Few were surprised to learn last week that Sen. Mitt Romney (still) has concerns about President Donald Trump’s character.
Certainly there was no need to convince the average reader of the Washington Post of such concerns. Even those who share the senator’s concerns are wondering (along, it seems, with Utah’s senior senator) just what was the practical point of Romney once again signaling the virtue alarm just as he was about to be sworn in. It wasn’t so long ago — when he was campaigning in Utah for his new job — that, like so many Utah Republicans, he seemed to be readier than he was in 2016 to cut the president some slack.
Whatever Romney’s intentions, the question of the president’s character is a serious one. Even if one turns one's gaze away from gross misconduct in private life (where, alas, he is in the good company of so many illustrious predecessors), his outrageously bad manners, including rough treatment of rivals as well as adversaries, seem to indicate a lack of elementary self-control that is both appalling and surprising in a man who has, after all, made his way in life with some notable success, which presumably requires at least some rudimentary discipline and command of the executive functions of human nature. (This combination of grown-up success and apparent childlike indiscipline has nourished the hypothesis — ably developed by James Piereson — that the president may at some level know what he is doing.)
Whether there is some method behind much apparent presidential madness, Romney is right that “a presidency shapes the public character of the nation” and “a president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels.’” Similarly, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg recently predicted that the president's "character will be his downfall” and has consistently warned Republicans that their embrace of Trump threatens the party’s character, intellectually and morally.
Romney’s and Goldberg’s full-bored critiques have prompted an almost philosophical debate on the question of character in politics. The arguments of those who defend Trump, or at least push back against his character critics, such as Roger Kimball and Ben Shapiro, come down to three essential points: 1) “Whataboutism,” that is, the practical alternatives (Hillary Clinton, most obviously) were and are worse; 2) The question of character in politics is complicated, and the president’s virtues of loyalty to America as well as a certain courage are strong points in his favor; 3) the ends (worthy Supreme Court justice, economic deregulation, the fight for border security, etc.) justify the means.
Such pertinent replies to Romney and to Goldberg remind us that means cannot be evaluated apart from ends, or that character is always bound up with purpose, with a shared sense of a common good. Just what is the vision of these “better angels” we wish were in charge? Those who invoke the angels find the president’s boldness too brutal to count as true “courage” and his “loyalty” too narrow to qualify as a virtue. However, in the current context, the apparently more “angelic” virtues touted by the anti-Trump party have a partisan flavor as well.
As Goldberg himself points out, not so long ago the left tended to view the very idea of defining and upholding virtues of character as a conservative ploy. But in the anti-Trump context, simple ideas of decency and politeness become associated with a broader political or transpolitical vision, as we hear when Romney derides “the politics of anger” that causes “dismay around the world” and falls short of “the ideal that is the essence of America,” i.e., “respect (for) the dignity of every child of God.”
One can see the pertinence of Trump’s response, namely, that Romney would do better to focus on border security. There is more than a hint in Romney’s rhetoric that any “anger” Trump’s supporters may feel at the perceived neglect of their interests as Americans, as well as Trump’s courageous loyalty to such supporters, falls far beneath the more angelic standard of regard for simple human dignity as understood by more enlightened world opinion.
The president may seem to be using the question of borders simply to distract us from the moral question, but the problem of what defines a people is more than a distraction. Whatever may be Trump’s distinctive character faults, the current debate raises substantive questions of national character and of the character of nations. What this debate shows is that simple virtues of decency, politeness and civility have become separated from virtues that should be their foundation, virtues essential to defending the security and prosperity of one’s own country, virtues of courage and loyalty.
“When you open your heart to patriotism,” the president said in his inaugural address, “there is no room for prejudice.” But the most polite and angelic among us see patriotism itself as a prejudice. For today’s ascendant moralists, transnational partisans of humanity, “human dignity” is increasingly seen as inconsistent with borders (except perhaps around one’s own property), so a border wall is not only impractical, but simply "immoral.”
Trump’s character is a flagrant example of the disastrous rupture between politeness and loyalty. But he is not the cause of that rupture.