Get the Widow on the Set: Trump’s State of the Union Address

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I felt like this, only worse

W.J. Astore

Last night’s State of the Union address was disturbing on many levels.  Republicans applauded when President Trump touted the elimination of the individual mandate for purchasing health care insurance — so it’s a good thing people have no health insurance?  Wait until they go to the emergency room for an appendectomy and leave with a bill for $20,000.  Republicans applauded as well when Trump touted the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  So it’s a good thing our President is vowing to send more “terrorists” to an offshore U.S. military prison?

I could go on and on, but what was most disturbing to me was the use of people in the audience as props for Trump’s positions.  A brave soldier who won the Bronze Star for valor was celebrated to support America’s wars overseas.  Parents whose daughters were killed by illegal immigrants were used to support Trump’s policies on immigration.  A family whose son suffered grievous, ultimately deadly, wounds in North Korea was used to support Trump’s bellicose policies toward Kim Jong-un and his regime, as was a courageous North Korean defector.

It reminded me of the Don Henley song, “Dirty Laundry” and its lines: Can we film the operation?/Is the head dead yet?/You know the boys in the newsroom got a running bet/get the widow on the set/we need dirty laundry. 

The shameless exploitation of other people’s grief is something I can’t stand.  It’s sordid and cynical and dirty.  There are many other things I could say about Trump’s State of the Union address, but my overall feeling was one of exploitation.  After his speech, I felt dirty.

Cynicism: It Defines Trump’s Words and Deeds

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He can read from a teleprompter without barking: presidential?

W.J. Astore

One word defines Trump and his cronies: cynicism.  His cabinet picks illustrate this; many of them are against the very agencies’ missions that they’re supposed to uphold, like public education, environmental protection, and decent health care.  He hires billionaires for his cabinet in the name of draining the swamp and championing the cause of the working classes.  Meanwhile, even as Trump poses as commander-in-chief, he ducks responsibility for the failed raid on Yemen, shifting it to “his” generals, whom he otherwise praises as super-capable and deeply respected.

Under Trump, Americans are witnessing the negation of idealism.  Some might say that America’s ideals such as liberty and freedom and democracy have been observed more in the breach than in practice (consider slavery, for example, or the treatment of Native Americans), but at least we had ideals.  They were imperfectly practiced, but with Trump ideals no longer matter.  It’s just cynicism, a naked grab for wealth and power.

Cynics don’t believe in much of anything, except perhaps their own perspicacity in seeing the world “as it is.”  If you don’t believe in anything, you can lash out at anything, without guilt.  And Trump is a lasher.  He attacks everything: “failed” generals, “murderous” Mexicans, “terrorist” Muslims, the “lying” press, unfair judges, even Rosie O’Donnell , beauty queens, and Nordstrom (!).  Anyone and everything can be attacked and vilified when you’re a cynic with no core beliefs other than your own rectitude.

Trump is not a leader, he’s a cynic.  A negator of meaning.  What’s amazing to me is that some in the media recently suggested he looked presidential just because he read a speech written by others off a teleprompter without barking or snarling.  Of course, cynicism is not unique to Trump; Hillary and the Democrats have their share, as Chris Hedges has noted.  Recall, for example, the silencing of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in July.  Trump just has less class, even trotting out a war widow while passing the buck on taking responsibility for her grief.

Why is cynicism so dangerous?  I recall watching a documentary on the Holocaust in which a witness to a massacre described the horrific events.  He ended with a cry against cynicism.  The negation of human life he’d witnessed had, at its core, the cynical belief that human life simply didn’t matter.  That people were just so much matter, just things to be exploited or disposed of as their “masters” decreed.

Cynicism, a denial of idealism, of higher meaning, and of humanity, was a propellant to, an accelerant of, the Holocaust.  We see cynicism in Trump’s reference to the dead Navy SEAL in the Yemen raid.  His service and death is celebrated as uniquely heroic and noble (“etched in eternity”), whereas the many Yemeni people killed, including several children, are forgotten.  They simply don’t count; they are beneath being noticed.

Cynicism is spreading in America, with Jewish tombstones being toppled over, with darker-skinned immigrants being shot and killed in the name of “taking back one’s country,” of certain Muslims being excluded solely on their country of origin.  Policies are being driven by cynicism – a cold calculus of profit and power.

To a cynic, all facts are “alternative,” which is to say a lie is judged the same way truth is, by the criterion of whether it advances one’s agenda and one’s power.  What’s “true” is what’s expedient.  To a cynic, facts are unimportant.  All that matters is what you can get people to believe, how you can manipulate them and get them to act to fulfill your agenda.

Cynicism is the enemy of idealism, of truth, of humanity.  Where it ends I truly hesitate to say.