Donald J. Trump has called for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States “until we figure out what’s going on.” A spokesperson, confirming this, explained that Trump’s reason was “death.”
Quick responses were technical (Would this be unconstitutional? Yes.) and tactical. (Trump has slipped behind Ted Cruz in a new Iowa poll, and needs a shock injection to rally his supporters.)
But sometimes the moral response is the most important. Constitutional expertise and knowing meta-commentary are mainly beside the point. This is monstrous.
Monstrous has the same Latin root as “demonstrate,” and is linked with the Spanish mostrar, “to show.” Something monstrous is horrible and frightening—the usual sense of the word—but it also reveals something otherwise hidden in us. Dr. Jekyll became the monstrous Mr. Hyde. A werewolf is the monster hidden in an ordinary person.
Trump is showing that we are capable of things we thought impossible, that things that were recently unsayable can be said—and then shouted, and, soon enough, chorused. It’s easy to say that this is a country of immigrants, a country of tolerance and inclusion, but it turns out that that this is no inoculation against fearful bigotry, which is only ever a half-step from angry bigotry, and an invitation to violent bigotry.
Why say “we,” when for many educated liberals Trump and his supporters are a contemptible “they,” the rotten fruit of American capitalism and the nationalist underbelly of patriotism? Because a political community is an artificial thing that binds us, weakly and often for the worse, but really. And what is said in certain public places, by a serious contender for the presidential nomination, echoes in my voice, too. Unless I repudiate it.
I do repudiate it. We all should. This is not a Colbert skit but an authentic American voice, and that should remind us, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, around here hate is part of heritage. It is not all of it, but it is part, entangled with fear, narrowness, and fascination with the charisma of power and manhood.
Trump is playing on all those American chords. Since September 11, 2001, the country has followed its leaders into two catastrophic wars (excluding the disastrous adventures in Libya and Syria), on the wings of fantasies about getting revenge, standing tall, and remaking the world in our image. We have walked into an unprecedented regime of domestic surveillance.
But in Trump’s campaign, a new kind of unapologetic brutality is coming to the home front. It has the logic and the emotional tenor of war: friend and enemy, unconditional force, lining up in solidarity behind a strong man who will lead us.
As foreign policy, this has proved disastrous. As a way of life at home, it would be monstrous. It would reveal the all-too-human worst of us and give away for decades whatever promise of American decency we can still show the rest of the world, and whatever story of our potential for goodness we can tell one another.
Are we better than this? That is up to us to decide. There is no promise, no guarantee, that this is not America. We are only what we do, and what we refuse to do, what we embrace and what we repudiate.
It’s past the time to watch in shocked amusement. Repudiate him, or become his monster.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).