I have never been moved by Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. In DC, that can feel alienating. Members of the younger generation that helped bring Barack Obama to Washington would often cite the show’s idealism as an inspiration. I liked Obama as a candidate, and I even strolled down to the mall to see his inauguration in 2009. But I didn’t stick around long. The overwhelming feeling of near-religious possibility that suffused the whole affair was not for me.
Part of the reason for my reaction is my conviction that politics is a dirty business, not just base in practice, but fundamentally, inextricably incompatible with anything we commonly romanticize as virtue. This belief was born of watching the Balkan wars in the 1990s—both the politics within the countries involved in the war, but also the politics in the so-called enlightened West. Maybe this is an overdetermined frame, but I think it has served me well on balance, helping me sort wheat from chaff.
Nevertheless (or perhaps precisely because of this), I have always been attracted to observing politics up close. From 2008 to 2016, despite the idealistic adulation of his followers (or perhaps precisely because of it), I liked seeing the Machiavellian side of Obama emerge every now and again, especially given how well he disguised it with his beautiful, soaring rhetoric.
Obama’s political hypocrisy really seemed to irritate many conservatives, who in a weird way also took the substance of Obama’s rhetoric seriously. For me, it was besides the point. Whether Obama really believed his own words or not is irrelevant. One way of looking at politics, the way I tend to do it, is to push its ideological substance to the side. I may prefer this policy over that policy, or privilege this value over that value, and indeed my preferences largely tracked with Obama’s priorities. But to properly understand politics, to really get a sense of what is truly happening, these preferences—all policies and value claims, in fact—should be bracketed.
To be clear, this is not to say that policy outcomes are unimportant; rather, it’s to stress that all policy outcomes should be seen as provisional and strictly delimited. One can have beliefs about which outcomes are better or worse for this or that reason, and one can even talk about “progress” within the confines of a nation’s history and politics. But one should not confuse these subjective moral categories with absolutes.
This distinction shouldn’t just be an analytical pose, either. It also ought to inform how citizens behave. A politician may use absolutes when speaking to mobilize consent, but for democratic politics to work—especially in pluralistic, diverse Western democracies—we need to temper any certainties about absolute moral truths.
This approach to politics has gotten me in fights with friends more often than not during the last four years of Trump. I simply have not been able to muster the level of outrage that many others have. This, however, is not to say that I have not been worried by Trump’s nativist impulses. My unease with nativism, however, is not primarily moral, but pragmatic. Nativists make absolute moral claims as much as any progressive acolyte of the West Wing, and it’s the incommensurability of the claims, rather than their content, that is most troubling.
And that feels like the crux of the inflection point we’ve collectively reached as a nation. Trump’s time in office looked to be drawing to a close well before he ended up in the hospital with COVID: polls had already started tanking after the first debate. What America looks like on the other side of this election, however, is still an open question, to be shaped in part by how we choose to deal with Trump’s legacy. One of the biggest questions hanging in the air is how and whether Trump’s misdeeds will be handled. I hope that caution is the watchword. If discrete crimes were in fact committed, they should of course be prosecuted. But we should be careful about our righteousness. For Trump wasn’t some evil alien interloper foisted upon us by external forces who was finally defeated by the forces of right and light. He is us—or at least is a genuine product of our system and our society as it stands today. We can, and should, try to be better. But we should never delude ourselves into thinking we can be good.