In an earlier essay, I identified crassness as President Trump’s chief characteristic. Now, after his mid-July trip to Europe and press accusations that he acted crassly toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, we need to consider why this crass behavior is important.
Crassness indicates a lack refinement, tact, sensitivity, taste, or delicacy. In Trump’s case it is fostered by his egoism and his people-treat-me-unfairly conviction.
In an essay on Philistines and Philistinism, the writer Vladimir Nabokov also indicated how philistinism can act as a synonym for crassness:
Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. . . . The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as “Beauty,” “Love,” “Nature,” “Truth,” and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. . . . The philistine is often a snob. He is thrilled by riches and rank . . . . A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature—his essential nature is anti-artistic—but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines. [Or in Trump’s case, listen to Fox News]. . . . The philistine . . . reads little and only what may be useful to him. . . . In his love for the useful, for the material goods of life, he becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business. . . . they [the ads] tend to appeal to the philistine's pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear.
In 2016, I wrote “Ersatz, kitsch, ostentatious, vulgar, poor taste—it is not much of a stretch to consider Trumpian a synonym for any of them.” I should have added crass and philistine.
Historian Niall Ferguson, who believes that Trump is “just crass and always has been,”also thinks he “is the incarnation of the spirit of our age. His tweets – hasty, crude and error-strewn – are just one symptom of a more general decline in civility that social media have encouraged. . . . One of many problems with the decline of civility is that uncivil discourse is so difficult for civil people to take seriously. As a result, serious issues become trivialized.”
Encouraging uncivil behavior is certainly one effect of Trump’s crassness. But there are many more, and they are important. Below is just a partial list—I encourage commentators to add to it.
● By his crass talk and actions, Trump encourages political name-calling, gridlock, and disrespect for truth. But what is needed, in Congress and elsewhere, is toleration, political compromise, and admiration for truth, all of which will best help us work toward a better common good.
● In that crassness includes a lack of sensitivity, it hinders Trump from empathizing with the plight of misfortunate people such as the impoverished and victims of bias, including some immigrants. The insensitivity is reflected in his budget and tax policies.
● Trump’s crassness and lack of aesthetic appreciation reinforces an unfortunate tendency in our national character—to undervalue beauty. In his Democracy in America, the nineteenth-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville indicated this when he observed that we tended to “cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. . . . [We] will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and . . . . will require that the beautiful should be useful.”
But there have always been some in our nation, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who battled for beauty. In 1908 John Muir, to whom we owe a great debt for some of our National Parks like Yosemite, noted the ongoing struggle between beauty lovers and profit seekers. “For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in . . . our magnificent National parks—the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. . . . Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers . . . eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.”
In a 1963 speech President John Kennedy gave in memory of the poet Robert Frost, he said “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.” He recognized the place of the artist in emphasizing beauty. He added, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” JFK also had a strong appreciation of history.
But President Trump’s first budget proposal called for eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and he has indicated his indifference to the arts and history in other ways. He also has harmed our National Parks. He has demonstrated “a lifelong pattern” of contempt for “aesthetics, whether natural or man-made. The President appears dead-set on wrecking all things beautiful—the things that make America great—with neither the hindsight nor the foreknowledge to recognize the danger in doing so.”
Whether National Parks, writers like Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Carl Sandburg, or songs like “America the Beautiful,” America has sometimes displayed its appreciation for beauty, but as Muir and others have realized the fight against those who would make everything dollarable and their champions like Trump never ends.
● Trump’s crassness, his lack of appreciation for truth and beauty, are partially to blame for his disastrous environmental policies, including his making a mockery of the Environmental Protection Agency and his withdrawing the USA from the Paris Climate Accord. Trump epitomizes what economist/environmentalist E. F. Schumacher fought against in the 1960s and 1970: “a monster economy, which destroys the world”; one that is “mechanical, artificial, divorced from nature”; and one that contains “no element of Beauty, Truth, or Goodness.” In 2017 Mark Hertsgaard wrote in theNation:“To refuse to act against global warming is to condemn thousands of people to death and suffering today and millions more tomorrow.” The millions in the future include our (all of our) children and grandchildren.
● Trump’s crass actions and words (“When you’re a star . . . . you can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy”) regarding women are just what our nation does not need now during the #MeToo movement. Young males need to realize that the type of behavior Harvey Weinstein and others have been accused of is despicable. Former President Obama, with his respect for Michelle and his two daughters, is a much better role model for young men than is Trump and his predatory macho ways.
● Trump’s coarseness, vulgarity, and policies contribute to a cheapening of our culture. What we instead need is a culture that emphasizes community, compassion, diversity, and tolerance; one that seeks truth and beauty, but recognizes they have many forms; and one that values the past and what we can learn from it, but also that is determined to leave our children and grandchildren a worthwhile and sustainable future environment in which they may flourish.
● Trump’s crassness prevents him from imagining an America like that imagined by Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Barack Obama. An America where (as MLK said): “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. . . . [where] we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Where (as RFK said): “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” (If he were speaking today, he might well add “whether they be citizens or whether they be illegal immigrants.”). Where (asBarack Obama in 2004 suggested): There should not be “a liberal America and a conservative America, “a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, but a “United States of America.” Instead of a unified America, Trump encourages a divisive America, one fearful of non-whites and immigrants, one that will harm us all.
● Trump’s recent crass behavior in Europe (and a month earlier toward Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, whom he called “very dishonest” and “weak”) further lowers U.S. prestige among our allies. This is at a time when strong U.S. leadership is badly needed as Western nations confront numerous problems including European unity, immigration, trade relations with the USA, and a wily Vladimir Putin, reenergized after once again being elected Russia’s president. In late May, theAtlantic ran a piece called “Why Europeans Turned Against Trump. ”The article began with the following lines: “With the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the already rocky relationship between the United States and its European allies has become even more tenuous. For many Europeans, Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran accord crystallizes what they dislike about his approach to world affairs: Instead of multilateralism, it’s America First.” It goes on to say, “After the interlude of the Obama years, European public opinion about the occupant of the White House is once again strikingly negative.” An earlier Newsweek story based on a Gallup poll indicated that “America’s global image has dropped to an all-time low the first year of the Trump administration.”
Other Trump deficiencies, like his puzzling policy toward Russia and Putin, may not chiefly stem from his crassness, but, as indicated above, that quality has affected mightily his failed political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, and foreign policies.
We have recovered from disastrous happenings earlier in our history, for example, the Great Depression and McCarthyism, and so we can recover again. But we should not kid ourselves, Trumpism and its effects are sinister and corroding. Yet, as MLK said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” McCarthyism and Trumpism are nightmares, but the American Dream is reflected in our proudest moments and representatives, compassionate men and women like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembering and emulating them can help cleanse us of the corrosive effects of Trumpian crassness.
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of all of Moss’s recent books and online publications, click here.