"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
Trump is a Black Hole. He sits at the centre of the American political universe exerting an awful gravity on anything that comes near. And like a bona-fide Black Hole, he has an all engulfing event horizon. You can’t see what’s happening beyond that boundary nor can you comprehend how it operates. The normal rules, the accepted norms, the cardinal principles, all collapse.
If you circle too close, one of two things happens … neither is good. You may get sucked in. You then emerge in a bizarre world - at the risk of mixing my metaphors here - you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. Captured by Trumponian gravity, then disassembled, spat out … who knows where?
The other option is you bounce off. Damaged, spinning through the political universe, stripped of cover, dignity and adjudged irrational. You’re finished.
Sean Spicer, the former press secretary, suffered that fate. He was an early victim. Trump sent him to lie on Day One about the size of the inauguration crowd. From that point on, Spicer was dead man walking. He was either going to fall through the event horizon or bounce off, as a relentless media pursued him. When you become a feature of ‘Saturday Night Live’ it’s only a matter of time before ‘game over’. At least Spicer avoided the central vortex. He now wanders around, looking for less punishing outlets of his torn talents.
The former four-star general, John F. Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, suffered a worse fate. He’s now disappeared below the event horizon of moral ambiguity, his reputation in tatters. By all accounts, Kelly is a decent chap.
A Marine, he served with distinction. In 2003, he led the charge on Baghdad. He soon overwhelmed the Iraqi forces in typical gung-ho Marine style. Unlike the draft dodger Trump, Kelly saw action. Plus, he gave an exceptional account of himself. Also, unlike many politicians, Kelly has sons who serve and one died in action. First Lieutenant Robert Kelly, whilst in Afghanistan in 2010, stepped on a landmine. That’s why the incident that tripped up Kelly is so gut-wrenching.
It’s clear that Kelly brought a degree of order to the chaotic White House. He’s enforced discipline in a shambolic mess of policies and prima donnas jockeying for fame. He is one of the few competent people in an otherwise lacklustre team of ideology-driven mavericks. Greater cohesion resulted from his command. Ultimately Trump benefitted from this.
Hence, it is disheartening to see a man of Kelly’s standing and ability compromised. Trump's alleged insensitive remarks to a soldier’s widow soon spiralled into a media storm. In a significant damage control effort, Kelly stood up to give an impassioned speech. He detailed how dead soldiers get conveyed back to the United States. He led us through the processes with forensic detail. He spoke with compassion, then empathy about what the family goes through. Along the way he revealed he’d counselled Trump on what to say.
But, then Kelly went on the attack. And it was a lengthy attack of some force. That’s when it went wrong. He elected to make allegations against the congresswomen who’d initiated the story. It was a classic Trump response. Go for the opponent’s jugular. Take them down by questioning their motives and actions. Unfortunately for Kelly, his allegations against the congresswomen spoon fell apart. Video evidence refuted each one of his claims. Assertions that she’d acted in brazen self-promoting manner are untrue.
Had Kelly cut his speech off before maligning the congresswoman, he’d be standing tall today. Now he’s in Trump domain with his esteem gone. Reputations are brittle things especially when you associate with a habitual liar. A lesson Kelly is now learning. He’s gone from an untainted, accomplished, figure to another deceitful Washington insider. Yet, that's what happens when you make a judgement to serve a President who is immoral.
As a military man, Kelly will have studied leadership. He know the moral calculations that leaders make. He is well schooled in this area, having attained a Masters degree in Strategic Studies. Hence, he’s no innocent. As a political operator he made a decision to stand with Trump by adopting attack-dog tactics. Now the blowback has started with Kelly silent. He’s inside the event horizon, beyond sight and beyond help.
This is grist for the mill. The media are lapping it up with relish. It supports the narrative the Trump presidency continues a relentless descent into farce. Republicans made a Faustian pact with Trump. This diminishes them, while the office of the president is soiled and the USA is a laughing stock.
Meanwhile, both China and Russia are benefiting. A rebalancing of the world order is unfolding. A few brave Republicans have stepped forward to denounce the lies, distortions and twisted conduct of Trump. Unfortunately, none of this is enough to damage a man who operates in a parallel universe.
