When are we supposed to believe that people mean what they say? As children we’re taught to value trust and honesty, so idealism answers ‘always.’ Lived experience, however, dictates that not everyone learned the same lessons, so prudence retorts ‘sometimes.’ And, when strangers promise paradise, suspicion shouts ‘never!’ Over time it becomes easier to pick out a lie than it is to recognize the truth.
We are told by turns that, while one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, neither is there any such thing as a free lunch. Those who are fooled once are ceded no right to complain, while those who would fool twice are for naught but disdain. When strangers come bearing gifts they merit suspicion, lest we go the way of the Trojans, and in so many small ways our language and our culture equips us for cynicism. We are, by training, inculcated against charlatans who seek advantage by flattery and deceit. Our watchwords are set against those who overpromise and underdeliver.
But what about the brazen thief? What about the swindler who will pick your pocket while bragging to your face about his skill?
The platitude of the last election was that Donald Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took him literally, but not seriously. So it went that they were comfortable with the exaggerations and the bluster because they recognized it for what it was. And when alarm was raised about the same subjects, the warnings were dismissed as the hysterical reaction of detractors who were clinically missing the point.
To a degree that was true. Donald Trump’s supporters knew that they weren’t going to get everything he promised, and telling them so made no difference. In electing a dealmaker they expected prevarication alongside negotiation. But, while they were right to deride the left for misunderstanding his appeal, the problem is mirrored. They also misunderstood his danger. They did not take what he meant literally seriously.
Besides promising rejuvenation and renewal, Donald Trump promised woe. He promised vengeance in place of justice and belligerence in place of sobriety, and it was not bluster.
We were, I think, ill-prepared to react to honesty. Where we might otherwise see through false promises which are made to disguise ill-intent, the same malevolence expressed openly and without shame is not taken seriously. Donald Trump constantly outdid himself in extremism, but for each statement the rebutting refrain was that it was a mistake to believe him.
There is no longer any excuse for not taking him at his word. Whatever his innermost thoughts might be, whatever his secret intentions, whether he was always in earnest or only sometimes, Maya Angelou’s advice rings true: “when people show you who they are, believe them.”
By words and by actions, Donald Trump has demonstrated only a casual regard for human life. He has shown that he takes it as just another bargaining chip: to be spent when necessary. In his rush to halt the imagined danger of terrorists entering our country among refugees, he sowed enormous harm by separating families, rousting people from their homes, and even in some cases preventing them access to medical care.
His response, expressed through his surrogates, was dismissive. Those lives disrupted were merely inconveniences. And to him, it’s true.
Far beyond that though, he has also promised torture, plunder, and murder. Take out their families, he said. Extract an eye for an eye. Anything that they do shall be permitted to us, and more besides. Casting morality out, he has vowed that his only guide will be satisfaction of the basest human instinct for raw revenge.
Those closest to him carry the same attitude. Michael Flynn is proud of his Islamophobia, as he believes his fear is not only rational, but will aid in the “world war” that he plans to fight against a religion. The same is true of Stephen Bannon, who casts refugees and immigrants in the same racist light that permitted the imprisonment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent on the pretense that they constituted a “fifth column.” He too relishes the thought of global war against an essentialized Muslim enemy.
This last weekend an American raid in Yemen left tens of civilians dead, including an eight year old American girl. Sean Spicer, confronted by his boss’ stated preference for murdering civilians when they’re found in the vicinity of terrorists, could offer only weak deflections from the question at hand: was it an example of Trump living up to his promises?
The Trump administration exists as a prolonged provocation, and as such the things they do are too easily dismissed as idle threats, simple lies, or posturing. But, threats remain idle only so long as their agents lack power, and now that he has realized the power to make them good, Donald Trump is proving his honesty.
When someone promises harm, take them in deadly earnest.