The Moral Improbability of the Trump Campaign

By John Paul RollertJanuary 19, 2017

The Moral Improbability of the Trump Campaign
AMONG THE MANY TRUISMS of American politics that Donald Trump has defied, one stands out for encapsulating the moral improbability of his presidential run: You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.

Mario Cuomo’s most famous quote was an electoral commonplace long before the perpetual bridesmaid of presidential campaigns mounted a makeshift stage last summer, and declared his candidacy. Even in the florid digressions of his maiden address — with its depictions of opponents as sweaty “dogs,” Mexico as stingy in “sending” its “best” people across the border, and, most inexplicably, ISIS as his “competition” in Syrian hotel construction (“They built a hotel. When I have to build a hotel, I pay interest.”) — Trump resisted the superficial meaning of Cuomo’s maxim. Whatever else his speech was, it certainly wasn’t poetry.

But there is a deeper wisdom to the warning that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose, a lesson that was hardly lost on the three-term governor who coined it. The great German sociologist Max Weber famously described the work of politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” a profession that “takes both passion and perspective.” His words were a caution to those who lost their appetite for political engagement whenever they were confronted with the trade-offs inherent in policy making. A political world without compromise, Weber understood, was a world in which nothing was accomplished — or else everything was accomplished entirely. The first was a stagnant state of affairs, the second subject to tyranny. Neither one was consistent with democratic politics.

For all that, Weber was at pains to emphasize that the pliant principles and canny mindset that well served a politician, while in tension with, were hardly inimical to the idealism that typically enrolled one in political pursuits. “Surely, politics is made with the head,” he said, “but it is certainly not made with the head alone.” The heart was also needed. A sense of idealism, even when its enthusiasm was buffeted by the Sturm und Drang of strategic bargains or wearied by the perpetual demands of press avails and pushy patrons, was essential to politics. It was the beacon that guided one’s course of action, in the main if not always in the moment, and without it, a politician was liable to a far greater danger than paralyzing prudence — namely, a blind intoxication with power.

If Weber is right that idealism in politics is under constant assault by the necessity of compromise, campaign seasons provide a safe space of sorts where its banner might be unfurled. This gets at a second, deeper meaning of Cuomo’s dictum, one that goes well beyond rhetorical flourish. Especially for challengers, unburdened, as they are, by any urgent chance to fulfill their promises, electoral campaigns provide a unique opportunity to call upon the poetic spirit of political action. Such hopefulness, which is idealism by another name, is especially characteristic of presidential campaigns, which turn, in no small part, on the aspirational portrait of the United States that each side presents.

To be sure, such presentations are not without their digs at the opposition (idealism may entail optimism, but hardly the ecumenical spirit). Sometimes the barbs are oblique — John F. Kennedy observed in his 1960 convention address that “the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory,” indicating two deficiencies of “Dick” Nixon — but more often, they aim squarely at the stipulated shortcomings of a rival. “[B]ack in 1976, Mr. Carter said, Trust me,” Ronald Reagan declared when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1980. “[A] lot of people did. Now, many of those people are out of work.”

However pointed these attacks might be, they are mobilized in defense of a particular notion of American greatness (something both men take for granted). In the case of Kennedy’s speech, the implication that Richard Nixon and Ike’s Republican Party favored a “tired” politics of complacency served to support his call for a reawakening of national purpose and the pioneering spirit that settled the West. “Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier,” Kennedy claimed, indicting his opposition. “But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment.” By the same token, Reagan’s criticism of President Carter two decades later had less to do with lackluster job creation, per se, than with a vision for a country inconsistent, as he saw it, with the requirements of self-reliance and limited government. “‘Trust me’ government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what's best for us,” he said. “[M]y view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs — in the people.”

Even if, functionally speaking, they ultimately point in opposite directions — Kennedy toward the wonder-workings of wisely administered government, Reagan toward federal restraint — what unites the politics of both candidates is an untrammeled belief in national preeminence. Indeed, they exemplify the conventional tack of a presidential candidate, namely, to affirm a particular vision of Manifest Destiny and to imply that, if we have somehow slipped from its full expression, it is the fault of the opposing party whose policies are embodied by their standard bearer. What is never doubted, however, is the very ideal to which the poetic spirit of our politics is so thoroughly dedicated: an enduring belief in American exceptionalism.

