When I was twelve years old, the story broke of Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. I was old enough to know that infidelity happened, but in my naiveté I never thought it was something that the president of the United States would do. Worse yet, instead of contrition, I saw only excuses and more moral failure. The news was full of attempts to separate the president’s personal life from his ability to govern, a president who urged me to consider a new definition for the word “is,” and a young woman not much older than I who was used by a president for his personal pleasure and then left to fend for herself when the wolves of public opinion came. I saw the president as a liar and a predator.
When my mother realized how disturbing my siblings and I found the scandal, she wisely went out and bought William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Through Bennett’s voice, and through her own life, she taught us that the moral life matters because our actions result from our character, and our habits matter because they help determine our character.
I’m older now, and I have a better understanding of how people can mean well and still fail. I know now that politics involves compromises, and clearly moral and political failure exist on both sides of the aisle. Though I was inclined to seriously consider some of the policies of the Democratic Party, as the Clintons continued to be involved in various scandals and the party became more entrenched in the defense of legalized abortion, I did not think that Democratic leadership aspired to the kind of statesmanship I longed to see. My most important personal heroes believed that through conservative politics—armed with an understanding of the role of law in moral education and of the principle of subsidiarity—we could protect the vulnerable, particularly the unborn, while also respecting citizens as rational and self-ruling beings. Although I was aware of the factions of the Republican Party who compared Mexicans to rats or called the president uppity, I thought that the best of the Republicans still asked the most serious questions about the connection between moral life and public policy.
And then Donald Trump happened.
Conservative politicians have been caught in scandals before, but Trump represents something new. Instead of talking about the relationship between virtue and power, Trump talks about power alone. Imagine my surprise and dismay when Bill Bennett, whose wisdom had helped me grasp the wrongness of President Clinton, told me to close my eyes and embrace Trump. “I’m used to being the moral scold,” said Bennett, “but Trump is winning fair and square, so why should the nomination be grabbed from him?” This is a good question. Why should we not support Trump, a man who might have a shot at beating Hilary Clinton?
The answer lies in another question that Republicans must ask themselves: would a win with Trump really be a win? Or would it be a Pyrrhic victory—one that would change us in ways we cannot imagine?
Virtue and Judgment
In Trump’s very public private life and in his florid candidacy, we easily find the flourishing of human vice. The problem with vice, as Aristotle teaches us, is that it is closely related to a problem of judgment. Trump has supported the passion of his followers who have shown violence to Hispanics, he has called African Americans lazy, and he has cast aspersions on interracial marriages. His misogyny is legendary. He publicly said of one of the mothers of his children that she had “nice tits, no brains” and has even openly talked about his own daughter in terms of her sexual desirability. In a particularly disgusting show of the love of domination, he has made fun of the disabled.
Some might optimistically view these words and deeds as provocative at best, or distasteful or juvenile at worst. I think they reflect the unsavory habits of stoking division, viewing others as objects, and attacking the vulnerable. Still, even if these casually vicious attitudes do not bother us, perhaps his draconian policies—banning all Muslims from immigrating to the United States? building a wall between the United States and Mexico?—should give us pause. Shouldn’t his disturbing promise of intrinsically evil acts, like the deliberate targeting of terrorists’ families, jolt us into seeing what he really is?
His past endorsements of another intrinsically evil act, abortion, make his current stance on this issue unclear. Yesterday, Trump unveiled a list of judges meant to appeal to his critics in the GOP. But can we trust him? I doubt it. The announcement of this list came on the same day that The New York Times published a profile in which Trump tells a bald-faced lie meant to repair the damage done by his March statement about legally punishing women who have had abortions. He told the Times, “I didn’t mean punishment for women like prison. I’m saying women punish themselves. I didn’t want people to think in terms of ‘prison’ punishment. And because of that I walked it back.” Anyone who reads his initial comments will see this is clearly not what he meant.
If we have not yet come to our senses, it is not due to a lack of such morally repugnant behavior on Trump’s part. And, as he recently assured us, Trump will continue to give us more of the same: “You win the pennant and now you’re in the World Series—you gonna change?”
