What Romney Exposed About Late-Stage Trumpism

For some reason, Trump supporters get angry when critics discuss the president's character.
January 6, 2019
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Last week’s op-ed from Mitt Romney was interesting not just for what it was, but for what the response to it revealed. Because the defense mounted by Trump World tells us quite a lot about the decadence of late stage Trumpism.

Romney’s central heresy was his observation that “policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.”

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable.

Not only is this passage not especially controversial—it’s almost a boilerplate restatement of what conservatives have claimed to believe for decades.

Back in the 1990s, under a different president, Bill Bennett argued eloquently that:  “It is our character that supports the promise of our future—far more than particular government programs or policies.” And: “The President is the symbol of who the people of the United States are. He is the person who stands for us in the eyes of the world and the eyes of our children.”

But that was then.

Like so many other figures on the right, Bennett made his accommodation with Trump, becoming one of the first conservative intellectuals to make the case for overlooking questions of character in choosing a president. “Our country can survive the occasional infelicities and improprieties of Donald Trump,” Bennett wrote. “But it cannot survive losing the Supreme Court to liberals and allowing them to wreck our sacred republic. It would reshape the country for decades.”

That was one of the first attempts to codify the conservative accommodation of Trump’s full-spectrum mendacity. We know the rest.

As the nation has watched the president launch a volley of lies, insults, and indecencies from the Oval Office, the right has constantly adjusted the window of acceptable behavior. And rather than draining the swamp, Trump has restocked it with lizard people to the point where the whiff of scandal permeates the administration.

Of course, much of Trump’s base is oblivious to the existence of these scandals and the volume of his assaults on truth. Another, perhaps larger group, is aware but chooses to overlook them because of whataboutism (Democrats are always worse—and here’s a clip from Fox News to prove it.)

But except for the members of the troglodyte MAGA caucus, the question of Trump’s character was a problem even before the revelations about his payoffs to a porn star or his involvement in breaking campaign finance laws.

Here is where Romney has performed a useful service: He has exposed the extent to which the acceptance of Trump’s character hardened from tactical improvisation into habit—and this habit has now become full-blown intellectual justification.

This requires not just an alternative reality—one that ignores a lifetime of narcissism, deception, and dishonesty—but an inverted moral hierarchy in which Trump’s character isn’t just something to be apologized for, but is transubstantiated into something that is both necessary and beautiful. (We’ll get to the source of that moral hierarchy in a moment.)

So now we have worthies of the Trumpian intelligentsia marshaling quotes from the original Greek and Voltaire to explain why Donald J. Trump is a man of sterling character. The effect is like reading a tract about “The Theology of Roy Cohn,” or “Why Marcus Aurelius Would Really Like Donald Trump.”

Frankly, it leaves one longing for the amoral transactionalism of the early Trump years.

In that sense, Senator David Perdue’s attack on Romney’s candor is a welcome bit of nostalgia.

Perdue’s op-ed is less of an argument than a reheated Trump tweet storm. He accuses Romney of engaging in “character assassination of the president,” but offers not a word of defense of that character. His main objection is that Romney has criticized a fellow Republicans out loud.

“Criticism of the president or his policy decisions is, of course, not off-limits,” Perdue concedes. “But I believe it is much more productive to have candid conversations behind the scenes.” In other words, daddy may be cheating, but let’s talk about it in whispers so the children don’t hear. Except in this case, the children are the American people; and Perdue’s version of moral populism apparently means not discussing issues like trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, or decency in public.

This is the same argument mounted by Henry Olsen (with a slightly more intellectual gloss and a sprinkling of poll data) in his own response to Romney. Employing many of the familiar clichés of Trump world, Olsen claimed that Romney’s op-ed demonstrated all of the ways that the newly elected senator was “wildly out of touch” with Republican voters.

Those voters, Olsen tells us, don’t accept the argument that character is more important than Trump’s “accomplishments or principles [sic].”

Most Republicans simply don’t accept this argument. Many instead see Trump’s pugnacious and sometimes crude talk as an essential part of his virtue—he fights while other Republicans cower. Others would prefer he tweet less and do more, but still prefer Trump’s fallen angel to a Democratic devil.

Of course the problem with Trump is not his “pugnacity” or his “crudeness.” Mitch McConnell is pugnacious—he held a SCOTUS seat open in defiance of massive liberal push-back. And this pugnacity—whether you approve the ploy or not—achieved an actual policy goal. Lindsey Graham can be crude. Neither of these men could ever be accused of “cowering” from their political opponents. No, the problem with Trump is his grifting, bullying, and chronic deceit. (Also odd is Olsen’s description of Trump as a “fallen angel,” since fallen angel = Satan. But I suppose you can’t assume that a guy reads Milton just because a guy works at the “Ethics and Public Policy Center.”)

