January 16, 2019

The aesthetics of argument in the age of Trump

When intense beliefs coalesce with high stakes to flood our consciousness, it’s not convenient to worry about how we come across. We’re living through one of those moments right now. People who are in emotional meltdown over the fact that a “humanly impoverished con-man,” in the words of Phillip Roth, is now leader of the free world, are lashing out in ways they would not otherwise.

I have seen people who are usually impossibly polite lose their cool when the subject of Donald Trump comes up. The tiniest hint of defending a man they abhor can trigger their emotions.

I saw this personally last week when I wrote a piece on the day of Trump’s inauguration titled, “If you’re happy about Trump, better keep your mouth shut.” My point was that people who love Obama and hate Trump tend to have little tolerance for those in the opposite camp. The idea of Trump replacing Obama, I wrote, is “so maddening and painful that they refuse to entertain the possibility that any decent human being may think differently.”

A friend who abhors Trump took me on for appearing to defend him, even though I didn’t say anything good about the man. I guess when you believe in your bone marrow that Trump is a racist, sexist, nativist and a bigot, the mere absence of criticism is enough to engender outrage. In the case of my friend, tolerating a Trump defender is seen as tolerating intolerance, which is out of the question.

My bigger point, though, is this: We should not underestimate the power of Trump to tear us apart. When feelings are so raw and stakes are so high, that can easily trump the etiquette of friendships.

When I told my friend that, for me, “friendships always come first,” the answer was, “For me, the dignity and rights of all people come first. Intolerance, is, and will always be, intolerable.”

My response was to double down on friendship. “I am incapable of having any negative energy towards you,” I wrote back. I didn’t think my piece warranted the criticism– it focused, after all, on human dynamics rather than politics—but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t interested in engaging in a tit-for-tat to win an argument. I really like this person, and, for me, that sentiment came first. We were able to patch things up.

Friendships clashing over politics is hardly a new phenomenon– just remember last year’s divisive debate over the Iran nuclear deal. But is the Trump situation any worse? I think so. The Iran argument was over a specific deal. The Trump argument is about a divisive and explosive individual who will run the free world over the next four years. The opportunities to fight and argue will be varied and endless.

So, how will we argue? How will we fight?

All I can say is this: politics matters, but so do aesthetics. There’s something to be said for the way we say things, for judging how an argument is made rather than just whether or not we agree with it. The humanity is more in the how than the what.

At the moment, the how is looking uglier by the day. When actress Ashley Judd tells half a million protesters at the Women’s March that our new president is “a man who looks like he bathes in Cheetos dust” and Madonna says she wants to “blow up” the White House, you know we’re entering a new level of ugly.

In a way, Trump may be the ultimate test of our humanity. When dark and justifiable beliefs submerge our consciousness, can we find room for tolerating beliefs we find intolerable? Can we find human ways to deal with those whose views we simply can’t fathom?

I’m voting for humanity.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.