Cynicism is more dangerous to democracy than outrage. Cynicism pretends to a kind of sophisticated, insider knowledge of institutional corruption. It says: I can see, even if you can’t, how the whole ball of wax — politics, economics, religion — is rigged in favor of capitalist economic elites, or liberal social elites, or both. “We have a crooked system,” Trump has said, “we have a rigged system.” Since no one wants to appear the fool, cynicism is infectious. Many Americans feel exploited but believe that politicians who offer idealistic answers are frauds.
This perspective dramatically reduces the aspirations of politics — setting the ethical bar lower than we would for almost any other profession. Democrats know their candidate is not trusted, but at least she is a fighter who understands the vast conspiracy set against her. Republicans know their candidate is a world-class cynic, but at least he can get down in the dirt with the Clintons, lie for lie, threat for threat.
But there are other effects as the toxic cloud of cynicism settles over American politics. No matter who wins, the other side will view the victor as illegitimate — an unindicted criminal or a loopy bigot. The winner will find that a cynical public coheres like dry sand. It will be accordingly difficult to rally the whole country around hard or dangerous national goals. And a great country will continue to be crippled by its politics.
The worst hell of despair is believing that hope itself is a racket.