Political Morality and the Trump Candidacy

August 1, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Talk about the corrupt politician is usually concerned with the exploitation of public position for personal gain. He misuses his office, or makes that promise, because he is dealing for himself—looking for personal profit or a political advantage, and leaving to the side the public interest he should be representing. And for the most part, he is condemned.

But if he stops short of that and engages in undesirable conduct to win his office and “get things done,” then the sense is that we are in the presence of the usual nasty stuff politics is made of, such as a certain amount of deceit and double-dealing and promise-breaking and just “hardball.”  It is widely, if not happily, accepted that the morality of politics is of a different kind, and politicians, effective ones, have no choice but to behave periodically in unattractive ways– politics being what it is.

We also assume that there are limits the politician should observe. We would want the politician to exhibit, privately or publicly, a “habit of reluctance,” a discomfort with the moral costs of behaving certain ways. The fear would be that if there were no such reluctance, there would be, in the words of Bernard Williams, no “obstacle to the happy acceptance of the intolerable.” “Politics and Moral Character,” in Moral Luck (1981), at 63. The Nixon White House that arranged for sophomoric “dirty tricks,” like flooding an opponent’s state headquarters with unwanted pizzas, could and did slide toward far more serious misdeeds.  And the Nixon example shows that the moral choices in a campaign are not irrelevant to the choices made in governing.

Where in all these considerations does Donald Trump fit in? As a candidate and now the nominee of a major party, he has engaged in and made a splashy display of tactics that include notable carelessness with or disregard of facts, vicious personal behavior toward others, and threats to do personal harm (as in threatening to expose Ted Cruz’s wife etc.) He has drawn the charge of being a “demagogue” and a “bully”, of being “vulgar” and grossly irresponsible in the tactics he favors and the policies he advocates. What is left unclear is whether he is like Nixon, or he is a special case.

Nixon, of course, was a lawyer and professional politician, and mostly the latter. Trump is importing into the campaign moral outlooks and practices that he believes have served him well in years of business and entertainment activities. He imagines that the morals of his politics and his business affairs need not be dissimilar, and the moral habits on which he has built his career will win him the Presidency, as they guided him to the nomination.

Here is where the Trump-Nixon comparison begins to break down. Nixon felt compelled to reject the suggestion that his morals resided in the gutter. He disavowed or at least did not boast about the questionable conduct—e.g. deceit or dirty tricks–in which, many voters believe, politicians routinely engage. If Trump followed Nixon, he would try to keep more of the dirty stuff in the background, leaving the execution to his lieutenants. He would operate with similar moral standards, but deny it every step of the way.

Nixon, for example, connived with the South Vietnamese on the eve of the 1968 election to thwart a peace deal with the North that, he feared, would help his opponent Hubert Humphrey. But he insisted publicly that he would never “play politics with peace,” and built up, one of his biographers notes, “layers of deniability.” Evan Thomas, Being Nixon (2015) at 177, 181. Nixon offered to help if elected to advance the very peace talks he was surreptitiously scheming with his aides and supporters to scuttle.

This is not Trump’s way. In similar circumstances involving the role of a foreign government in a U.S. election, Trump made a public show of encouraging Russian intervention through the hacking and release of emails. He “hoped” the Russians would produce them, and he said he would “love to see them.” Somewhat later, he claimed the comment was sarcastic, and he meant for any release to be made to the FBI, but he left his view of the matter less than clear. He notably declined to promptly do as his running mate, Speaker Ryan and some others in his party appeared to do–flatly ruling out as a matter of principle any Russian involvement.

This seems to be the essence of the Trumpian political morality, communicated through a message made up in some combination of rhetoric and life story. Trump is saying: I’m just behaving as they all do—I have played the system and benefited from its “rigging”– but I am honest about what I’m doing, and unlike the others, I’ll cut you in on the profits. He’s offering voters politics as they imagine it to be, but with more candor about the moral ruthlessness of his methods, and the question is how many will take the deal.Trump has evidently concluded that it is a deal that works for him, better than the alternatives.

Of course, the politician who engages in odious conduct while denying it has no call on the voters’ admiration. But just the public tribute paid to moral standards is connected to the “habit of reluctance” the electorate might hope for in a politician who considers a morally dubious or flawed course of action. That the politician feels he must deny his duplicity or promise-breaking suggests that, at some level, he feels that honesty and promise-keeping counts, and in that recognition is the potential, down the line, that he will recognize some limit.

Some voters may be enchanted with his forthrightness about Trump’s program. Voters like the sound of winning. They will also have to appreciate that the deal he is offering is the whole deal, in all of its parts—including that part in which he can walk away from it as he chooses, whenever he conceives it in his interest to do so.  In this world of the deal, self-interest rules and decisiveness in pursuing that self-interest is prized: there is no question of a “habit of reluctance.”

The voters to whom he is appealing understand this about Trump. It is part of his fascination, it is part of the “deal.” It may also entail the eventual acceptance of the intolerable.

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