It’s no secret that the American polity really doesn’t care about, nor does it fully understand, the role or demands of classical virtue—and that it hasn’t for a very long time. But many, especially (and hypocritically) those who derive an unhealthy thrill from scorning, mocking, and deriding any and all expressions of traditional virtue, are absolutely certain of one thing: President Trump emphatically is neither a virtuous man nor a virtuous president.
I think they are right he is not a virtuous man. But I also think that’s not a terribly relevant observation. Why?
Because the country (at their behest!) decided in 1998 that personal virtue was largely irrelevant to being president when it gave Bill Clinton a pass for exploiting his immense power to initiate an extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, a twentysomething White House intern and then lied about it after having been caught.
For better or worse, personal virtue is no longer a make-or-break factor in electing the leader of the free world. (It probably should be, but it can’t be so only for one party.)
Instead, the question before us is whether President Trump a virtuous political leader?
I think it’s obvious that he is one, and the rally where he supposedly “mocked” Christine Blasey Ford is instructive for understanding why.
Many Trump skeptics and NeverTrumpers insist their opposition to the president stems in (large) part from what they see as his clear lack of virtue, and his “mocking” of Ford is, for them and many others, a clear example of that personal viciousness. But that’s just wrong; such people are erroneously conflating personal virtue with public, political virtue. It would of course be helpful and good if the two were coextensive, but it’s obvious in America today they are not and maybe cannot be. So, what to do?
Recognize that the American people go to the ballot box to elect representatives who will advance their interests and secure their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they elect leaders who swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” They do not elevate churchmen or popes to leadership positions; those they send to halls of power are public servants who can be voted out and are always subject to We the People—not God’s anointed, unaccountable and above us.
The president’s supporters (many newly “red-pilled” by l’affaire Kavanaugh) see the biases and extreme prejudices of the radical, social justice-obsessed progressive Left, as well as their contempt for our institutions—abolish the Supreme Court! (or is it “pack the Supreme Court”?) abolish the Electoral College! abolish the Senate!—and they rightly recognize that certain kinds of leaders are needed at this hour in the life of the republic if it is to endure. Namely, leaders who recognize and respect America’s traditions, the political principles upon which the nation stands, and its interests, both foreign and domestic—and leaders who will vigorously defend all of these things against assault and destruction.
Political virtue, then, is when a politician, though perhaps personally flawed, stands up for the common good of his country and resists factions and tribalization with all his might; such virtue might indeed be somewhat minimalist and require an over-accentuation of one or multiple of the virtues (in this moment, I’d say courage is badly needed); it might even appear to be vice, especially if the broader society has for decades relentlessly mocked and undermined virtue-in-the-broadest-possible-sense—i.e., the Aristotelian-Christian vision of virtue.
Political virtue is what President Trump showed during the entirety of the coordinated Kavanaugh character assassination campaign and especially at the October 3 rally. Recognizing that the Left had inaugurated new and entirely wicked rules, President Trump adapted in defense of his nominee. Rather than take the attacks as one who was meek and supine, he roused himself to stand firm in the bully pulpit and brought attention to the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Ford’s account of her alleged encounter with Kavanaugh in high school 36 years ago.
Unless one believes every woman’s rendition of something is God’s unadorned truth, this behavior was right and just and exactly what was demanded of the president in that moment. It took courage to buck the current fad (really a “mania”)—“believe all women”—and rally Kavanaugh’s shell-shocked and timid supporters—and probably Kavanaugh himself.
Was it abrasive? Shocking? Bold to the point of being brash? Sure. But it was necessary. In a world where common norms and institutional integrity are undermined, a world where there is no longer a shared vision of the good life, Trump exercised his basic, natural right of self-defense on behalf of Kavanaugh, who himself was brawling “in that part of the state of nature known as a confirmation hearing.” He acted with virtue, rightly understood.
If it is immoral or wrong or “unvirtuous” to stand up for a good man and jurist (and his family) in the face of an unprecedented smear campaign of personal destruction, or to argue strenuously for the spirit of due process, or to fight tooth and nail for an outcome that certainly would benefit the common good (catalyzing the Supreme Court’s self-diminishment, which is something originalist judges secure), then I don’t want to be that kind of “virtuous.” And neither should any person who sincerely cares about virtue.
Thankfully, President Trump understands what virtue truly demands of him as a political leader in this present moment. And that’s what matters—not whether he himself personally meets the requirements of his often confused and frequently self-righteous critics, whether they be on the Left or the NeverTrump Right.
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