‘The idiot Donald Trump’
A Catholic priest once walked out on me, while I was in mid-speech. In 2018, it was my privilege to serve as the keynote speaker at the Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awards, held during the annual Manila International Book Fair. I was tasked to speak on “fake news” and journalism for peace — the same themes Pope Francis addressed in his message for World Communications Day that year. Using the Pope’s own provocative description of the act of disinformation, I focused my remarks on how to fight “the logic of the snake.”
In passing, I noted that many journalists and academics no longer find “fake news” a useful category. “Some of my colleagues in journalism and many scholars in the academe prefer not to use the term anymore,” I said, though I still did, “because the idiot Donald Trump has hijacked the meaning of ‘fake news’ and now it can be used to mean anything, especially anything the user doesn’t like or approve of or believe in.” That was all I said about Trump that day.
But the following day, I got an email:
“Dear Mr Nery. I attended your talk last night at the Cardinal Sin awards. I am a priest and an american. Your reference to my president as an idiot rendered your talk on fake news as arrogant and shallow. Your bragging that you were married by Cardinal Sin, came across as a self serving compliment to your ego. I almost got up and confronted you… but did not want to disrupt the ceremony. I simply got up and left SMX. I was derply offended and want you to know that …”
I did not see the walkout; the sprawling SMX convention hall was busy in those pre-COVID-19 days, and the corner of the hall where the awards were presented was full. So this came as news to me. I could see that the sender was still agitated, many hours after my incidental remark had offended him. The typographical errors and the gratuitous insult testified to the haste by which the letter was written.
I had, in fact, spoken of Jaime Cardinal Sin’s role in my wedding; it was how I started my speech. “When Father […] asked me to speak in this year’s Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awards, I said yes immediately, in part for personal reasons. Many years ago, Cardinal Sin officiated at my wedding; I thought that speaking at a ceremony and in a publishing tradition that was named after him, to pay tribute to his expansive vision of a truly Catholic media and communications culture, would be a chance to give back in return.”
That was all I said about that. It was a personal tribute to a man of God who had, through sheer happenstance (or providence), officiated at my wedding.
The day after the first email, I got a second one.
“Mr Nery my apologies for my nasty remark about your ego. It was way out of bounds for a catholic priest to put in an email. I put it there in a moment of deep anger.. Very sorry..”
Setting Trump aside for a moment, I would like to think that my “talk on fake news” was not, in fact, “arrogant and shallow,” because it relied in large part on a deep reading of the Pope’s own words. (I also used the example of a corrupt, compromised journalist from Rizal’s second novel to illustrate “the inner structure, the psychology, of disinformation.”)
In the English version of the Pope’s message, he used the term “snake-tactics” to refer to disinformation, saying it was “the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis.” But I think the Spanish original is much better: “logica de la serpiente.” It is better than snake-tactics because it suggests “the deliberateness, the rationality, the sheer evil, at the center of ‘fake news’ and other forms of disinformation.”
But back to Trump. On reflection, I should not have described Trump as an idiot. Not because he isn’t; to those who are open to the abundant evidence, the idiocy of this self-described “stable genius” is an established fact.
I should have focused, instead, on Trump’s profound immorality as a public official. I should have criticized this American president according to the standards set by an illustrious, if difficult, predecessor. John Adams famously wrote: “Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.”
Without speaking of Trump’s apparent deficiency in what Adams would describe as private virtue (almost two dozen sexual harassment incidents, payoffs to porn stars, tax evasion, and so on ad nauseam), even non-Americans can see that he does not possess “a positive Passion for the public good, the public interest.” His lack of care, in a pandemic, for the staff who help him and the supporters who show up at his rallies; his repeated return to the golf links, which has cost the American public an astonishing $140 million; his brazen violation of laws and norms, including instructing the justice department to arrest his rival, the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and publicly calling on his appointees in the US Supreme Court to side with him in case of an election dispute—all these, and many more, are disqualifying. Where is the public Virtue in his actions, which is the only Foundation of Republics?
This argument, fundamentally, is an appeal to the American as citizen, to heed Benjamin Franklin’s clever quip and prescient warning: The United States is “a republic, if you can keep it.”
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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