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"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."--the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

It stands to reason, then, that politics also can damage or even ruin the more important culture.

It could do that by defining our culture's deviancy downward, to borrow and adapt another Moynihan phrase.

"Defining deviancy down" applies to the old philosophical concept that a society can abide only so much bad behavior, and at some point, absent reform, will cope by redefining bad behavior more tolerantly.

The Republican quest to normalize a president who is plainly a narcissistic megalomaniac and who lies, bullies, boasts, bloviates, calls names and posts on Twitter in the style and substance of a juvenile twit--that's defining politics downward.

It, in turn, damages our entire culture by this very simple process: Donald Trump's behavior--which includes attacking the storied American journalistic institution when it reports on him in accurate but wounding ways--influences the political party newly dependent on him to lower its standard of acceptable behavior.

That party lowers that standard to the point of brazen contradiction of what it supposedly stood for--the notion that character matters--as recently as when character-flawed Bill Clinton of the other party famously misbehaved.

So now, when a book comes out presuming to expose Trump for the incompetent horror that he is, leading journalists admit that, yes, the author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for error, embellishment and loose approximations of quotations. But they say the book rings true based on what they've been told off the record and observed if merely by reading Twitter. They say it offers a cosmic and vital truth and therefore should be read and considered on what amounts to a relaxed standard of credibility.

Do you see how that works? Trump's behavior in the political arena is steadily spreading cancerously into the culture, defining acceptability downward, to the point that Republicans stand for less than before and journalists make allowances for sins they once would have assailed righteously.

Am I blaming Trump's personal behavior and its tragic pre-eminence in our politics for a decline in what journalists will accept?

Why, yes, I am.

More than that, I'm blaming Trump for a spreading debasement throughout our culture. That is why I embrace the spirit of that column by conservative Bret Stephens in the New York Times.

He wrote that Trump's personal failings are more inevitably harmful to the culture than the conservative policies that Stephens supports are healthful for the country.

Ideally, he'd like both--fine conservative policies under an exemplary president elevating our culture. But, forced to choose, he values an exemplary leader over policies he agrees with.

Perhaps he calculates, as I do, that cultural erosion is direr than a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate is transformational. The next president could well restore that mandate to policy. His or her harder challenge would be raising plummeted cultural standards.

The essential challenge would be to MAGA--make America good again.

You don't do that with a signature on an executive order. You do it with consistent and evident personal decency, by making that little light of yours shine.

This is a bipartisan matter, of course. Bill Clinton's behavior in political office--the sex with an intern and the lying about it to our faces and in a sworn statement--caused some of my liberal friends to tell me that perjury is commonplace and not such a big deal. Nearly every divorce case entails a false statement under oath, they said.

That's a clear example of the logical inverse of Moynihan's premise. It shows politics seeping influentially into the broader and more important culture and lowering standards to the point of pooh-poohing lying.

We rallied from that with eight years of a decent if incompetent president in George W. Bush and eight years after that of both an honorable and competent president in Barack Obama.

What I seek to describe is a country that desperately needs as its next president ... oh, maybe Joe Biden, even at that age, or John Kasich, even with those social-issue views, or any of the millions of American women who are saner and more honorable than the unfolding American tragedy with which we're burdened.

I'd take Susan Collins right now, ponderous though she be.

Oprah? Let's take a long look. The recent experience with media celebrity has been disastrous.

Maybe, from the influence of one of those--and in a culture influenced by their behavior--we'd get tell-all books that wouldn't have much to tell and would tell it with attributed quotations and footnotes.

The new presidential campaign should be about the person, stupid.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/09/2018

Print Headline: A ruined culture

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