Political Morality and the Trump Candidacy: Part II

August 8, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Donald Trump doesn’t have any particular feeling for irony and so he misses it altogether in his recent suggestion that the coming election is likely to be rigged against him. Of course he’s now doing the rigging: he’s rigging the post-election assessment of the results. If he wins, it reflects the will of the electorate; if he loses, that will has been thwarted, by a rigging.

This raises the question discussed here of whether, if there are limits to ends-justifies-the-means political ethics–if it is accepted that there are superior and inferior types of political morality– Trump has exhibited clearly a moral style that is both distinctive and troubling.

It does not seem that there is a clear and shared view of when political ethics have become unacceptable, and so, in Trump’s case, the analysis has now shifted to issues of mental health. It is not suggested that his lying exceeds the limits of the ethically permissible but that we have departed from the domain of ethics altogether.

It is also the case that, whatever view is taken of Trump’s mental condition, we expect politicians to keep some ethically meaningful balance between their personal interests and the larger responsibility to the electorate and the wider public. Of course, it is fine today, as it was not during the Founding era, for candidates to profess their ambition, planning openly and years in advance to win high office. They can run nasty ads that play loosely with the facts, though now at the federal level they have to accept responsibility (of a sort) for the message. It is accepted that they might work within a unique ethical environment, and that to some extent, a bit of ruthlessness might go hand in hand with the “toughness” necessary in dealing with major problems of state.

Still there are limits, which is why, in a recent column, Ruth Marcus notes the significance of Al Gore’s surrender of his claim to the Presidency under highly controversial conditions. Political ethics dictated that he do so. He accepted an outcome he could well have derided as “rigged’, but he concluded that his public responsibility required him to put aside personal interests and frustrations and affirm Bush’s election, helping the new President to take office on a claim of legitimacy. So there is a political ethics, even if its content eludes sharp definition, and it should be possible to say of a politician that he is dangerously unethical without having to equate this shortcoming with mental illness.

Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is unethical in these terms. He has suggested that it is not to his personal advantage to release the returns while they are being audited. He believes he should not have to risk the adverse consequences of the questions that could be raised about the returns and that could affect the IRS review. He is breaking with the tradition of release because it is better for him, in the narrowest of terms, to keep them out of public view.

It has been argued that the Trump owes the public inspection of the returns as a further check on his compliance with legal requirements. The Nixon case is cited as an example of a President apparently hiding from the exposure of an improperly taken deduction. But the release of returns is not important only as a step in the legal “vetting” of a Presidential candidate. Other questions deemed pertinent to the evaluation of a candidacy are answered by the returns, such as the effective tax rate he pays and the level of his charitable contributions. Trump weighed the competing interests in producing the information, and the public and his own, and concluded he should protect his own.

Years ago, in the wake of Watergate, William J. Meyer wrote that “one thing is fairly clear; American political consciousness has been dominated by a concern for more conventional forms of corruption in government to the exclusion of broader, supralegal notions of political ethics.“ Political Ethics and Political Authority,86 Ethics, No. 1 (Oct. 1975) 61, 65. Meyer offered another example useful in thinking about campaign ethics, and about Trump’s recent forecast of a rigged election: demagoguery. He wrote that:

While more conventional misdeeds involve a tampering with honest politics and are covered by general social sanctions, the behavior of the demagogue strikes at the very vitals of honest politics…. This, of course, represents the disturbing difficulty with the idea of political morality; its violations are commonly performed in the public arena, and they need not be explicitly illegal.

 Id. at 65.

And to this comment could be added: a violation of political ethics, and a serious one, need not be explicitly illegal nor evidence of a psychiatric disorder. The public has good reason to fear a candidate who is crooked or emotionally disturbed, or both, but the candidate whose political morals are deficient–or who has none–is also dangerous.

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