The Moral High Ground

Politics has always been a matter of morality to me. I know politicians lie: I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one who doesn’t. Victories are exaggerated, the nature of or reasons for defeat manipulated, everyone is begging for money all the time but no one wants to admit it. I would like to live in a United States where the amount of money legally permitted to be spent on an election was severely limited and campaigns could only last for a certain amount of time, but our reality being what it is, I’ll take Elizabeth Warren identifying herself as being of Native American descent based on family lore over Aaron Schock using his government expense account to recreate Downton Abbey in his senate office and to go to the CMA ceremony any day.

Probably due to having grown up in the South, for a long time I had the distinct impression that the Republicans were the party of morals and family values, while the Democrats were self-aggrandizing, their fondness for money second only to their thirst for power. When I was about five I came home from school and recited the pledge of allegiance for my parents, altering one key phrase–I managed to change “and to the Republic, for which it stands” to “and to the Republicans, for where they stand.” My mother, despite still being a conservative at that point–at least as far as U.S. politics were concerned–had a fit; she did not forbid me to continue making the pledge at school when required, but she made very sure I understood what it was I was saying and that the Republicans were in no way synonymous with the Republic.

This perspective started to shift during the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. I could understand finding him repellent for his inability to keep it in his pants; I could understand, and did myself, question bitterly his leadership skills when he launched airstrikes against Iraq, as I personally was convinced that he did so as a distraction from the allegations about his womanizing. What I couldn’t understand were the complaints that he was unfit to lead because of his womanizing. I’ve always been fascinated by histories of monarchies, particularly that of the British royal family, and as a teenager branched out to biographies of more recent political and military leaders. Many of the most revered of these men had affairs by the dozen. Horatio Nelson. FDR. Douglas MacArthur and possibly George Patton (with his niece, ugh). Churchill was known to have had at least one affair (very likely more), but I’ve yet to hear anyone fault his leadership on that score. You can desecrate your marriage vows and still be a good leader.

It isn’t so much that I think moral relativism is necessary in a political context; it’s that I don’t see how it can be avoided if we are to make useful choices, given the scope of the choices we have to make when we vote in an election. I believe that Bill Clinton used his position to persuade women to indulge his sexual proclivities, and I find that repellent, but in terms of scale it doesn’t match the vicious, degrading, and often physical harassment that Donald Trump has bragged about, let alone the credible claims of rape that have come from several women, including his ex-wife and another woman who was a child at the time of the alleged assault. Could Hillary have granted greater access to the President in return for donations to the Clinton Foundation, the proceeds of which she did not personally benefit from? Possibly, but I haven’t heard any convincing evidence that she did so (if you disagree, please feel free to enlighten me), and if the story is true, in no way does it compare to Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his businesses and the numerous ways his hotel empire opens him up to direct violations of the emoluments clause. If Hillary had won the electoral college as well as the popular vote, there would have been no immediate drastic change in the situations in Syria or the Ukraine, there would have been no quick fix for the military and moral quagmires that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off, innocent people would have continued to die. If she had won, however, Putin would not have immediately intensified its assistance of Assad and attacks on Ukraine. Fewer people would have died. As I heard someone else point out recently on Twitter, I would far rather have spent the next four years arguing and wishing and voting to push Hillary further to the left than waking up every morning wondering if WWIII has started and if we still live in a republic rather than a dictatorship.

The U.S. has never truly had an inviolate moral high ground. The extermination of the native inhabitants of North America, slavery and later Jim Crow, the imperialistic acquisition of Hawaii, the voyage of the St Louis, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq–we’ve never had a spotless record. What we did have was a government that didn’t silence people who spoke out against it; dissent has always been present and loud, whether it attracted only a handful of listeners or grew to such influence that it started the Civil War. Now I and the millions of other people who voted for Clinton are genuinely scared we are going to lose this. Putting aside all questions of financial corruption, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and creationism being taught in school, if Trump’s refusal to denounce Duterte and his open admiration of Vladimir Putin doesn’t scare you, either you are not paying attention or you lack any shred of moral integrity, full stop. Even disregarding the allegations against Putin that are supported only by circumstantial evidence–the blowing up of apartment buildings, the manipulation of Russian state oil companies, the fifteen or so journalists he is suspected of having had killed–we have plenty of evidence that he’s an authoritarian dictator with no interest in preserving freedom of speech and no respect for the concept of innocent lives. He was not troubled by the distraught relative of one of the sailors lost in the Kursk disaster being involuntarily drugged live on television as she demanded answers from the then deputy prime minister; he has demonstrated that he is quite willing to kill hostages along with terrorists in the event of a crisis, as happened in the Dubrovka Theatre crisis and the Beslan school siege. If we have to work with Russia because it is better not to have the country as an enemy, because there are people who depend on the oil and gas that Russia sells to European countries, because the citizens of a country should not be conflated with its leader(s), that is one thing. It is quite another to hold up Putin as a leader to be admired and even emulated, as Trump has done.

In the months since the election I’ve started to separate Trump supporters from conservatives and Republicans as a collective group. There are plenty of Republicans–not least a number of the party’s most prominent leaders–who would not vote for Trump, even if they couldn’t bring themselves to support Clinton either. There are those who supported Trump and started to regret it as soon as two weeks after the election; there is the celebration on the part of the stridently anti-semitic, xenophobic, neo-Nazi demographic, of whom I expected no better. What troubles me most are those who have watched the actions Trump has taken in the weeks since his election, the steady stream of lies, deflections, and misinformation coming out of the White House and across Twitter, and yet continue to argue that all this is acceptable because of “the conservative agenda,” believing that said agenda is morally desirable and benefits everyone. I have often wondered what this conservative agenda is–the rise of Trump has proven that it is not in fact about fiscal conservatism, an admiration of honesty and marital fidelity, or a disdain for corruption and authoritarianism. The only thing it seems to be nowadays is the privileging of private (corporate) profit over the collective good, respect for personal autonomy, and human life itself. If the U.S. is to preserve the Constitution, let alone any shred of moral integrity, it’s a damn good thing the people are rising up against Trump’s Putinesque, Bannon-directed “conservative” agenda.

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