Are we there yet? Are we at the nadir?
Donald Trump's boast at last week's Republican "presidential" debate, that his (shall we say?) "equipment" was more than adequate, marks a new low in a long and storied history of campaigning for the White House, which explains the scare-quotes around "presidential." One thinks of Abraham Lincoln and weeps; Republicans, as they frequently remind us, are the party of Lincoln. Crude is the only way to describe the Republican front-runner's pathetic and tasteless strutting.
While the partisan crowd inside that debate hall enjoyed it, outside and across the land, the reaction to Trump's crude boast has been a big and resounding "Yech!" (here, here, here, and here). The "grey lady" of American journalism and our newspaper of record, The New York Times, ran on its front page a critical piece with the once-upon-a-time unbelievable title, "A national descent into Trump's pants." To be fair, conscientious Republicans recoiled as much as Democrats.
However, this general development---trafficking in the crude and raunchy---is hardly new to American culture itself, not at all. Our popular culture---"popular" because it's embraced by the general public---has grown increasingly raw in these last decades. The evidence is everywhere. To be fair again, this decadence has to be laid at the feet of liberals (Hollywood among other venues) rather than conservatives.
As one who continually exhorts us to seek what the poets call "the upper air," I will not get specific and itemize the various exhibits emanating from the sludge now surrounding us. But scan the pop culture landscape---the comedy scene, TV sit-coms, movies (even the "family-friendly" fare), "edgy" literature and theatre, pop music, "bold" advertising, all aided and abetted by critics who extol the "bent" and "twisted"---and you will readily find "the rank weed," as English poet Alexander Pope characterized it:
"In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv'd with large Increase."
The only good thing, then, in that big and resounding "Yech!" to Trump's crude boasting is this: A crude America woke up, recognized its fallen state, and, in a response more visceral than conscious, recoiled in disgust. Finally! That recoil is a sign of health: We are not too far gone for recovery. It also shows we still have certain expectations of presidential conduct.
This presidential election of 2016 promises not only a political reckoning---of a disintegrating Republican party. It promises also, perhaps, a cultural reawakening, even recovery of the American soul. From nadir to a New Day, from "Yech!" to the Renaissance: The hour is late, but it's not impossible. Yes!
Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she has published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."