More than anything else, this is what made Donald Trump’s candidacy so strange, and so strangely lacking in poetry, for the operating assumption of his campaign was that the United States (forgive the expression) is screwed. “[O]ur country and our trade and our deals and most importantly our jobs are going to hell,” Trump said in March in a pithy encapsulation of what Andrew Sullivan has memorably called his “Midnight in America” vision of the nation.

This radical departure, rhetorical and substantive, from the themes of Republican nominees past was not lost on the conservative commentariat, especially when Democrats seemed to appropriate them after the bleak overtones and panicked outlook of the Republican Convention. “Feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” the blogger AGConservative tweeted (@AG_Conservative) out on the third night of the Democratic National Convention. “Obama just defended America & conservative values from attacks by the Republican nominee.” Similarly, National Review editor Rich Lowry observed in his own shell-shocked tweet, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

Whatever one makes of the alleged theft, even beyond his tendency to savage what should be his ideological allies and bash the party for which he is now the face, there is no better illustration of why Donald Trump was never a conventional nominee — indeed, why he remains, in a very different sense from which the appellation is typically applied, a RINO or Republican-In-Name-Only — than the degree to which his presidential campaign was never the traditional two-step of reaffirming the GOP’s claim to being the party of American exceptionalism while contending the opposition is nothing short of a threat to its vitality.

With varying degrees of high dudgeon, Democrats and Republicans alike have long engaged in this delicate balance of affirming what’s great about the United States while warning about a threat from within (which just happens to emanate from the other side of the aisle). What distinguished Donald Trump, the candidate, is not only that he gave no evidence that the United States is a pretty great place to begin with (“Sadly, the American dream is dead.”), but that the organizing logic and leitmotif of his campaign were that the threat to the country comes not from within but from without. “The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” Trump claimed in his announcement speech, providing a window into a worldview that might best be described as America under siege.

In Trump’s telling, the assault is constant. When they are not “sending” us their problems (rapists, murderers, drug lords, and the like), countries around the world — by fraud, deceit, and, not least, superior negotiating skills — are taking our jobs, our money, and, finally, what’s left of our future. (“China […] Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, India,” Trump said in March, “name the country, anybody we do business with, beats us.”) Meanwhile, declared enemies, like ISIS, have proven themselves such an imminent threat that it necessitates “a total and complete shutdown” of people entering the country who adhere to the world’s second largest religion or else, in its evolving form, a ban on immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.” Either way, these are aggressive measures of dealing with what Trump has termed the “Muslim problem,” but they might be deemed not only prudent in the short term, but more broadly prophylactic given that, on his account, the Qur’an teaches “some very negative vibe.”

After all of the threats have been cataloged — moral, cultural, economic, and, altogether, existential — the United States that remains is hardly a pretty picture, but Trump fashioned himself a truth teller in hard times, an inclination, even he admitted, that was not without collateral damage. “Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it,” he said shortly after the Republican convention. “But one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth.”

Whether by dumb luck or design, throughout his presidential campaign Trump enjoyed remarkable success as a would-be world leader who eschews the aspirational poetry of American politics for shocking truths that compel policy choices that are not prosaic so much as occasionally pitiless. In the plaudits and opprobrium he received, one may see the contending streaks of idealism and realism that inform Cuomo’s dichotomy and shape political decision-making. And yet, to the degree that Trump went well beyond the playbook of public policy realists to countenance directives that seemed less realpolitik than the ruthless demands of Darwinian survival — torture of militants, targeting of civilians, forced deportations in the millions, and even plunder-as-policy (“I was saying this constantly and to whoever would listen: keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil.”) — the president-elect, in all of these injunctions, is reminiscent of no one in American politics so much as the Florentine author of The Prince.

In that slender volume, a how-to for the territorially ambitious, Niccolò Machiavelli famously boasted that, in order to write something “useful,” he had to “depart from the orders of others” by going to the “effectual truth” of how things are rather than the “imagination” of what we might like them to be. The “others” he had in mind were the likes of Roman authors like Seneca and Cicero, whose advice to the powerful had included endorsements of sincerity, munificence, and oath keeping, as well as denunciations of abject cruelty. Machiavelli did not contest the winsomeness of such virtues — “everyone will confess that it would be a very praiseworthy thing to find in a prince all of the above-mentioned qualities” — he simply denied they were especially useful in gaining power or, to a lesser degree, preserving it. A prince, Machiavelli said, must “learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.”

