Being cynical is not a virtue, it is not a reflection of an open mind (it is not synonymous with skepticism), and it is not a path forward.
I didn’t get a chance to watch today’s hearing from the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigation the Jan. 6th Attack on the Capitol as it was happening because of work, but I caught the highlights and clips thereafter.
Thinking about the Committee’s work in showing that former president Trump attempted to remain in power despite losing the 2020 Presidential Election to Joe Biden (not even particularly close at 306 electoral votes to 232, and in the popular vote, 81.3 million votes to 74.2 million), and thinking of Trump’s supporters’ appraisal of Biden’s job as president to this point, has gotten me thinking about one of the most successful, albeit poisonous, ideas in modern politics, particularly potent with Trump’s ascendancy (pun intended) to the presidency in 2016: cynicism.
Trump supporters, those who aren’t necessarily as ardently supportive of Trump but who backed him anyway, and those who dislike Trump, but focus all of their ire on the “left” broadly speaking, and the media broadly speaking, all share a commonality of being deeply and erringly cynical.
The thinking goes something like this, I would posit. [Of course, the people who don’t believe some of these items about Trump are in a different category entirely, mainly, delusional.]
Sure, Trump is a liar, but all politicians lie, so, whatever. It is what it is.
Sure, Trump is defrauding his supporters out of $250 million to fund his “Big Lie” that the election was stolen is wrong, but other politicians (usually pointing to Hillary Clinton at this point) also defraud and bamboozle their supporters.
Sure, Trump incited a mob to ransack the U.S. Capitol to interfere with Congress’s sworn duty to make official the electoral votes from the 2020 Presidential Election, but what about riots in Portland and other Black Lives Matter protests?
It’s all cynical. Cynical turtles all the way down, you might say. The reason it seems convincing to people at first blush is because what follows the “but” in the sentence has a grain of truth, but it’s not the whole story or context.
I’m not sure even I would go as far as saying all politicians lie, but I think it’s fair to argue most do; the question is, to what degree? On that score, Trump is unprecedented in lying about everything, big and small, all the time.
Yes, other politicians have bamboozled their supporters out of money, but to what degree? Trump and the money siphoned to the supposed “stop the steal” fund is only one example of many. And it’s particularly odious for these other frauds to occur when the man is the sitting president of the United States.
And yes, some of the protests, particularly in Portland, turned ugly, with property damage and even loss of life. But again, degree: There is a difference between a riot in Portland and a riot inside the United States Capitol that sends the Vice President of the United States fleeing to safety, all because of incitement by the sitting president of the United States.
But Trump and his allies rose to the top, and have coasted at the top, and continue to depend upon, this level of cynicism, this moral flattening. Cynicism is a short step to nihilism after all. If everyone is corrupt, if everyone is a liar and swindler, and if all events are bad along the same continuum, then nobody is corrupt, nobody is a liar, nobody is a swindler, and no events matter. Nothing is of importance anymore. Nothing can be parsed. Cynicism is the graveyard for nuance.
Heck, people have even gone into these January 6th hearings with this sort of cynicism, and I mostly am thinking about the third category I mentioned above, the ones who aren’t Trump supporters, but seem most frustrated by the “left” and the “media.” These types were saying they weren’t even interested in watching the hearings because … reasons. And some, fortunately, did tune in, and were pleasantly surprised by how compelling and moving the hearings turned out to be. Perhaps all is not lost in the pushback against cynicism’s tide.
Cynicism can be a blinder in that way, though, by setting up preconceived notions, which is why it is not tantamount to skepticism. Skepticism is healthy; cynicism is poisonous.
I would encourage anyone who has an interest in politics to not let cynicism be their guiding principle because it is no guide at all.