benumbed. They deny their own prior denial.
Today, we live in a type of Oran. We're afflicted by a type of pestilence widely described as Trumpism.
That said, Donald J. Trump's version of Trumpism didn't "crash down on our heads from a blue sky," to use more of Camus' language. Waves of Trumpists established the culture of Trumpism long before Trump crawled along.
Within the world of the mainstream and liberal press, several generations of career players chose to ignore those earlier waves of Trumpists. Today, they're in denial about the fact that they played the role of Camus' "benumbed people"—that they constantly chose to avert their gaze as the rats crawled all through Oran.
This group denial is being enacted all over the play-for-pay press corps. What are these people denying? Let's return to Rachel Maddow's account of the basic way Trumpism works.
Last Friday night, Maddow gave a good account of the way her colleagues react to the conduct of Donald J. Trump. Her analysis started with her account of the way Trump himself functions.
All politicians seek to distract us, Maddow proclaimed as she started. ("Look who's talking!" one analyst cried.) She then described, quite correctly, what makes Trump so different:
MADDOW (6/30/17): What our new president does is different. What our new president does is really a special twist on that tradition. There is a special ingredient that he is willing to cook with, that nobody else is.Just to be clear: many people would not agree with that account of Trump's conduct. They would be inclined to describe his behavior in a more affirmative way.
And that is that he deliberately tries not just to distract, but to offend. He doesn't just merely distract people, he disgusts people. He breaks the bounds of decency. Breaks the bounds of what people generally agree are the moral rules for engagement in public discourse, and he breaks those rules in a way that doesn't just start a new narrative, it stops all normal politics and all normal media coverage of current events.
His specialty, what marks him out is really a different kind of cat, is that he is very willing, happy even, deliberately trying to go past the merely controversial. He goes past provocative. He goes right to language, right to public discourse and behavior, that instead of just being controversial or provocative is considered abusive, or even repulsive.
But that is a very good description of the way Trump's behavior strikes a wide range of professional journalists. In their view, Trump's behavior "breaks the bounds of [conventional] decency." His behavior takes us all the way to the realm of disgust.
People feel compelled to respond to such disgusting behavior, Maddow said. Trump's bahavior "makes us want to express our opposition, to weigh in as being opposed to this vile thing, this vile behavior that we have seen from somebody in that kind of position," Maddow correctly said.
Maddow said this feeling is understandable, even commendable. But rather clearly, she seemed to say that this reaction plays into Trump's hands.
Maddow was speaking in the wake of Trump's attack on Mika Brzeznski's alleged bleeding face-lift, which of course never occurred. In the passage shown below, Maddow said she shared that sense of disgust.
She also said she thought the resulting wave of outrage played into Trump's hands. She said she doesn't know the cure for this problem, which borders on a pestilence:
MADDOW: What the president said yesterday about two of our colleagues here at MSNBC is absolutely worthy, worthy of shock and condemnation, which it has rightfully earned and which I share. And honestly, which everybody shares. And if it goes beyond what it appears to be and it reflects an underlying effort at extortion or coercion, that should be investigate as a potential criminal matter.Maddow went on to theorize about the motives behind what Trump had said. In these speculations, she was on spectacularly shaky ground—but then, what else is new?
And on top of that, we also, as a country, have to decide exactly how much we're going to play requests from him. Exactly how much we're going to talk what he wants us to talk about. How much we're going to behave the way he wants us to behave. How much we're going to snap to attention, snap our attention to him when he commands it.
All politicians learn to distract. This metastasized version of distraction that he plays, though, is deliberately and I think we'll realize in the end seriously harmful to the country, and to the presidency specifically. That is the magic ingredient that he is willing to cook with that no other politician will.
And, again, no, I don't know what the cure is to that. When people are willing to do harm of that kind, and there is no way to stop them from doing it.
I don't know what the cure is to that...
In this part of her opening monologue, Maddow gave a good account of the way the mainstream press corps responds to Donald J. Trump's version of Trumpism.
To state the obvious, she was wrong in saying that "everybody shares" this reaction to Trump's comments. Indeed, the fact that Maddow would be inclined to make such a claim is part of the problem we face.
That said, Maddow gave an excellent account of the way the people she considers decent respond to Trump's behavior. She's right—his behavior takes his critics to the level of moral disgust. To those who oppose this latest Trumpist, his behavior moves well past standard political norms to the level of "repulsive."
In some ways, that's how his behavior strikes us, though we'd be inclined to see his behavior as stupid, fallen and pitiable rather than "vile." (We'd make the same assessment of Joe and Mika's ridiculous conduct over the past dozen years.)
Beyond that, we tend to agree with Maddow's assessment. When the press corps widely expresses disgust, their reactions may play into Trump's hand.
That said, we offer this observation:
Behavior like Trump's has been a major part of our discourse for perhaps fifty years. It may have started with 27-year-old Les Crane in the summer of '61!
The Trumpism of Donald J. Trump actually didn't "crash down on our heads from a blue sky." It has been practiced by a wide array of major players ever since Crane decided to try insulting people as he slammed down the phone.
Where was the outrage all those years as these endless self-dealing pioneers kept crawling into Oran? A major array of pioneers established the repulsive norms of Trumpism long before Donald J. Trump came along. Today, our press corps denies that they were ever the "benumbed people" who let all this pestilence pass.
A major array of pioneers established Trumpism's repulsive norms. With her endorsement of Howard Stern, Maddow, herself a pioneer, has chosen to praise every one!
Tomorrow: Where was this exquisite sense of revulsion back then?