A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).

The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

Day 23: ‘The Best People’

Winding up (western aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea.  It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring.  Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.

Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government.  Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment.  For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party.  He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration.  Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky.  Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.

It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself.  Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt.  Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores.  Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms.  Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed.  Respectable people are censuring him loudly.

The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics.  Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party?  Who would feel honored to shake his hand?  Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah.  Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.

To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues.  The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality.  Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s.  Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity.  In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies.  How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.

Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts.  How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing?  Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.

Image: Aerial of a winding mountain road,
© 2016 Susan Barsy