Shaming Decency

One episode from McKay Coppins’s recent profile on Stephen Miller has been haunting me since I read it. Early in Miller’s work with the Trump administration, he collaborated with Steve Bannon to craft the first version of the travel ban designed to prevent “travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries” (using Coppins’s description). I’ll quote Coppins from here:

The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” They counted the anger on display as a political win.

What haunts me about this story is Bannon’s terrifying tactical brilliance in gaming what I’m going to call basic human decency. In the grand game of chess that is political discourse in the United States, Bannon (and Miller, who unlike Bannon still works in the White House) seem to me to have cannily outflanked people committed to the norms of civil discourse. I think it’s a commonplace at this point among people who oppose Trump to believe that his appeal lies largely in the frankness with which he expresses (or crassly manipulates) the id of his followers. But the travel ban episode suggests that Trump’s success also lies in playing the superegos of his opponents. All of the stuff that to us betokens civilization, which is to say, the very substance of any anti-Trump protest grounded in appeals to things like decency, democratic norms, basic Christianity, and the like—all of this leaves us perpetually a move behind the administration and its strategists, who stand ready to laugh the moment their provocation sends us to Twitter or to the streets, quaintly chattering about things like the place of persuasion in civil discourse. [Read more…]