The Imperfectibility of the Moral Life
For everyone seeking to improve his or her character the moral life is aspirational. We each struggle with moral failings of countless varieties. This is why public commitment to principles of virtue is so important, both culturally and politically. But at no point has Trump’s hyper-public moral life taken on the character of a struggle for self-mastery—unless you count the attempt to marshal all one’s talents of cunning and speech into the domination of others as a feat of moral virtue.
“What about conversion?” some might ask. Who am I to judge the hearts of men?
Valid as this question may be, conservatives simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot see our ability to judge character as great enough for us to engage in legislation concerning the moral life, or to disparage the legacy of the Clintons and the Kennedys of the world, and then pretend that we are incapable of coming to some sort of judgment about Trump’s character based on his actions and words. Trump does not become absolved of his many past and present transgressions and ruthless acts, just because he becomes “one of us.”
To be sure, God uses the sinful. For this I am grateful; otherwise we would all be lost. Yet the problem with Trump is not that he is sinful per se, but that he is vicious in a way that shows a deep absence of practical wisdom and a desire to remain ignorant of the knowledge of the good. Some members of the religious right compare him to King David and King Cyrus, who serve as examples of God using the fallen to accomplish his goals. However, these men showed the disposition to at least consider the possibility of moderation, a doorway for the entrance of prudence and the Holy Spirit.
For students of Christianity and politics to close our eyes to the tyrannical nature of Trump would be an abandonment of Christ’s mandate to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Paul of Tarsus may have converted after God struck him down on the road to Damascus, but no Christian in her right mind would have desired to place him in high office over her when he was in thrall to his lowest passions.
The Lesser of Two Evils?
Many highly intelligent people of considerable personal character are contemplating a vote for Trump. This is not because of who he is, but because of who he is not.
I understand that such people, including many whom I know and admire, have not come to this conclusion out of admiration for Trump but out of a feeling of necessity. They see Trump’s vicious character, but they either view him as the lesser of two evils, or as Ross Douthat so wisely observes, they see in him a useful strong man for the secular age.
But this is a projection of their own moral universe onto the psychology of Trump. They want him to play fair in a way that he never will. In exchange for their vote, they think this man will listen to them. Why would a man who is used to ridiculing, exploiting, and dominating the vulnerable feel that he owes us anything when he comes into power—even if he used us to get that power? If we take the unity of the virtues seriously, why would we believe that he would keep his promises to us when he abandoned two wives and four children and when he has left his own family members in the breach in their times of direst need?
Perhaps, some might argue, it is not that we should have faith in him. Rather, we should trust our own ability to harness him for our own purposes. We should have faith that we can use him to smash institutions and wipe out the corruption that dominates our ossified political structure. Yet this position too ignores the reality of Trump’s character. Why would a man of such expansive appetites submit to the kinds of constitutional checks and balances held dear by conservative thinkers? Remember, this is a man who uses intimidation and coercion to quash politicians and journalists who disagree with him.
The GOP and the Problem of Character
What helped me to distinguish between the Republicans and the Democrats when I was younger is that the Republicans showed the kind of aspiration found in Cicero, the hope that political freedom and moral virtue might coexist and mutually enrich each other in a republic. There was a time when I thought the Republican Party attempted to articulate itself in terms of traditional ideas of virtue, character, and statesmanship.
Reasonable people will always disagree on the best way to solve policy questions. The question whether to support Trump, however, is more than a dispute about the best use of our resources or the best way to regard our natural rights. His nomination is simply a bridge too far. With the appearance of Trump as our nominee, we have become what the smartest among “value voters” have always feared. We are a faction of a coalition party; our votes are expected, but our voices are not heard. In what way can our commitments to the defense of human freedom and human dignity be taken to be the party’s any longer?
The face that is emerging for the GOP is the ugly face we have always been accused of having—misogynistic, racist, and gratuitously authoritarian. If we assent to this, how can we still consider ourselves the flag bearers of the attempt to harmonize traditional accounts of virtue and the political life? We must let the party know that their acceptance of Donald Trump is unacceptable. If he receives the nomination, I fear it will be taken as evidence that the GOP’s words about virtue were always just means to power. And if he is elected president, people making that critique might be right.