the national interest

Trump Has Officially Made ‘Conservative Ethics’ an Oxymoron

President Trump, a moral leader for our times. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The conservative intelligentsia initially greeted the rise of Donald Trump with revulsion. After some of them peeled off, a minority remained within the party tent on the grounds that they could support Trump’s policy goals without endorsing his grotesque character. Mitt Romney’s op-ed attacking Trump’s lack of virtue, however, has put this question squarely on the table. And the conservative response seems clear: Republicans will not abide attacks on Trump’s character, either.

A couple of recent columns nakedly illustrate the moral depravity into which conservatives have descended. It would be easy to mock some blow-dried Fox News bobblehead, but I’m going to focus on two samples from a pair of the more esteemed intellectuals the conservative movement has produced. The first is a column by Roger Kimball, and the second by Henry Olsen.

Kimball is an esteemed, long-standing conservative critic, who writes for a wide array of literary, scholarly, and pseudo-scholarly journals, and is frequently photographed in a bow tie. Like many conservative intellectuals, Kimball once devoted himself to the evils of moral relativism. “What a relativist really believes (or believes he believes) is that 1) there is no such thing as value and 2) there is no such thing as truth,” he wrote in one such essay, in 2009. Kimball explained that by attacking fixed truths, relativism allows the strongman to impose his own values. “Relativism and tyranny, far from being in opposition, are in fact regular collaborators,” he wrote. And also: “Relativism, which begins with a beckoning promise of liberation from ‘oppressive’ moral constraints, so often end in the embrace of immoral constraints that are politically obnoxious.”

Those were young and innocent times. Let us flash forward to the present day.

Kimball is now defending Trump against Jonah Goldberg’s charge that the president lacks character. Skipping over glaring character attributes like uncontrollable lying, serial adultery, sexual assault, refusing to honor business contracts, overt cruelty, megalomania, greed, Kimball reduces the question to Trump’s contempt for free speech and love of dictators. Or, as Kimball sees it, “alleged contempt.” He hasn’t seen any convincing evidence:

I cannot myself recall any “rants against the First Amendment,” per se. And I’d say that his “praise for dictators” was really praise for their possible good behavior or acquiescence to policies that the president thought were in our national interest. One might agree or disagree in this or that case, thinking the president ought to have said or done this instead of that. But that is my point: the issues are debatable, not settled.

No, it’s not debatable at all. And the fact Kimball can’t “recall” Trump ranting against the First Amendment or praising dictators does not mean that evidence does not exist. He has regularly called the non-party-controlled media the “enemy of the people,” repeatedly called for revoking licenses for such media to broadcast, and retaliated against critical coverage in the Washington Post by raising postal rates on products shipped by its owner’s primary business. Trump may have limited power to carry out his beliefs — because of, you know, the First Amendment — but the fact that he has railed against its core principles is undeniable.

Kimball is also absolutely wrong to say Trump has merely praised dictators for “possible good behavior or acquiescence to policies that the president thought were in our national interest.” It is true that American presidents have long worked with foreign dictators, and either ignored or denied their internal repression. But Trump has instead praised the repression itself. In 1990, he singled out the Tiananmen Square massacre as wise, even criticizing Chinese leaders for their hesitancy to shed blood: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.” He has cooed over Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for his strength, batting away objections about his habit of murdering journalists by saying, “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”

He has likewise hailed the repression of such figures as Saddam Hussein (“you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over.”), Muammar Qaddafi, Recep Erdogan, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and Kim Jong-un. But Kimball can’t recall any of these statements, either, so the great critic of relativism pronounces the issue “debatable” and moves on.

Sure, he goes on to concede, Trump may have his flaws, but who doesn’t?

Let us grant that the president is an imperfect man. What betokens worse character: tweeting rude things or having sex with your intern in the Oval Office? What’s worse, insulting Bob Corker or using the Department of Justice and the IRS to harass and persecute your political opponents?

So Kimball’s belief is that even proven facts about Trump are “debatable,” and any alleged flaws can only be considered in relation to flaws by other people. What is the word for this philosophy again?

Olsen, for his part, gets to the point even more quickly. Romney castigates Trump for statements and actions that are “racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.” Olsen replies that, from the standpoint of Trump’s supporters, Trump is just defending their values:

Romney ends by deploring division in our country. He’s right to do so, but Republicans and TIGRs would differ with him regarding who’s causing the division. Evangelicals and other traditional Christians feel they are under assault from a progressive Democratic Party that seeks to curtail their religious liberty. Conservatives are afraid of another progressive president who will expand government beyond all imagination, forever sundering America from its moorings in limited government.

So Olsen first acknowledges Romney is right to oppose bigotry, but then quickly insists Trump supporters believe the real bigotry is being committed against them. Are the Trump supporters right? Olsen does not say. Even if they were right, would it justify Trump’s own bigotry? Olsen apparently believes it would, because — here he gets to the nub of it — conservatives fear a larger government. Therefore Trump’s bigotry is okay, or at least should not be criticized in public.

And again, Olsen is not merely making a practical case for ignoring Trump’s unethical conduct for the sake of policy gains. He is arguing against criticizing Trump’s ethics at all. “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,” he writes. “But that doesn’t work in the real world. Railing about character hurts the president.”

The most revealing passage in this column is the tagline: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. When the senior fellows at conservative institutions devoted to public ethics declare that a president’s character should not be condemned, any debate over conservative movement’s morality is over.

Trump Has Officially Made ‘Conservative Ethics’ an Oxymoron