It’s Sunday. Let’s begin with a parable.
Paul de Man was one of the foremost deconstructionists of the 1960s and ’70s, a friend of Jacques Derrida’s and a partner in tearing down the traditional bulwarks of philosophy. De Man died of old age in 1983, only about a year before Foucault succumbed to AIDS-related complications. Five years later, some details of de Man’s personal life were exposed: namely, that while he was living in occupied Belgium, he wrote some pro-Nazi and anti-semitic articles. What happened next is fairly famous in the sordid history of the real lives of literary theorists and philosophers: people like Derrida and Fredric Jameson came to de Man’s defense (and, obliquely, to the defense of his work, which is quickly what the affair came to represent). Derrida and Jameson gave convincing, intelligent, and frankly idiosyncratic defenses of de Man as a person. Of course, as really smart people often do, they missed the point, and the imbroglio intensified because of it. Derrida especially was so keen on defending de Man that at no point did he ever say something to the effect of, “De Man shouldn’t have written those things. That stuff he wrote that sounded pretty darn anti-semitic was bad, and while he may not have been like that later in his life, he should never have done it at all.”
As “he has no chance” becomes “he’s doing better than we think he’s doing” becomes “he’s the front-runner in delegates, not just polls” becomes “maybe Rubio will have to force the brokered convention,” it’s probably about time for the scrupulous and the forward-thinking, the generous and the sagacious, to stop making any defense for Donald Trump. Most people, I imagine, have already done so, scared off by the whole “Mexican immigrants to the United States are first and foremost rapists, drug dealers, etc.” thing, or maybe that part where he attacked a woman journalist by making presumptions about her menstrual cycle, or maybe where he expressed his fever dream about narrowing the scope of the First Amendment, or maybe where he didn’t immediately say, “No, I don’t want a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan endorsing me” but instead said that he’d need to do research on them first. Those are four examples, chosen more or less at random; there must be another dozen similarly impressive mouthbreathing faux pas in his recent past that I don’t feel like cataloging.
I personally think that most Americans of thinking age have probably made the decision that Trump is trash based on the past eight months or so (or they could have made that decision based on, I dunno, the past thirty years). But if you read enough blogs, or even catch enough talking heads on one of the several networks which have made the primary campaigns their chief focus, you start to hear about how Trump supporters tend to have chosen Trump early and then refuse to back down despite whatever excrement Trump expels. Those people are set. The ones who walk to Trump see in him a messiah, the one who came not to bring peace but a sword. The sword-likers make about 35% of the Republican electorate, and as yet unknown amount of the presumed Democratic and independent electorates. There are two clear camps which you can see in your social media feeds or at your workplace: the pro-Trump and the anti-Trump. And there is a third camp that, in the great rush to defend or condemn Trump, has been largely ignored, and will probably be largely ignored until August: undecided voters. They may be undecided because they’re weighing facts, or because they’ve not paid attention to the race so far, or because they simply don’t care until the ads come on during football games, but there are still people out there who have not decided to pull for Trump and may yet do so. These people – who I assume are much more relaxed than I am, and maybe I could stand to learn something from them – are on the fence. Those of us who have a dram of sense owe it to them to push them sooner rather than later. The time for subtlety and politeness, if ever that time existed, is over. Defending Trump is a deal with the devil. It doesn’t matter if you do it to play devil’s advocate, or out of some misplaced sense of fairness or justice, or a superstitious adherence to “we must listen to both sides of an argument.” It is ethically suspect to defend him.
There are two exceptions to this rule. One of them is a fairly simple case about how anyone in a courtroom deserves a lawyer, and that if Trump ever found himself in a courtroom, it would be responsible to defend him legally. The other exception is if Trump, like a broken clock or a blind squirrel, happens to say something which is probably true. One thinks of his performance in the Greenville, SC debate where he defended Planned Parenthood as a place for women to receive medical treatment. Even if de Man was a skeezeball in his personal life, or an outright scumbag and collaborator in his youth, he made some good points about “The Fall of Hyperion.”
The reason I’m thinking of this at all is because earlier today, Gawker revealed that they had made a Twitterbot (@ilduce2016) whose sole purpose was to tweet a Mussolini quote at Trump about once an hour until Trump finally retweeted one. Today, of course, Trump did just that. Gawker quickly published their story, and the reaction was predictable. Either this was an amusing moment, another item in the index of unaware and fascist Donald Trump incidents, or this was a breach of journalistic integrity, the equivalent of the police trying to entrap a drug dealer or porno director.
Did Gawker behave inappropriately, from a formalist position of journalist ethics? Probably. The New York Times is not setting up Twitterbots trying to get Donald Trump to do something stupid: they’re just reporting the stupid things he does now. Is criticizing Gawker for poking and prodding the leading Republican candidate a total misunderstanding of why Gawker exists? Probably. Gawker, Jezebel, and Deadspin exist to flick boogers at people like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Dan Snyder. Getting mad at them for not having enough starch in their collars misses the point.
Here’s the thing. Donald Trump does not need you to defend him. Donald Trump is worth several billion dollars; he is too big to fail. He is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, and if you listen to the New York Times, the Republican hierarchy is either too scared to try to stop him or has no idea how to go about it. Donald Trump has gone out of his way to insult and demean virtually everyone. It might be cute for a comedian or someone on Reddit (a debate we can leave for later), but when it comes from someone with far too much power and far too little liability, this isn’t something to be praised. Donald Trump is a bully, after all, and now we’ve learned that people will defend bullies for whatever reason, or even ally themselves to those bullies in the belief that they have something valuable to bring to the party. When a person abuses their power, they start to earn nasty epithets. And instead of defending Trump through the already smeary lens of “journalistic ethics” or “hearing both sides,” it’s time to defend people who don’t have the journalists or the smarmiest of double-talkers on their sides.