Donald Trump has been a major figure in American public life since the 1980s, and from the beginning he was the avatar of the complete cynicism that had overtaken the country in the Reagan years. Trump received accolades and wealth all while behaving like a completely amoral asshole. Despite his multiple bankruptcies millions of American workers tuned in to watch him fire people on television, gloating in schadenfreude. His victory in 2016 affirmed that he is the true representation of a country where consumerism and the almighty dollar have become the dominant religions.
Trump well knows that the worship of materialism and egotism creates a mentality whereby actually believing in something makes you a loser or a sucker. Whenever Trump is confronted with wrongdoing, or seemingly painted into a corner by his own stupidity, he relies on the cynicism of his audience.
Take this week, when he justified his abandonment of the Kurds to ethnic cleansing by saying that they were "no angels." The implication was that people who think anyone in the world is innocent and people who believe in altruism are dopes. The implicit statement is "The world is shit and everyone is guilty so who cares if anyone gets hurt as long as we benefit." It also reminded me of when he was confronted with Putin's brutality. Trump retorted by saying "we have killers too." His message there was essentially the same.
It is sadly an effective message because the vast majority of Americans, even those on the left side of the spectrum, are deeply cynical. Whenever anyone expresses shock at the latest atrocity, someone on social media will immediately respond and say "How is anyone actually surprised by this?" This response devalues human emotion and replaces it with an insufferable know-it-all ironic distance.
I have been limiting my exposure to Twitter because it is so drenched in the knowing cynicism eating away at society. Even people I agree with have so carefully crafted a persona where they are constantly above it all, always showing the world just how smart they are for saying "of course" whenever something bad happens.
I have resolved to be corny, to drop the knowing cynicism. I do not think positive social change is possible if we cannot give our whole hearts and souls over to a cause, rather than reserving some of our emotion for the sake of maintaining the cynical pose. Trump and his minions thrive on the cynicism of their supporters. They need the Bible thumpers who support a mammon worshipper, the isolationists who get behind sending troops to Saudi Arabia, the decriers of government waste who turn the other way when the president makes the government pay him to vacation at his properties. We need to oppose that cynicism with care.
The only way forward is to model a politics based on full-hearted emotional engagement and the willingness to actually believe in something. If we don't actually commit to those beliefs, we will always be at the mercy of the cynics.