Have you noticed something?
We are living in an Age of Cynicism so deep and pervasive that it is distorting our politics, our laws and our society. It is the new normal. What was once clearly wrong now seems ok. Or, at least, “the way things are these days.”
The cynicism spreads across political parties, Congress, the courts, the gun lobby, the media, big business; you name it.
The cynic-in-chief, of course, is President Donald Trump. His lying, his Twitter storms, his crass character assassinations (“Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ James Comey, Little Rocket Man,” etc.) seemed funny at first, then cheap and crude, now, most destructive of all, routine. “That’s Trump,” we say among ourselves, and shrug, With every Trumpian rant, magnified by our cynical indifference, our political discourse descends into the toilet.
Fair question: who is more cynical? Trump, or those of us who voted for him knowing that he was a narcissistic fraud? Some, I suppose, didn’t pay enough attention during the campaign to realize that he was playing a joke on us and supported him in the hope that he really would do the preposterous things he said, like bring back coal and manufacturing jobs, make the economy grow by four or five per cent or magically curb illegal immigration by building a “beautiful wall.”
But what about the others who voted for him knowing he was wholly unequipped for the job? What about those who held their nose and voted for him in order to feather their own nests? Who, really, is the most cynical of us all?
The Republicans in Congress might deserve the title. The Mitch McConnells, the Paul Ryans and the others that indulge the President’s whims and outbursts in feigned pained silence and then vote to embrace policies they know are wrong in order to get their agenda signed into law. So what if the gun lobby makes a mockery of the deaths in school shootings by accepting meaningless “reforms” that do nothing serious to stop the carnage? So what?
Nor are the Democrats innocent. “Chuck and Nancy” may not be as consciously cynical as Mitch and Paul, but those in the minority rarely are. They stake out more progressive positions, call a press conference or two, then throw up their hands as the majority adopts its agenda. Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party tacks to the center to win special elections in Georgia and Pennsylvania as it readies a head-snapping move to the left for 2020. Or not, depending on what will win.
The Supreme Court defined cynicism with its Citizens United decision trashing the concept of campaign finance regulation, arguing that corporations have the same rights as individuals. Its justifications echo the corrupt politics behind Bush v, Gore in 2000 and the notion that the Second Amendment, despite what it says, guarantees the gun rights of individuals rather than “well-regulated militias.” Retired Justice John Paul Stevens finally said what must be said: repeal the Second Amendment, which was never meant by the founders to mean what the NRA says it means.
The media: what is more cynical than the excuses Fox News makes for Trump? Is it MSNBC, when the entire channel is devoted to tearing Trump down? Or talk radio? They are all competing for ratings, adopting the ideology they believe will attract more audience.
Cynicism is not new in Washington, of course, nor unique to the Trump era. LBJ was deeply cynical when he lied to the country about Vietnam because he didn’t want to be the first American president to lose a war; George W. was cynical when he lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to take out Saddam. Lying is not a new presidential activity.
And, even in an Age of Cynicism, there are striking exceptions among us: the young people demonstrating against gun violence in the schools, volunteers who commit time and money to make things better, charitable groups here and abroad. There are bright spots, to be sure.
But the most cynical act of all is to take cynicism for granted. Then we all lose.