It has been another rough patch in the pothole-pocked presidency of Donald Trump, beginning with his tone-deaf remarks on the Charlottesville tragedy, in which he demonstrated, yet again, that he lacks even the barest shred of human decency; then continuing with his rant in Phoenix, in which he demonstrated, yet again, that he may very well be, in the favorite word of the day, “unhinged;” and ending with the pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose crime was nothing less than the violation of basic constitutional rights.
You have to give the media credit for calling Trump out on each of these. But here is where many in the media get it wrong, I think. They have treated these eruptions as a Trump crisis — what The New Yorker’s John Cassidy called “Trump’s crisis of legitimacy” — and while there has been a lot spoken or written about the blow Charlottesville delivered to Trump’s so-called moral authority, there has been very little in the media that views this as a national moral crisis, one which tests this nation no less than war or economic disaster. Google “Charlottesville” and “moral crisis” and you get exactly two direct hits — one from a blogger.
How pervasive is amorality? The “alt-right” movement found a comfortable home in the Republican Party, which, for all its recent professions of horror at the rise of white supremacism, has been appealing to white supremacists for years. And the Republican base itself, which holds repellent views on any number of moral issues, including race, not only embraces the moral derelictions of Trump, but also encourages them. Sixty-four percent of rank-and-file Republicans approved of his Charlottesville remarks.
This makes it extremely unlikely that Republicans will try to constrain Trump, however much they may privately harrumph about him. And in any case, our political system really isn’t designed to curb presidential lunacy. Presidents have enormous latitude legally — witness the Arpaio pardon — and politically, Trump’s hold on the GOP base, the party’s gerrymandering and its geographic advantages, not to mention its voter suppression efforts, give the party and Trump significant electoral benefits over Democrats. You can wait for impeachment. You can also wait for hell to freeze over.
So the best way to damage Trump may not be politically, but morally — attacking him where he is most vulnerable: his lack of values. The Trump presidency, which has set our moral compass spinning, demands moral debate as a context for Trump and his allies. It demands self-examination, not just a few toothless remarks about the scourge of racism, or a few questions about the president’s mental competence or his moral authority.
Because this is bigger than Trump, it demands looking at the sources of our moral quandary, not just its result.
Here is what I think: We should be having a national conversation on morality generally — on what morality means, on how it applies to politics and on how it applies to our daily lives, even on how it has been misused and abused.
I know that morality is a tainted word these days, which is unfortunate though understandable. Usually, moral campaigns end badly, with the self-righteous punishing so-called transgressors. In our own time, it got tainted because years ago the right began deploying it as a euphemism for the arrest of progressive politics, social justice, compassion and cultural diversity: some of the very things that defined morality for the left and for people of goodwill regardless of their political leanings.
Conservatives had many ways of casting their illiberalism and hostility in moral terms, when, for many of us, nothing could have been more amoral. (The old joke about the Moral Majority was that it was neither.) Barry Goldwater, the progenitor of the modern conservative movement, inveighed against liberal immorality on the basis that liberals were preoccupied with “economic man,” while conservatives were concerned with “spiritual man,” which was a justification for throwing people back on their own devices without government assistance.
More recently, conservatives have been mesmerized by alleged Western “decadence.” This has been Steve Bannon’s and the alt-right’s mantra: America is a decadent country, and it is headed toward the same demise as decadent empires of the past.
This is where the hostility to gay rights comes in as well as the racism, Islamaphobia and sexism: Tolerance and the diffusion of power allegedly erode the white Christian moral foundation of the country. The nation must cleanse itself of its sins, by which conservatives and the “alt-right” mean that it must return to a past of white male Christian dominance. This is what passes for morality now on the right, though it really is just a cribbed and ugly moralism. Though politically driven, the religious right long ago signed on to this vision and gave it religious cover. In truth, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council were really nothing more than adjuncts of the Republican Party.
But just because morality has been hijacked by right-wing immoralists and used to justify intolerance and support Donald Trump doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be having a moral conversation that challenges this view. And to some extent, thankfully, we are.
The mainstream media had always forsworn making any kind of moral judgments about politicians or policies. They prided themselves on being evenhanded, even when the evenhandedness was like Trump’s after Charlottesville. But a funny thing happened on the way to Donald Trump. He was so far off the grid, so clearly amoral, that the mainstream media couldn’t help but make moral judgments.
The coverage of the GOP Obamacare repeal efforts this year, for example, was significantly different from the coverage of earlier repeal efforts, and not just because this time it was serious and other times it was all for show. This time the media focused on the moral consequences of repeal: the number of people who would be thrown off insurance, the impact on the handicapped, the elderly and the young, the tradeoff between the poor losing coverage and the rich gaining huge tax breaks. This was new. This was a moral lens.
And another quarter has weighed in on the moral debate. The business world has seldom shown much interest in morality, only profit. But after Charlottesville, we got a sudden surge of businessmen who were scandalized by Trump’s comments equalizing white supremacists and protesters against white supremacists and were willing to say so publicly. A number of them resigned from Trump’s business advisory council, forcing Trump to shut it down altogether. Others, like Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, called out Trump in front of his 1.5 million employees.
And Apple CEO Tim Cook, reaching beyond Charlottesville, has begun what he calls a “moral responsibility” campaign that extends to issues like job training and clean energy — filling holes, he says, that the government has left.
These are exciting developments, and one can only hope there are more to come. One can also hope that they will come not only when Trump does or the Republicans do something reprehensible to trigger them, but also when the entire country seems to be in moral torpor from which it needs to be awakened. Trump has started the conversation through his amorality. It shouldn’t end with his amorality. It should go on to examine a moral rot which allowed him to rise. And I don’t mean decadence. I mean a lack of basic human decency.
Again, I know a lot of liberals may shudder at the thought of connecting morality on the left to politics the way conservatives have connected their morality to politics on the right. The danger is more self-righteousness. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. We talk a great deal about identity politics and interest politics. Why not a morally driven politics — a politics that looks to tolerance, kindness, charity, compassion and community in nondogmatic and expansive ways, not, as conservatives would have it, to buy off constituencies, but as liberals should have it, to do what is right and good.
When you are in a crisis, you need change. The only way to change America, really change it, is to change its values. The only way to change American politics, really change them, is to incorporate truly moral values into them and hold those who don’t accountable.
Trump is a danger to this country not because he is ignorant and incompetent or because he has no regard for constitutional rights. He is a danger because he is amoral and has no regard for basic human values — and because he legitimizes amorality. Fight him on political grounds, where power is the only thing that matters, and you are likely to lose. Fight him on moral grounds and you cannot lose, because he has no moral armor with which to defend himself.