A couple weeks ago, a BBC interview went viral in which conservative commentator and Harvard Law alum, Ben Shapiro, cut his interview short, telling his interviewer, Andrew Neil, that “I’m popular and no one’s heard of you.” Shapiro later walked back his position on Twitter, admitting he wasn’t properly prepared for the interview.
The interview lasted for roughly sixteen minutes, and prior to the juicier moments making headlines, Neil and Shapiro engaged in some substantive discussion. While Shapiro’s early exit from the interview made for good clickbait, I’m far more concerned with a stance on President Trump that Shapiro put forward during the interview.
Shapiro was highly critical of Trump in the months leading up to the 2016 election. Shapiro posted a six minute video on YouTube in February 2016 titled “Donald Trump is a Liar” and in March 2016 published a piece titled “I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump: Here’s Why.”
Yet like many Republicans who tout the importance of moral values, Shapiro seems increasingly willing to overlook Trump’s moral flaws in the face of Trump’s success in enacting Republican policies.
When asked during his BBC interview if he would vote for Biden or Trump in 2020, Shapiro stated that he would vote for Trump. In justifying his position Shapiro stated “I think the damage that President Trump has done to the country, on a character and rhetorical level, has already been done and cannot be undone. I don’t see it as getting worse day by day. That is the new status quo unfortunately.”
I think this is a serious mistake. While Donald Trump has indeed inflicted significant damage on the moral and political order of the United States through his incessant lies and name-calling, among other things, the character damage that Trump could inflict on the country is far from complete. One of the constant themes of Donald Trump’s rise to power has been a collective underestimation of how far Trump’s reckless and self-interested behavior will drag us all down. This is part of what it means, in James Comey’s terms, to say that “Trump eats your soul in small bites.”
Here are three reasons to think that allowing Trump to stay in power in 2020 will cause additional harm to our democracy. First, Trump’s lies undermine the democratic political structure of the United States. Second, Trump appears eager to take an unconstitutional level of power. Third, a victory for Trump in 2020 rewards immoral behavior and incentivizes such behavior on the part of others. Let’s consider each in turn.
First, the longer we witness Trump in power, despite his deluge of boldly delivered untruths, the harder it will be for us as a society to trust our leaders or to feel like the truth matters or is discoverable. Trump has brought mainstream a state of epistemic chaos by fiercely challenging and undermining the credibility of the institutions tasked with discovering and disseminating useful information to society at large. This state of epistemic chaos has also ushered in a state of epistemic exhaustion.
Michiko Kakutani puts the point well in the Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Truth writing that the “voluminous stream of lies, scandals, and shocks emitted by Trump, his GOP enablers, and media apparatchiks…tends to overwhelm and numb people while simultaneously defining deviancy down and normalizing the unacceptable. Outrage gives way to outrage fatigue, which gives way to the sort of cynicism and weariness that empowers those disseminating lies.”
The truth matters in part because the lies of leaders pull apart the fabric of organized society. As the character Jon Snow proclaimed in Season 7 of Game of Thrones: “when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies.”
Second, Trump has consistently pushed the boundaries of the checks and balances established by our constitution. Trump is good at saying things in such a way that they can be passed off as mere jokes, but which more likely reveal his true intentions. For example, in a single day Trump levied attacks against both the Third Branch of Government and the Fourth Estate claiming that “we should get rid of judges” and that the media is the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” He has also on more than one occasion suggested that he should be allowed to remain in office as president longer than the constitutionally prescribed two-term limit.
While Americans often seem to be under the impression that authoritarianism “can’t happen here,” we ought not put ourselves in a position where we risk learning that this is false optimism. The longer Trump is in power, the more time he is given to consolidate undue levels of power, contra Shapiro’s claim that things are not getting worse day by day.
Third, a victory for Trump in 2020 reinforces the message that being a corrupt, lying bully is a successful political strategy in the United States. If Trump is soundly defeated in 2020, whether by a Republican primary challenger or a Democratic opponent, the people show that there are consequences for lying, for disrespecting others, for being corrupt. But failing to send this message will incentivize more of the same. Only if Trump’s actions are not repudiated does his behavior truly become the status quo. And whether Trump will be denounced is something that time will tell.
For Republicans, the challenge to Trump should begin now. It may cost you some political momentum in the short run, but that seems like a better alternative that allowing Trump to continue to consume you in small bites. As for Democrats, the work of rebuffing Trump includes holding him accountable, promoting candidates with laudable values and policies, and fighting for a more just and equal election system that does not inflate the influence of certain voters over others and that no longer excludes whole classes of citizens from the voting rolls.
Shapiro is mistaken that leaving Trump in power wouldn’t further harm our nation. But his fatalistic view of the “new status quo” is also a significant mistake. National political discourse is a dynamic process made up the choices of the individual political actors and holders of power. While Trump has been highly effective in dragging others down to his least common denominator, this need not be our future.
My call to my fellow members of the graduating Harvard Law School Class of 2019 is to never give into allowing the political hellscape Trump has ushered in to remain the status quo. Many of you will become the powerholders and political leaders of the next generation. No matter your political leanings, I implore you to take seriously the value of truth, to invest in respectful treatment of and conversation with others, to stay humble and aware of your need for guidance and advice from others, and to never use the power you’ve been given to bully or belittle others.
Our political future can be better than the one we’re inheriting. Let’s work together to make it so.