The Assault on Ethics
A year and a half into the Trump presidency, its most consequential feature thus far is its assault on ethics. What began as a curiosity and a jolt—reality TV comes to politics— is now routine. Demonstrably false statements arrive daily. Name-calling and outright attacks on reporters, judges, and public figures are standard fare in a stream of tweets, interviews, and rallies.
Red lines are crossed without consequence. As a result, the president keeps going.
It is hard to keep track of the cases. A short list includes: close political associates in jail and under indictment (Manafort and Flynn); cabinet officers resigning under the cloud of ethics violations (Price and Pruitt); brazen lying (claiming child separations on the border were not a policy decision); dubious business practices (claims against Trump Foundation); and disparaging remarks about Muslims, Mexicans, and Native Americans.
The list could go on—but it wouldn’t matter. What matters is that the president continues to attack basic values in shock and awe fashion. What also matters is that people in power are allowing it to happen, and the danger of normalizing this behavior is real.
To understand the magnitude and stakes of the attack, let’s look at three examples, all of them premeditated and sustained campaigns to undermine ethical principles once thought to be fundamental to American society.
The first is President Trump’s treatment of authoritarian leaders including Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, and Viktor Orbán. His praise for these leaders is as consistent as it is alarming. Trump’s recent display of admiration for Putin at the Helsinki summit is only the latest instance of fawning behavior toward strongmen leaders.
As early as a 2015 campaign interview, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough challenged Trump directly on this issue, asserting that Putin “is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries. Obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?” Trump’s reply doubled down on respect over concern: “He’s running his country; at least he’s a leader. You know, unlike what we have in this country.”
Later, with Trump newly in office, Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly again questioned Trump’s praise of Putin stating bluntly, “Putin’s a killer.” Trump’s reply: “What, you think our country is so innocent? We have a lot of killers too.”
In keeping with this approach, Trump punctuated his post–Singapore summit meeting with Kim Jong-un with this assessment of Kim, “Well, he is very talented. Great personality and very smart.” No mention of the fact that Kim ordered the assassination of his half-brother in a Malaysian airport, executed dozens of his political rivals often by particularly gruesome means, and presides over a network of prison gulags in the most repressive state in the world.
From an ethics perspective, this is a clear a breaking point. If the United States sees itself as morally equivalent to Russia and North Korea—if the American people do not aspire to a higher standard of liberty and lawful order—something great has been lost.
A second example of the assault on ethics is a dangerous indecency that exceeds run-of-the mill infidelities, pay-offs, crude language, and crass behavior. Trump has a habit of referring to people as animals. In the past, he has called women dogs and pigs. As president, he said of MS-13 gang members, “They’re not people. They are animals.”
At the height of the immigration debate Trump referred to Africans and Haitians as coming from “shithole countries.” He described immigrants as “invading” and “infesting” our country. This language is dehumanizing. Such dehumanization is the most insidious and corrosive move a leader can make. History shows us that taking away the humanity of persons is the first step to atrocity. It leads to cruel policies like one we have already seen, separating children from their parents as a matter of policy.
To say the president is dehumanizing real human beings is not to imagine a slippery slope. To say it is to be on the slope already.
The final example is the purposeful and blatant pursuit of divisive domestic politics. Never before have we seen a president of the United States so willfully dividing the country. The president says repeatedly that the press is “the enemy of the people.” He claims the FBI, CIA, and the courts are “deep state” entities working against the American people. National Football League players who kneel instead of standing for the National Anthem are “sons of bitches.”
The president denigrates American icons: John McCain’s heroism, Barack Obama’s heritage, a Gold Star family’s sacrifice—all are ridiculed and called into question. In the wake of white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, the president sees “very fine people on both sides.” He has crudely mocked and insulted social activists promoting women’s rights, civil rights, and social justice.
All of these attacks undermine civility and stoke insecurities. American society has always had deep divisions, but it has never had a president who has set out to make the divisions deeper and more dangerous.
What we are seeing in the Trump administration is the exercise of power without principle. Such attempts in the past have always ended in failure. The end to this particular story can be one of renewal. But it will be up to the American people—citizens and leaders alike—to make it clear that certain behaviors are “not ok,” especially from our leader.
The story of American exceptionalism is the nation’s capacity to self-correct. If America remains the optimistic nation it has always been, it is only a matter of time until the people demand better, a counter-movement begins, and the plot takes a more constructive turn.
For more than two centuries, America has been held together by a sense that ethics matter. These familiar principles include ordered liberty, equality under law, respect for all, and common decency. Even in the most trying times, these self-evident truths have endured to guide the natural struggle for power.
Here in the middle of the summer of 2018 we await a positive sign. In the meantime, there is hope and inspiration in remembering Winston Churchill’s stoic observation: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”