Trump’s big mouth
It is no secret that President Trump´s relationship with media is very shaky. And as it often happens, most news channels and journals unfortunately prefer not to target so much Trump’s worrying policies and ideology, but rather, his personal life. One frequent trope in anti-Trump media is his flirtations with incestuous desires.
Trump has publicly said some nonconventional things about his daughter Ivanka. He compared porn actress Stormy Daniels to his own daughter; he claimed that Ivanka would make a great Playboy model; he said that if she were not his daughter, he would date her; he praised her good looks; and he rhetorically asked if it is wrong to be more sexually attracted to his daughter than to his wife.
Understandably, this is all very scandalous. But, it certainly does not amount to a confession of incest. And, in a case like this, we must never lose sight of the fact that, for centuries, accusations of incest have been used for cheap political purposes.
For example, the Borgias in 16thCentury Italy were an extremely corrupt family, who engaged in poisoning, cold-blooded murder, simony, adultery, and corruption. Two of its most infamous members, Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) and his son, Cesare, were accused of having sexual relationships with Lucrecia, Rodrigo’s daughter (and hence Cesare’s sister). The Borgias’ moral depravation is beyond doubt, but historians are not sure that the incestuous affair with Lucrecia really took place. Certainly both Rodrigo and Cesare were very protective of her, but it seems that the incest allegations were actually false rumors spread by the Borgias’ enemies in Rome.
Incest as libel
In fact, this has been a very common trope in the history of libels. French literary critic Rene Girard has written extensively documenting how in literary sources, incest is more about myth than about reality. In Girard’s reckoning, Oedipus himself most likely never had sex with his mother. Instead, a lynching mob made up this accusation in order to drive him out of Thebes.
Whenever a particular person or group of people are disliked, ambiguous phrases may be too readily interpreted as indicative of incestuous relationships. During the early days of Christianity, Christians addressed each other as “brother” and “sister” in enclosed nocturnal gatherings. This aroused the suspicion of the common Roman people, who already disliked Christians because of their refusal to worship Roman gods. Naturally enough, given that “brothers” and “sisters” met late at night behind closed doors, Romans soon accused them of being incestuous.
Admittedly, Trump has gone farther than the early Christians when it comes to making remarks that could arouse suspicions of incest. But, we must not lose sight of the fact that accusations of incest have long been present as part of cheap propaganda, especially against powerful men. Trump makes some comments that certainly may raise some eyebrows, but the media overblows it hoping to gain some political advantage.
It is surprisingly not so easy to make a moral case against incest.
Freud believed that we have a natural tendency towards incest (hence the Oedipus Complex), and culture steps in to repress it. But, this seems to be yet another of Freud’s many fantasies unsupported by evidence. In fact, evidence supports the so-called “Westermarck Effect”, which is precisely the opposite of what Freud claimed: we have a natural aversion to incest, and culture works as an enforcer of our natural tendency, and not as its repressor.
This natural tendency may explain why most people feel moral disgust for incest. Yet, it seems reasonable that disgust is not sufficient grounds for legitimate moral opposition to a particular behavior. Just because we have a natural aversion to something does not mean that such a thing is ethically objectionable. To assume that whatever seems natural to our behavior is moral, would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
When people are hard-pressed to tell what is exactly wrong with incest, they usually fail to do so. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt famously documented this in a series of experiments. He presented subjects with this hypothetical scenario: Two siblings are traveling, and decide to have sex one night; they vow never to do it again after that one time, they make sure they use contraception, and they tell no one about it. Haidt asked subjects if the siblings acted unethically. Most subjects believed the siblings were immoral, but could not come up with a specific reason why.
And indeed, the siblings are harming no one; their sexual relation was a consensual act with no victims. Incest may be legitimately opposed on the grounds that it has dangerous biological consequences, or that it may become abusive because of power differentials (as in father-daughter sex). But, Haidt was careful enough to rule out those factors in his hypothetical case. So, why should that particular case of incest be considered immoral? With this experiment, Haidt wanted to prove that the moral judgements of most people rely on gut feelings, not on reasoned argument.
In some twisted world Trump does ever have sex with Ivanka, it would be a different case. In that instance, there would be a disturbing power differential, and he could provide a perverse model to his followers, inasmuch as he is a public person. Yet, the issue remains that, when it comes to his incest remarks, the media fires at him, more on the basis of a yuck factor than on the basis of sound reasoning.
Why this matters
Unfortunately, this dynamic goes beyond the incest issue. The media loves to hate Trump more for his scandalous remarks that hurt sensitivity, than for his real policies (which of course, are objectionable for the most part). At the end, very much as the subjects in Haidt’s experiments, when it comes to Trump, the media relies far more on emotion than on reason.
This reliance on emotion is of course intrinsic to human nature. Indeed, many studies have shown that using reason and logic is not altogether effective in trying to convince someone, or in influencing opinion. Yet, this does not necessarily imply that this is something that we cannot humanly control. Contrary to many liberals who seem to be fond of the blank slate idea, we must acknowledge that there is such a thing as human nature. But, at the same time, we are not hopeless prisoners to it. Awareness of our natural tendencies and limitations is an important way to avoid being manipulated.
This is especially relevant in politics, and even more so to the young generation, who is usually more vulnerable to manipulations. We will always have instinctual drives. But, once we become aware of how irrational they may be, we will be in a better position to control them. Let us remember that, it was this appeal to emotion that got Trump elected in the first place. Trump catered to the anger of White America. He is the Post-Truth President; he does not care about facts, let alone about reasoning. He is all about catchy slogans and arousing audiences, not about careful argumentation. Time and again, this political style has proven to be disastrous, as politicians who relied more on emotion than on reason, led their respective countries to catastrophic results: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, Chavez’s Venezuela, etc.
If in order to resist Trump, we rely more on emotion than on reason (such as focusing too much on his incest remarks, and not enough on his actual policies), then we will not be any better than Trump himself. Trump appeals to our reptilian brain. We should counter by appealing to people’s gray matter. Low blows should not be countered with even more low blows. Surely, appealing to reason would make the world a much better place. Spanish painter Francisco de Goya famously said that the sleep of reason produces monsters. We cannot kill one monster by creating yet another monster. Ultimately, only reason can get us out of the Trump era. This implies that we should be more concerned about Trump’s treatment of immigrants, his trade wars or his cuts on healthcare, and less about the occasional flirtations with his own daughter.