Donald Trump has wanted the 2018 midterm elections to be about one thing: himself. That is not because he wants to seek support for his record, because in a deep sense he has none, or for his principles, because he assuredly has none. It is because, like all narcissists, the world must always revolve around him, and finally reduce itself to him — that is, to the emptiness at his core that no world could ever fill. This is the one and only salient fact about him, and, for us, the stark and essential one we must confront with the only tool available to us as citizens: the ballot box. If we don’t use it now, it may not be around much longer in any meaningful sense.
Trump may not have a record — his tax cut was written by others, and his court nominees chosen by others — but he does have a long and impressive trail of destruction. He has abandoned treaties, shattered alliances, unsettled the world trade economy, destabilized the nuclear detente with Russia and Iran, threatened nuclear war against North Korea, fostered climate devastation and roused the ugliest impulses of the most confused and susceptible among us. One is spoiled for choice among the worst of these acts. But, I would suggest, there is a single overriding issue in the present election, one defined not by Trump and his acts, but by us. And that is common decency.
By common decency, I mean the ordinary, everyday behavior of the vast majority of people in a functioning society, and the unspoken but vital assumptions that lie behind it. It begins with the behavior we exhibit in our interactions with family, friends, neighbors and local community, and by extension the wider community in terms of which we define our identity and obligation. In the modern world, that leads, culturally and politically, to the nation, but, as we have learned to bitter cost in the past century, that border cannot be a final one either: in fact, there can be no such border without peril. We are all part of a wider human community, but that too is not an end point. We share our planetary habitat with a multitude of other creatures with whom we are connected in a chain of life, and with the organic life in general that sustains us. No less a sense of obligation and dependence is essential to our survival as individuals, communities and, ultimately, as a species.
This may seem to take us far beyond a notion of decency, but how we think and act is tied in the end to what we respect. And we need to begin, as most of us do every day, by respecting one another.
It is this that Donald Trump and his presidency has put at risk. We can be divided, and we have been, by a leader who lacks even self-respect, because he can neither see nor take responsibility for any of his acts. Trump needs the daily validation of “ratings,” of rallies, of ceaseless affirmation by others, because, like most narcissists, he lacks a personal core, and what he is finally about is nihilism. Such a person can be fiercely energetic, because his daily task is the impossible one of confirming himself in a world of one. Trump is indeed a man of such energy; it is the most obvious thing about him, from the 4 a.m. tweets to the nighttime rallies. Does the man never sleep? It’s a question that’s often, if for the most part, implicitly asked. And the answer is, apart from the minimum of shut-eye the creature requires, no. Donald Trump can’t afford to sleep. He is afraid he would cease to exist if he had to.
The effect of Trump, on every level, is that of a destructive whirlwind; he is a Category 5 hurricane coming at us every day. And he spawns smaller tornadoes everywhere in his wake: the pipe bombers and the church and synagogue and school shooters most obviously; the vicious ideologues and bigots and haters who stand, actually or potentially, ready to step into their places or simply to exploit the giant vacuity that is Trump for their own purposes; the worst impulses that beset us all as our own sense of balance wavers.
Trump in himself is nothing, a serial bankrupt who hung around the margins of celebrity for decades, mostly as a joke. Clothed in the powers of the presidency, the sum of his absences — of love or empathy, of knowledge or principle, of true identity in its most basic sense — is an awesomely negative force. He wanted to make himself the issue of this election campaign as he needs to be the center of everything, and he has. So the first response we need to make is to reject him, and all those who have shown themselves willing to serve him.
That, though, is only a beginning. If we neutralize Trump but do not regain his ordinary supporters, we lose the essential battle: we harden our divisions, and leave those whose grievances and resentments have made him possible to await the next demagogue. Hillary Clinton described the most entrenched of Trump’s supporters as the “deplorables,” with whom reasoned debate was by definition impossible. Nowadays, those who continue to support him are casually dismissed by many as fascists. What we mean by this is that they are impervious to reason and lacking what the rest of us presumably possess, namely common decency. But if we write off what the polls still tell us is roughly 40 percent of the population, to whom will we speak? To our virtuous selves alone? And what then becomes of our national community, not to say our democracy?
We need, therefore, not merely to define what we oppose but what we affirm: our common community and our common humanity. That won’t be easy. There are real and quite objective forces that do divide us: a winner-takes-all culture of personal profit and aggrandizement, deeply institutionalized; an entrenched tendency to fear and suspect those unlike ourselves; a loss of connection and respect for the natural world that sustains us. Any number of elections won’t fix this. But we have to start somewhere, and that is on Nov. 6. When we do, let us vote both with and for the garment we wake up in every day before we put on our clothes: our common decency.