“…Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence
is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption— the loss of the capacity for
collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a
common form of reasoning. We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things
while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a ‘public’ and hold
our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue
self-interest is a fool…
“‘Decadence,’ in short, describes a cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder — the Donald Trump in us. It is the right, of course, that first introduced the language of civilizational decay to American political discourse…
“A year’s worth of Trump’s cynicism, selfishness, and rage has only stoked the appetite of his supporters. The nation dodged a bullet when a colossal effort pushed Democratic nominee Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s Senate special election.
“Nevertheless, the church-going folk of Alabama were perfectly prepared to choose a racist and a pedophile over a Democrat. Republican nominee Roy Moore almost became a senator by orchestrating a hatred of the other that was practically dehumanizing.
“Of course [Trump] has legitimized the language of xenophobia and racial hatred, but he has also legitimized the language of selfishness. During the campaign, Trump barely even made the effort that Mitt Romney did in 2012 to explain his money-making career in terms of public good. He boasted about the gimmicks he had deployed to avoid paying taxes.
“Yes, he had piled up debt and walked away from the wreckage he had made in Atlantic City. But it was a great deal for him… Then Americans elected the man who had uttered those words with demonic glee. Voters saw cruelty and naked self-aggrandizement as signs of steely determination.
“Perhaps we can measure democratic decadence by the diminishing relevance of the word ‘we.’ It is, after all, a premise of democratic politics that, while majorities choose, they do so in the name of collective good.
“There is, in fact, no purer example of the politics of decadence than the tax legislation that the president [signed]. Of course the law favors the rich; Republican supply-side doctrine argues that tax cuts to the investor class promote economic growth.
“What distinguishes the current round of cuts from those of either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush is, first, the way in which they blatantly benefit the president himself through the abolition of the alternative minimum tax and the special treatment of real estate income under new ‘pass-through’ rules.
“We Americans are so numb by now that we hardly even take note of the mockery this implies of the public servant’s dedication to public good. Second, and no less extraordinary, is the way the tax cuts have been targeted to help Republican voters and hurt Democrats, above all through the abolition or sharp reduction of the deductibility of state and local taxes…
“The new tax cuts constitute the economic equivalent of gerrymandering. All parties play that game, it’s true; yet today’s Republicans have carried electoral gerrymandering to such an extreme as to jeopardize the constitutionally protected principle of ‘one man, one vote.’
“…Here is something genuinely new about our era: We lack not only a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or a collective mode of reasoning toward the truth.
“A thing that we wish to be true is true; if we wish it not to be true, it isn’t. Global warming is a hoax. Barack Obama was born in Africa. Neutral predictions of the effects of tax cuts on the budget must be wrong, because the effects they foresee are bad ones.
“It is, of course, our president who finds in smoking entrails the proof of future greatness and prosperity. The reduction of all disagreeable facts and narratives to ‘fake news’ will stand as one of Donald Trump’s most lasting contributions to American culture, far outliving his own tenure.
“He has, in effect, pressed gerrymandering into the cognitive realm. Your story fights my story; if I can enlist more people on the side of my story, I own the truth. And yet Trump is as much symptom as cause of our national disorder.
“The Washington Post recently reported that officials at the Center for Disease Control were ordered not to use words like ‘science-based,’ apparently now regarded as disablingly left-leaning. But further reporting in the New York Times appears to show that the order came not from White House flunkies but from officials worried that Congress would reject funding proposals marred by the offensive terms…
“A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics, which is to say its fundamental means of adjudication, becomes morally and intellectually corrupt. But the loss of all regard for common ground is hardly limited to the political right, or for that matter to politics. We need only think of the ever-unfolding narrative of Harvey Weinstein, which has introduced us not only to one monstrous individual but also to a whole world of well-educated, well-paid, highly regarded professionals who made a very comfortable living protecting that monster. ‘When you quickly settle, there is no need to get into all the facts,’ as one of his lawyers delicately advised.
“This is, of course, what lawyers do, just as accountants are paid to help companies move their profits into tax-free havens. What is new and distinctive, however, is the lack of apology or embarrassment, the sheer blitheness of the contempt for the public good.
“When Teddy Roosevelt called the monopolists of his day ‘malefactors of great wealth,’ the epithet stung — and stuck. Now the bankers and brokers and private equity barons who helped drive the nation’s economy into a ditch in 2008 react with outrage when they’re singled out for blame.
“Being a ‘wealth creator’ means never having to say you’re sorry. Enough voters accept this proposition that Donald Trump paid no political price for unapologetic greed.
“The worship of the marketplace, and thus the elevation of selfishness to a public virtue, is a doctrine that we associate with the libertarian right. But it has coursed through the culture as a self-justifying ideology for rich people of all political persuasions — perhaps also for people who merely dream of becoming rich.
“Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse… The revelations of widespread sexual abuse offer an opportunity for a cleansing moment of self-recognition — at least if we stop short of the hysterical overreaction that seems to govern almost everything in our lives.
“Our political elite will continue to gratify our worst impulses so long as we continue to be governed by them. The only way back is to reclaim the common ground — political, moral, and even cognitive — that Donald Trump has lit on fire…” (The U.S. has reached the last stage before collapse by James Traub, Business Insider).