Time of Monsters: The Political Success of Immorality and Indecency

In the first weeks of Donald Trump’s first presidency,* Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, met with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in his White House office. They wanted to talk about the Middle East but ended up talking about one of Trump’s many verbal breakdowns. “No one can go as low as the president,” Kushner says. Today, seven years later, this sentence is the moment when Goldberg solved the mystery of Trump. “Going low” isn’t a criticism; it’s a compliment. Cruelty isn’t a byproduct; it’s the aim. People don’t want Trump in spite of, but because, of it.

We are living in a time in which an increasing number of politicians openly demonstrate their lack of decency, common sense and moral integrity. Not only in the U.S. Right-leaning populists across Europe go from breaking one taboo to the next. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party is planning something truly unconscionable; in Hungary, Viktor Orban has tossed overboard any thought of European solidarity; and Vladimir Putin has long made brazen lying into his way of conducting domestic and foreign politics. And we are living at a time in which such figures are admired and elected by many people— not the majority, but many — for exactly that; those who feel drawn to immorality, a supposed anti-establishment side, and rebel status. That is more than disenchantment with politics. It is a desire to see the world on fire.

What are others supposed to do? How do they deal with someone who has no moral compass? Defending principles of freedom, democracy and humanity against those without principles recalls Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance: How tolerant can one be toward the intolerant before the latter get rid of the former? The brutal truth in 2024 is that liberal democracy is not prepared for such people. It is vulnerable to destroyers like Trump or his European followers. The U.S. Constitution, [foundation of] one of the oldest democracies of modern times, did not foresee that a criminal would ever intentionally abuse the country’s highest office. In Germany, there are plans to better protect the Federal Constitutional Court against such intervention. In Poland, Donald Tusk and his coalition partners are laboriously reconstructing the aspects of the rule of law that the Law and Justice Party destroyed.

Almost 100 years ago, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote, referring to those who had been jailed by the Fascists, that “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Gramsci’s famous characterization of the time between the two world wars still makes one cringe today. We, too, are living in an interregnum, an in-between period, a time of monsters. The world order that established itself in the previous century of ideologies and even seemed inevitable after the end of the Cold War has begun to wobble. A better, more just future for all is not the only possible outcome.

*Editor’s note: Donald Trump served one term as president, thus the reference is to his only term, not the first of two.

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