From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
On Human Decency
by Vu Tran
I commit to take action because I’m on the side of human decency. Ever since Donald Trump’s rise in the 2016 primaries, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a decent human being, to “conform to generally acceptable standards of respectable and moral behavior.” Since his election, such standards have become more important to me than my own politics. I’ve simply seen too many decent people turn a blind eye to blatant indecency, my friends and family among them. Perhaps they’re misinformed or not paying enough attention, or perhaps they value their political agenda more than the conduct of the president who’s helping them achieve it. We all have our partisan principles, wrapped up in how we believe humans should act, but who and what we choose as our vehicle for progress is as important as the progress itself. There are currently millions of Americans who look past the president’s outlandish, unseemly actions and see only what they want to see: a man who cares about their interests, who’s finally getting things done in Washington, who cuts through the bullshit like no other politician before him. Even if any of that were true, I wonder: do they truly believe he’s also a decent man? Are they truly okay with how flawed their vehicle for change is?
One need not be a saint to be decent. One need not be without flaws or weaknesses. I was raised Catholic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible Belt, and on top of that I was raised by old-world Vietnamese refugees who thought our environment was not nearly moral enough. My rebellion against the narrowness of my upbringing was to be a writer, to spend my time embracing and humanizing deeply flawed people in my fiction. I profess no expertise on what it takes be a good person; I only claim an understanding of what it means to be fragile, insecure, and confused by the world — not merely because I am all those things, but because I see versions of those traits in every person I’ve ever known. Donald Trump is as fragile, insecure, and confused as the best of us. How could he not be? What makes him indecent is how he deals with it — how he clearly denies the humanity of such traits and contrives an outsized persona for himself, full of impossible certainty and toxic power.
Our common idea of decency is simple — at least in theory. Be kind to people. Help them if you can. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes and then treat them as you would have them treat you. Has Trump done any of these things in any consistent way? It’s hard to be kind when you’re proudly mocking a disabled reporter, or the grieving parents of a dead soldier, or the women who’ve bravely come forward to call out your sexual improprieties against them. It’s hard to help people when you tweet only about yourself after national tragedies and care more about your own optics than the well-being of those who’ve been hurt. It’s hard to be empathetic, to follow the golden rule, when you are consistently disloyal to the very people you insist should be loyal to you.
But Trump’s failure as a human being goes beyond these standard measures of decency. I’ve never believed in good and evil, and I have no patience for labeling anyone a hero or a villain. That doesn’t mean I don’t judge people (if you can call someone a good friend, you should be able to call them a bad one, so long as you do not prejudge or judge them unfairly), and the two things I look for most in people is their thoughtfulness and their sense of shame. Thoughtfulness encompasses everything. If you’re thoughtful, you’re self-aware and you’ll try at least to understand and respect yourself, which is the only way to understand and respect others. It’s more than just empathy; it’s self-knowledge. Shame is itself a form of self-knowledge. Certain kinds of shame are unhealthy and can lead to self-hatred, which can then lead to either paralysis or destructiveness. But healthy shame, it seems to me, is the recognition that we have made mistakes, have been foolish or wrong, have hurt others or ourselves, and the subsequent mortification should ideally push us to not repeat those mistakes, to change for the better.
I can’t read the president’s mind, but his words and actions continually demonstrate his lack of thoughtfulness and healthy shame, none more so than his ease with lying and manipulating the truth. (According to the Washington Post, he had made over two thousand false or misleading claims as of January 10, 2018.) Politicians, by definition, are manipulative. The tolerable politician manipulates people in order to move them closer to a reality he or she actually sees and believes is beneficial for others. Trump, like the most dangerous kind of politician, manipulates people to move them towards an imagined reality that is beneficial to him and him alone. If there’s any doubt that he’s the textbook definition of a confidence man, look no further than his appropriation of “fake news” — a legitimate epidemic that benefited him — to discredit any news entity that is now critical of him. Would a truthful man try so hard all the time to sell you on what is true and what is fake? Look at how he baselessly accused Obama of wiretapping him as soon as Congress started investigating his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. Or how he baselessly claimed the election had disenfranchised millions of his voters as soon as the 2016 returns showed Hillary had beat him by millions. Or how he’s repeatedly tried to discredit the FBI ahead of any findings the special counsel could uncover. Every single day, over and over, he demonstrates that he’s willing to reshape reality for his followers so that they can help him help himself. That’s not mere selfishness; it’s a shameless rejection of any truth that doesn’t serve his own needs and a total abdication of his presidential responsibility to serve the needs of the country.
Lord knows the men who’ve resided in the White House have been imperfect, as humans or as politicians or both. Americans will always disagree on how they’re imperfect, but we can at least agree that we need someone there who will be a moral example to Americans and put the country’s interests above his or her own — at least some of the time. It’s remarkable that even the staunchest liberals now look back more fondly on George W. Bush, whom they reviled during his time in office. Despite all the harmful policies they believe he enacted, they can admit now that he is, at his core, a decent human being. Contrast always creates clarity. I could go on at length about why Donald Trump’s policies — not to mention his possible criminal activities — are harmful to America. But what makes him most unfit to be president is his lack of the very thing that makes most of us not intentionally hurt others, even when we hate and disagree with them.
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Vu Tran was born in Saigon and now teaches writing at the University of Chicago. His debut novel, Dragonfish, was published in 2015.