Michael Gerson was chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, recruited for Bush’s campaign by Karl Rove.
Given what we know about the collusion — and there is no other word for it — between then-candidate Donald Trump’s most senior advisers and what they thought was a Kremlin-tied lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, the most shocking thing is that no one on the Trump side was shocked. The most offensive thing is that no one took offense. Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager treated the offer of aid by a hostile foreign power to tilt an election as just another day at the office. “I think many people would have held that meeting,” the president affirmed. It is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.
Donald Jr. certainly doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. Instead of offering a hint of contrition, he offered a complaint that the proffered information was not particularly useful. “I applaud his transparency,” father said of son. But disclosure is not really a virtue if you are admitting highly unethical actions without apology. It is more like the public confession of serious wrongdoing, and the attempted normalization of sliminess.
The ultimate explanation for this toxic moral atmosphere is President Trump himself. He did not attend the meeting, but he is fully responsible for creating and marketing an ethos in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules. Trumpism is an easygoing belief system that indulges and excuses the stiffing of contractors, the conning of students, the bilking of investors, the exploitation of women and the practices of nepotism and self-dealing. A faith that makes losing a sin will make cheating a sacrament.
Republicans have sometimes employed the excuse that members of the Trump team are new to politics — babes in the woods — who don’t yet understand all the ins and outs. Their innocence, the argument goes, is proved by their guilt. This might apply to minor infractions of campaign finance law. It does not cover egregious acts of wrongdoing. Putting a future president in the debt of a foreign power — and subject, presumably, to blackmail by that power — is the height of sleazy stupidity. It is not a mistake born of greenness; it is evidence of a vacant conscience.
The foundation for this approach to campaigning and governing is a belief that politics is an essentially dirty business. Trump seems honestly convinced that the system is “rigged” against him — to the point of defrauding him of millions of votes. If the system is truly manipulated by political enemies, then only suckers are bound by its norms and requirements. Those who denigrate our system of government are providing an excuse for gaming it. And that is precisely what Trump Jr. was doing — trying to game American democracy.
Some believe that the political enterprise is noble but fallen. They have the goal of restoring something lost and loved. Others believe that politics is essentially low and grubby, and must be conducted by its own ruthless rules. This attitude makes it difficult, apparently, to distinguish between political hardball and subversion.
During the Trump campaign and his young, paralyzed presidency, we have heard some conservatives argue, “We’re not electing a pastor in chief.” It has been particularly strange to hear religious conservatives claim that the character of leaders doesn’t count. But the character of a president leaves an imprint on everyone around him. A high ethical standard — think Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush — creates a general expectation of probity. A low ethical standard — think Richard Nixon or Donald Trump — has a pervasive influence of its own, inevitably resulting in scandal.
C.S. Lewis posited three elements that make up human beings. There is the intellect, residing in the head. There are the passions, residing in the stomach (and slightly lower). And then there are trained, habituated emotions — the “stable sentiments” of character — which Lewis associated with the chest.
In the realm of political ethics, voters last year did not prioritize character in sufficient numbers, during the party primaries or the general election. Now we are seeing the result. “In a sort of ghastly simplicity,” Lewis said, “we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”