Olsen’s argument is that conservatives are positively obligated to embrace—or at least be silent about—Trump’s character, because that’s the only way to get what they want:

Romney would like you to believe you can have your cake and eat it, too — that you can be against Trump’s character but for his policies. But that doesn’t work in the real world. Railing about character hurts the president, and Republicans know that.

Well, yes. But since Olsen wants to cite polling to determine moral standards, it’s worth pointing out that Trump’s character clearly hurts the GOP with non-Trumpian voters. And in the wake of the Republican thumping in the midterms, it seems surpassingly strange to hear an expert in public opinion insisting that we should not talk about one of the factors that is an electoral millstone about the neck of the GOP.

Neither Olsen nor Perdue, however, are Peak Trump Rationalizers. The championship belt for moral puffery is held, of course, by Jerry Falwell Jr. and his fellow evangelicals, who look at Donald Trump and see King David.

But there may be a new contender on the horizon. Roger Kimball has heroically taken up Jonah Goldberg’s challenge to “come up with a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.”

I use the term “heroically,” advisedly because Kimball brings to the task all of his formidable intellectual and rhetorical skills, including the use of original Greek, quotes from Voltaire, and commentary from Cardinal Newman.

In his book The Grammar of Assent, Newman devotes some interesting pages to Aristotle’s concept of φρόνησις, “prudence.” “Properly speaking,” Newman says, “there are as many kinds of phronesis as there are virtues: for the judgment, good sense, or tact which is conspicuous in a man’s conduct in one subject-matter, is not necessarily traceable in another.”

Rising to the challenge, Kimball writes that voters did not vote for Trump because they thought he was “a candidate for sainthood.”

On the contrary, people supported him, first, because of what he promised to do and, second, because of what, over the past two years, he has accomplished. These accomplishments, from rolling back the regulatory state and scores of conservative judicial appointments, from moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem to resuscitating our military, working to end Obamacare, and fighting to keep our borders secure, are not morally neutral data points.

These accomplishments, Kimball says, are “evidences of a political vision and of promises made and kept.”

And it is here that Kimball makes the audacious bid to redefine the meaning of the word “character.” Add up the list of Trump wins, Kimball concludes, “and I think they go a long way towards a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.”

Do not overlook Kimball’s accomplishment here: There as a time when character referred to such hoary values as justice, prudence, truth, temperance, and fortitude. But in this telling, character becomes simply a threshold to be clear by tabulating policy outcomes.

In his response, Goldberg notes that Kimball “employs an enormous amount of logic-chopping and squirrel-spotting,” to come up with a “new and wholly instrumental definition of good character”:

He is saying that a man who bedded a porn star while his (third) wife was home with their newborn child now fits the—or at least a—definition of good character because he delivers tax cuts. A man, who by his own admission, “whines until he wins” and boasts of how he screwed over business partners, a man who lies more egregiously and incessantly than Bill Clinton and used his family charity in Clintonian ways, has a good character because he’s “working to end Obamacare, and fighting to keep our borders secure.” Is that really what conservatives should be telling presidents? That so long as you fulfill your promises to the base of the party, not only will we abstain from meaningful criticism, but we will in fact redefine good character to fit the president? I have deep admiration for Roger, but if I knew what the original Greek for “bologna” is, I would use it here.

But this is where I have to differ from Jonah a bit. The Trumpian celebration of strength over goodness and the sneering at traditional values as emblems of weakness is not utterly new. It is, in fact, somewhat surprising that Kimball would quote Newman and Voltaire, but not Nietzsche, since he seems to channeling his transvaluation of values.

Peter Wehner noted the intellectual patrimony of the Trumpian ethos more than two years ago.

To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics, and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.”

In other words #winning.

Wehner recognized the intellectual antecedents of the strutting bully-boys of Trumpism, even if they were oblivious of the source. Nietzsche would have fit seamlessly into the pages of American Greatness or on Fox News’ primetime lineup. His twitter feed would have been lit. As Wehner wrote:

Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “Übermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump.

This is what Romney exposed. While mouthing pieties about Christian values, late stage Trumpism is edging ever closer to explicitly embracing Nietzsche’s upside down moral universe. And this is as dangerous as it is disappointing.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.