A Black Hole is a powerful entity that will require powerful forces to overwhelm it.
We all tell lies. Most are little white lies that smooth the course of our existence. When the wife asks the husband “Do I look fat in this?” an honest answer will no doubt bring grief. A man can avoid answering this loaded question by feigning deafness or throwing himself out of the nearest window. Or he can give the obligatory “No Darling, you look fine” whilst avoiding eye contact.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was having none of that. He demanded that you always give an honest answer. That’s may be one reason he never had a wife. Kant held that any decision must be weighed against the question “What if everyone did that?”. Thus, if everyone lied, he surmised, that society would collapse. The weight of distrust and lies eroding values.
He founded his ideas on the concept of human dignity and respecting others. His achievement was to develop a philosophical system that separated morality from religion. For that, he deserves our praise.
In many ways, he was the father of the modern human rights movement. He also sought to remove emotion from the equation of what is right and what is wrong. In his view, we have a universal set of duties, including telling the truth. Yet, never lying is hardly practical or compassionate. Telling a dying traumatised child there is hope is the right thing to do.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. In his mind the outcome was important. Applying his ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, the right thing produces the most happiness. If a lie can calm and content a dying child, then he’d allow it.
Bentham viewed humans as simple beings, who exist on a bipolar spectrum of pain and pleasure. He postulated that right or wrongness came down to the result. If a decision resulted in pleasure, then it's a good decision. His ideas fall apart when exposed to the wayward traits of human nature. Its argued that a series of endless blissful episodes undermines our very humanity.
For example, taking drugs because these bring you pleasure negates the long-term impact. The impact is on you and others. If we all act on our impulses for pleasure, the very fabric of civilisation gets weakened. Anyway, lets remember that humans can achieve growth through unpleasant painful experiences.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) sought to address the issue of consequences. According to him, adults may live as they wish, unless they cause no harm. The decisions they make are theirs alone. If there are no negative consequences for others, then in Mill’s world that’s fine. He made the distinction between offence and harm. A lifestyle can offend us without it causing harm. He asserted that offence alone does not justify us intervening. If the drug taker mentioned above can prove the habit has no adverse impact, then its held to be acceptable. If it does cause harm, it’s wrong.
Unfortunately, the power of religion over thinkers echoes through the centuries. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher, took the view that God can superseded human decency. This adherence to a God coloured all his work. Hence, he believed it was right and proper for Abraham to sacrifice his son. After all, God ordered it. Whether Kierkegaard was making a serious point is debatable. He often wrote under a pseudonym arguing against himself. Thus, he may have used the Abraham example to reveal the conflict at the heart of a decision.
Kierkegaard was a prolific writer on the human condition. He deserves mention for telling us that decisions are not easy. (We knew that). He stated "Decide to marry and you’ll regret it; decide not to marry and you’ll regret that too."
He had a dark sense of humour. His only advice … laugh at it all. Kierkegaard also gave us "life can only be understood backwards, but can only be lived forwards." In the end, he saw the only solution as blind faith to Jesus Christ. I’m not comfortable surrendering to a sky fairy or made up deity. Whilst Kierkegaard understood the dark places of human existence, his answers or solutions are trite.
These so-called thinkers cannot agree that one system of ethics is right. So unless you know something the rest of us don’t, your system must be wrong somewhere.
I’ve tried to keep religion out of this discussion. Religion, in various forms, confuses the issue. Especially when it ties integrity or goodness to a dogmatic belief. Be honest, belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as you believe a doctrine of any sort, then you stop thinking about that aspect of existence. You miss the gorilla in the room.
Its appears to me that we all have within us an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong. Yet, that sense needs calibrating against new ideas as humankind evolves. Be prepared to challenge yourself and don’t sit on a dogma.
Lastly, don’t trust the Internet to help with your decisions. Remember thousands of engineers have worked to give you a thrilling Internet experience. The purpose of their efforts is to make you want to keep coming back. Recognize that the Internet reinforces your confirmation bias by giving what you want. That does not include new information you may need to make a decision. Be ready, embrace uncertainty.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.