“When people write violent absurdities on the walls of a city, the city becomes violent and absurd.” For the past four years I have often thought of (and cited) this quote from Mark Helprin’s excellent novel, A Soldier of the Great War. Over the course those years, one prominent man, Donald J. Trump, has been writing violent absurdities on the wall of the city. On Wednesday, January 6, Washington, D.C. became violent and absurd, as a crazed, violent mob—attired in nutcase apparel and carrying Trump and Confederate flags—breached and vandalized the U.S. Capitol.
That the President of the United States incited and endorsed this mob of domestic terrorists only makes the line more sadly fitting. Before their invasion of the Capitol, the President rallied them into a rabid frenzy, fueled by his baseless claims of election fraud and vast wacko conspiracy theories. Then, with his blessing and encouragement, the mob charged up Pennsylvania Avenue to attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election.
There comes a time—and that time for us came long ago—when the damage done by the vile rhetoric of the officeholder outweighs favorable regulations and judges.
Donald Trump is one of countless people who have written violent absurdities on the walls of the city. The vandalism of our civic discourse has been going on for far more than four years. Nor can we ignore the fact that social media make it so much easier for anyone to write their violent absurdities.
Trump is not just any citizen.
As U.S. President, he wields the political, moral, and rhetorical power of that office, which magnifies the importance and “legitimacy” of his absurd claims, vile attacks, and inciteful posts.
He has used that office to do more damage to political and moral discourse than probably any public figure in American history.
Al Gore had a much more plausible claim of having won the presidential election in 2000 than Trump had in 2020, but he did not whip his supporters into a rabid frenzy to storm the Capitol.
On Wednesday, January 6, Washington, D.C. became violent and absurd, as a crazed, violent mob—attired in nutcase apparel and carrying Trump and Confederate flags—breached and vandalized the U.S. Capitol.
I have been favorable of many of Trump’s policies, especially concerning abortion and religious liberty. I have applauded his appointments to the federal judiciary, especially his appointments to the Supreme Court. I have been vocal and adamant in my opposition to Joe Biden. There comes a time—and that time for us came long ago—when the damage done by the vile rhetoric of the officeholder outweighs favorable regulations and judges. The damage this president has done to the body politic is impossible to quantify, but it is clear that the damage is deep, broad, and almost certainly enduring.
In February 2017, The Cincinnati Enquirer asked me to write a short piece reacting to Trump’s first month in office. After citing policy decisions of which I approved, I turned to his Twitter activity and said this:
More often than not, Trump’s reactions are like those of regular trollers of the comments section of this and other media: ill- or misinformed; lacking critical reflection or nuance; opining, as though an expert, about things he knows little about. And he incites the same from his detractors, such as Sens. Charles Schumer and Elizabeth Warren. Apoplexy is the new normal.
It is a grave matter to question a president’s competency for the office, and graver still to wonder about his mental well-being. But even for those, like me, who have been willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult to dispel such thoughts. An erratic president can be a dangerous one.
Four years later, he is more erratic, and the danger is no longer speculative. The violent absurdities that this president has written on the walls of the city will be very difficult to erase, if they can be erased at all.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.