Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Harvard professor and four-term United States senator from New York, famously observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Today, everyone is entitled to his own facts, or their own facts, since even grammar has changed. The message from the Trump White House, and from Boris Johnson’s rise to prime minister in Britain, is that facts don’t matter. The bald-faced lie is perfectly acceptable, so long as it keeps you at the center of what passes today for attention. The important thing is to feed the machine. Shock is the best fodder. Social media dies without outrage.
In the mid-1930s, a few years before World War II, Robert Musil, the author of “The Man Without Qualities” wrote, “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” The political culture of both the United States and Britain is sick. It is unserious, crooked and lethal. There is no honest way to dissociate the rise of Trump and Johnson from the societies that produced them.
The triumph of indecency is rampant. Choose your facts. The only blow Trump knows is the low one. As the gutter is to the stars, so is this president to dignity. Johnson does a grotesque Churchill number. Nobody cares. The wolves have it; the sheep, transfixed, shrug.
Indignation is finite. Power, the Italians say, wears out those who do not have it. That’s Trump’s credo. I confess to moments when anger refuses to be summoned by the latest Trump outrage, since, anyway, nobody can remember Friday what was so unconscionable Monday.
Still, I cannot forget Trump’s recent treatment of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her campaign to end mass rape in war. The Islamic State, or ISIS, forced Murad into sexual slavery when it overran Yazidi villages in northern Iraq in 2014. Murad lost her mother and six brothers, slaughtered by ISIS.
She now lives in Germany, and has been unable to return home, a point she made in her July 17 White House meeting with Trump. “We cannot go back if we cannot protect our dignity, our family,” she said.
Allow me to render the scene in the present tense. Trump sits there at his desk, an uncomprehending, unsympathetic, uninterested cardboard dummy. He looks straight ahead for much of the time, not at her, his chin jutting in his best effort at a Mussolini pose. He cannot heave his bulk from the chair for this brave young woman. He cannot look at her.
Every now and again, in a disdainful manner, he swivels his head toward her and other survivors of religious persecution. When Murad says, “They killed my mom, my six brothers,” Trump responds: “Where are they now?”
Where are they now???
“They are in the mass graves in Sinjar,” Murad says. She is poised and courageous throughout in her effort to communicate her story in the face of Trump’s complete, blank indifference.
Why this extraordinary attitude from Trump? Well, at a guess, Murad is a woman, and she is brown, and he is incapable of empathy, and the Trump administration recently watered down a United Nations Security Council resolution on protecting victims of sexual violence in conflict.
At the mention of Sinjar, Trump’s unbelievable response is, “I know the area very well, you’re talking about. It’s tough.”
Let’s play how-well-does-President-Trump-know-Sinjar? It’s a wildly implausible game.
Toward the end of the exchange, Trump asks Murad about her Nobel Prize. “That’s incredible,” he says. “They gave it to you for what reason?”
“For what reason?” Murad asks, suppressing with difficulty her incredulity that nobody has briefed the president. Nobody can brief this president. It’s pointless. He knows everything. “I made it clear to everyone that ISIS raped thousands of Yazidi women,” she says.
“Oh really?” says Trump. “Is that right?”
Yes, that’s right. One reason this exchange marked me is that I found myself in 2015 in a Yazidi refugee camp in southeastern Turkey interviewing a survivor named Anter Halef. In a corner sat his 16-year-old daughter, Feryal. She sobbed uncontrollably. I had seldom seen such grief etched on a young face. Life had been ripped from her before she began to live. There was no road back for her. Her eyes were empty vessels left so by rape.
I have watched the Murad-Trump exchange several times. It is scary. This president is inhuman. Something is missing. In his boundless self-absorption, he is capable of anything.
I am grateful to Brian Stelter of CNN for recalling this month the words of Edward R. Murrow in 1954 in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to provoke public frenzy at supposed Communist infiltration of American life. “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” Murrow says.
Of McCarthy, Murrow observes: “He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”
And then: “Good night and good luck.”
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