Copyright © 2018 Spokesman-Review 7/31/2018.
One of the current complaints of the Trump right concerns the treatment given to Alex Jones by Facebook, which has temporarily banned the radio host for videos that violated “community standards.” According to Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, “freedom of speech [is] under attack.” Fox News television personality Tucker Carlson has also come to Jones’ defense, saying sarcastically, “I know we’re supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than, like, Bill Maher.”
Well, yes, that is precisely what we should think. At various points, Jones has promoted the belief that 9/11 was an “inside job,” that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, that NASA had built a child slave colony on Mars in order to harvest blood and bone marrow, that the Oklahoma City bombing, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook school shooting were government “false flag” operations, that some shooting survivors were “crisis actors,” that “globalists” are intent on committing genocide and that Democrats are on the verge of launching a second civil war.
There are few things I enjoy less than spilling ink on Jones’ vile lunacy. But Donald Trump has made a great many unpleasant things unavoidable. The president has appeared on Jones’ Infowars program and assured him that his “reputation is amazing.” The White House briefly gave Infowars a press credential. And Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars stories.
So what explains this theatrical wink and nod to the Bedlam wing of the hard right?
This instance is important, not just for its directly destructive influence on political discourse, but for its explanatory power. It represents not only a certain approach to political strategy, but a certain approach to morality, pressed to its logical extreme. Trump is not a dogmatist; he is an egotist. He judges others not by their convictions or even by their hold on reality, but by their fidelity to his person. It is a form of identity politics in which all that counts is one man’s identity. So Sen. John McCain, being faithless to Trump, is an enemy. And the revealer of child slavery on Mars is a friend.
This is but one example of Trumpian ethics. Remember when a white man in Boston, spouting Trump slogans, beat up a homeless man outside a subway station? Trump responded: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.” Remember when a Trump supporter punched an African-American man at a rally? Trump said his follower “obviously loves his country.” Remember when the alt-right provoked violence in Charlottesville? Trump pronounced some white nationalists to be “very fine people.”
The president has a nearly impossible time criticizing his fans, even when they are guilty of hate crimes and violence. In Trump’s own private creed, they are absolved of guilt by their loyalty to him. This commitment transforms their cruelty into the proof of passion; their prejudice into an expression of patriotism; their lawlessness into the embrace of his higher order. Just ask former sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned after his abuse of Hispanic migrants. Or ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, pardoned after defying the federal government. All were justified and sanctified by their devotion to Trump.
Any political movement is defined, not just by what it aspires to, but by whom it excludes. And the alt-right, the Alex Jones right, the white nationalist right, know that they are fully included in Trump’s definition of his movement. They have become experts in tacking to the shifting winds of his whims. They know that their loyalty to him has been rewarded with a legitimacy they have craved for decades. And they are full, enthusiastic partners in the Trump project – to delegitimize any source of authority and information but his own.
Back in the world of actual morality, there is serious collateral damage. Congressional Republicans are further tainted by their association with right-wing extremism. Genuine populists are discredited by consorting with people who accuse elites of arming for mass murder. The religious right is caught in bed with a diseased, seeping moral relativism. And Fox anchors come to the defense of a man who verbally defiles the graves of murdered children.
In spite of attempts at utilitarian justification – in spite of outrage-dulling repetition – this is not normal or moral.
It will never be normal or moral. Michael Gerson, a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and a senior policy adviser