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How Anti-Trump Hyperbole Fosters Insanity

One the strangest features of our political life in the United States today is the reckless abandon of our rhetoric. “Oh, that’s because Donald Trump has debased political discourse,” you say. “He calls women ‘dogs,' he refers to Kim Jong-un as ‘Rocket Man,’ he says the press is ‘fake news’ and the ‘enemy of the people,’” etc., etc.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Some diligent scribe should do a little historical digging and tabulate where, in each case of rhetorical Trumpery, the insults and opprobrium started.  Did Donald Trump start the abuse?  Or did his targets open hostilities?

In many, maybe most (maybe all) cases I suspect you will find that Trump’s invectives were rejoinders, i.e., responses to earlier provocations and expressions of contempt.  Trump made fun of “low-energy Jeb,” but wasn’t that after Jeb said some pretty disagreeable things about Trump?

In any event, however the matter of precedent shakes out, there is also the issue of extreme rhetoric feeding extreme feelings and extreme actions. Simply put, the anti-Trump chorus has worked itself into a frenzy of trembling rage and hysterical overstatement.  Trump is Hitler (literally); his behavior is “treasonous” (or, as The New York Times put it, he is a “treasonous traitor”); he is a “fascist,” a “moron," a “tyrant” who (as tyrants tend to do) is taking the United States down “the path to tyranny.” Et very much cetera.

Now in one sense this is just business as usual when a Republican is in office.  Every GOP president going back at least to Nixon has been compared to Hitler. If Hitler hadn’t existed, the Left would have had to invent him.  Even squeaky clean Mitt Romney was Hitler for a Day, an evil man who (maybe) once bullied a classmate in high school and later put the family dog in a cage on the roof of his car.  Horrors!

All this is well-trod ground.  If you’re conservative, you’re evil by definition and its open season as far as the mainstream media is concerned.

But the reaction to Donald Trump, although it began by following this playbook, has mutated into something different and more toxic.

One expression of that toxic difference is the cabal of former high-ranking government officials who, in a marked departure from past practice, have embarked on very public campaigns against the president. One thinks of jabbering John Brennan, Obama’s head of the CIA, for example. Brennan’s incontinent ravings on Twitter and on MSNBC have been as embarrassing as they are alarming.  James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, has not been far behind in his commentary at CNN.  And then there is the smarmiest of them all, Obama’s FBI director, the moist James Comey, who wrote a bestselling book about how noble and high-minded he is and how horrible and misguided is President Trump.

Once upon a time, and it was not a long time ago, people who had been entrusted with such august responsibilities would have maintained a dignified silence upon leaving office.  Donald Trump has catalyzed them (as he has catalyzed Hillary Clinton) into an embarrassing emunctory garrulousness. (There is also the little matter of lucre: those contracts with CNN and MSNBC, those book advances and royalties.)

But there is something else, something darker and more twisted, at work here. In the Republic, Socrates notes that while many people may lie with abandon, the one thing no one can countenance is the “lie in the soul” that makes it impossible to distinguish reliably between truth and falsehood.