In the midst of Donald Trump’s distracting style of leadership, with press and public struggling to keep up with his constitution-bending reversals in policy, reality-show unveiling of judges, and spats with foreign leaders, it is easy to overlook a problem so fundamental that it is the greatest reason for alarm with where the new administration might take us. Yet this problem underlies all the others, and we must name it, and address it, if we are to master the atmosphere of chaos.
The problem, simply put, is a lack of respect for, or process of reasoning towards, the truth.
Jewish tradition shows us the central importance of this. For Jews, truth is a core value – the difference between life and death. “Emet” or “truth” is the word written on the Golem’s forehead; it brings to life the golem of Prague, created to protect Jews in the ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. The deactivation of this golem was the removal of the first letter of truth, which is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. This left the word “met,” which means “death.” Our new president, time and time again, has violated this value through denial or deliberate distortion of known truths. (Clear simple, obvious examples: numbers of people at his inauguration, and that the sun did (not!) come out when he spoke. More complex, and weighty example: that human-caused climate change is real, and dangerous to civilization). Trump consistently demonstrates a lack of commitment to the truth which underlies all elements of Jewish life and our integrity.
Our rabbis, since ancient times, have engaged in debate, discussion, disputation and arguments. They have taught us to honor reasoned dialogue about ideas with a yearning for righteousness and truth, to seek to achieve consensus with respect for others’ positions. Think of Beit Hillel and Beith Shammai arguing about Hanukkah candle-lighting and its symbolism. We have followed these arguments with our own opinions, working cautiously towards truth. And while these are truths in a religious and Biblical context, such a process is no less crucial in the context of a democracy governed by laws derived from its own foundational text, the constitution. Our new president, impulsively, for narrow and momentary political advantage, without regard to law, implementation or impact, issues Executive Orders concocted in secret – then rejects even reasonable press coverage.
This bodes ill, and not just for his political opposition.
We have another deeply held value, that relates closely to respecting the truths that others hold, so that we might engage in respectful dialogue: to speak well of them, and not to engage in lashon hara. Our rabbis forbid derogatory speech, name-calling and denigration of opponents. This president has mocked and disparaged opponents during the campaign, immediately after his election, and even now as he wields the huge power of the presidency. He bullies. His greatest apparent wish, in relation to the truths of others, is to shut them down through brute acts of power.
This president poses an existential challenge for democracy-respecting Americans of all political leanings, regardless of whether or not they find his specific policies to their liking. His disinterest in exploring ideas, his lack of integrity in regard to truth, and his willingness to make ad hominem attacks weakens our ability to engage in what a democracy most needs: dialogue, an exchange of ideas predicated on the common good. If, advertently or inadvertently, he removes this first principle, this aleph of democracy – if we allow him to remove it – we know what prospects we face.