18 October 2017

'He knew what he was getting into'

Donald Trump says so many asinine things on a regular basis that it actually dilutes valid criticism to focus on one of his comparatively innocuous statements, but the new controversy over the President's attempted condolence call to the widow of one of the Green Berets recently killed in Niger reinforces my suspicion that Trump and his opponents hardly speak the same language. As you may have heard by now, a Democrat congresswoman sitting in on the call at the widow's home described the President's remarks as not only "insensitive" but "horrible" and "absolutely crazy, unnecessary." At the heart of her complaint, lately seconded by the soldier's mother, is Trump's comment, as paraphrased by Rep. Wilson, that the soldier "knew what he was getting into" when he joined the military.

It seems self-evident to me that the President was trying to say something to the effect that the soldier was a brave man to serve his country knowing the risks that service involved. If so, it's understandable that he sees Rep. Wilson's interpretation of it as deliberately deceptive. He believes he had "a very nice conversation" with the widow. Wilson heard it differently, so that it sounded like "just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die." Putting it that way "disrespected" the fallen soldier in a way that Trump absolutely could not have intended. But Donald Trump speaks for a worldview profoundly different, it seems, from the people he meant to console. The difference in perception between Trump and his movement, on one hand, and their opponents may be based on nothing less than a different understanding of human existence. I don't mean to be pretentious about this, so let's put it in as simple terms as possible. The U.S. can be roughly divided between people who feel that life is tough and those who feel that it is cruel. For someone whose loss seems incommensurable and probably senseless, a "life is tough" response, however complimentary to the deceased in its intent, will seem almost cruelly inadequate. From one perspective, the idea of "signing up to die" is practically unimaginable in its horrific implications; from the other it's a moment of honor, courage and toughness. President Trump  has often said that Americans need to get tough (or "smart" in a synonymous sense), while many opposed to him see the very requirement of toughness, and what it implicitly entails, as essentially cruel. I could go on about the fundamental conflict between "tough-mindedness" that veers between aggression and complacency and a hedonic mentality dedicated to the political overthrow of cruelty, but we don't need to go into all its political dimensions to see the failure to communicate here. That failure will persist until one side learns toughness or the other recognizes cruelty. Elections probably won't hasten either event, but other events might, so that future historians will recognize an absurdity to this particular controversy that many of us today cannot.

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