This conclusion was predicated, in part, on the belief that men are essentially wicked, hence Machiavelli’s most famous decree that it is better to be feared than loved, but no less central to his reasoning were the conditions under which a prince, in his day, might wield power. Despite the hopeful portrait of human flourishing imparted by the Renaissance, late medieval Italy was instability incarnate, a dangerous and deeply uncertain world in which a revolving gallery of warlords constantly strove to protect and extend their domains. Accordingly, for Machiavelli, it was less a profound insight than an inescapable fact that power was achieved, and maintained, by violent activity. This was simply the nature of politics, and to fail in one’s ambitions was not to risk being banished to the paid speech circuit and the occasional cable news hit, but to invite being extravagantly slaughtered in public and having your head displayed atop a parapet.

Given the stakes, however impish his endorsements could occasionally appear, Machiavelli’s commendation of dissimulation, closefistedness, and, above all else, cruelty is more a case of making a virtue of necessity than necessity, itself, a virtue. In this respect, he anticipates Max Weber’s observation that “[h]e who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence,” the reality thereof no less than the threat. Indeed, Machiavelli and Weber both understood that the principled trade-offs of politics are moral in nature, and for one engaged in such a profession, the less power he had to legislate his ideals outright, the less likely he was to live by them.

Still, the converse was also true. Power affords one the legislative expression of idealism, an insight that holds for individuals and state actors, alike. In much the same way that Seneca could safely prescribe protocols of moral authority from the marble porticos of the Roman Empire, paeans to American exceptionalism have had such stable currency in American politics because of a durable sense of shared destiny largely untroubled by clear and present danger.

Whether underwritten by divine protection or the quirks of continental circumstance, this sense of the United States’s providential purpose is a theme that presidential candidates constantly return to. In speeches they made in the twilight between the fever pitch of the presidential campaign and the sprint of assuming office, Kennedy and Reagan both invoked the famous “city upon a hill” address that John Winthrop had given to Puritan settlers when they embarked upon their transatlantic voyage in 1630. Quoting Winthrop’s godly warning that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Kennedy told those gathered at the Massachusetts State House for his last formal address before assuming the presidency that the admonition, for him, compelled four points of personal conduct on which all public servants should be “measured”: courage, judgment, integrity, and dedication. Reagan, who cited Winthrop’s speech in the address he gave on the eve of his own election, broadened the message to include every citizen — “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers” — and summarized for listeners its central lesson: that we be “worthy of ourselves.”

The fine poetry of such sentiments can grate upon those who are filled with a sense of grievance that this promised America — high-minded, hopeful, and inherently decent — has somehow failed them. Still, the dissenting voices of a Ta-Nehisi Coates or the indigent Appalachians lovingly described by J. D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, have a separate claim to the poetry of the powerless. That strain of American song is no less vital or distinguished than the refrain of American exceptionalism, for when the likes of a Langston Hughes asks, What happens to a dream deferred? An honest answer prompts the very call to arms that sees politics at its most poetic.

If Donald Trump connected with Americans in places like the industrial Midwest who have every right to feel their own dreams have been deferred, his rhetoric was never the stuff of righteous indignation. So often throughout his campaign he eschewed the inspirational rhetoric of American longing for a vision of the nation that made it seem like little more than a global creditor (“keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil”), if the not the warden of a protection racket.

The matter of inspiration isn’t trivial, for it highlights what the country risks in the years ahead. Leadership that sees nothing to commend in sympathy, fidelity, self-restraint, generosity, clemency, or grace isn’t leadership at all. It’s bossism, tyranny. It gives the world much to fear in the United States, but nothing to emulate.

In his speech the day after the election, the current president prudently contended that Americans owe it to themselves to give his successor the benefit of the doubt. “[W]e all go forward with the presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens,” President Obama said. “That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years.”

One need not discard a sense of vigilance to take such advice to heart. If Donald Trump has largely resisted our national poetry, now that he has been afforded the prosaic opportunities of presidential action, let us hope, along with President Obama, that he fails to test what has often seemed the boldest proposition of his presidential campaign: that the United States need not be good in order for it to be great.


John Paul Rollert is a lecturer at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the author of a recent paper on President Obama’s “Empathy Standard” for the Yale Law Journal Online. You can follow him @jprollert.

LARB Contributor

John Paul Rollert teaches classes in leadership, ethics, and politics at Harvard and The University of Chicago. His work has been featured in Harper’s, The Atlantic, the New Republic, the Paris Review, and The New York Times. He also writes the “In-House Ethicist,” a featured column for the Chicago Booth Review.


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