All things being equal, liars and cheats have the advantage in society.
People who are willing to act dishonorably can, and often do, gain the upper hand on others, most often in financial terms although it works the same in personal relationships as well. A liar can make up stories about people they want to undermine, while an honest person is forced by conscience to hew to the facts. A dishonest person can make promises in business that he or she has no intention of keeping, to the obvious disadvantage of anyone who falls victim. An honest person can’t do that.
This reality would be devastating for human society if it weren’t for the fact that for thousands of years our civilization built strong disincentives against dishonesty. For centuries, cultures across the world and of every religion, have placed a powerful premium on honor and integrity. To be discovered as dishonorable, whether as a liar, a con, or a philanderer, was to bring shame to yourself, your family, and even your clan. It was that sense of shame that kept our culture intact by substantially raising the risks associated with dishonorable actions.
So, what happens when the leader of the most powerful country in the world is utterly shameless? It’s a question that we need to be asking because it is, undoubtedly, among the most significant of the many risks posed to the future of American society by the administration of Donald J. Trump.
I’m not going to pretend for a moment that America wasn’t already experiencing plenty of evidence of the breakdown in our culture at the very top. The increasingly predatory nature of corporate America was an early warning sign that dates back at least to the 1980s. The fraud at the heart of the 2008 financial collapse was the most obvious evidence of the problem. And our political leaders on both sides of the aisle failed us when those responsible for the collapse were allowed to skate away without taking responsibility. It was an eminently teachable moment and we learned all the wrong lessons.
In that sense, one could argue that Donald Trump is a symptom of the pre-existing disease. Yet we cannot avoid the fact that he has advanced our societal illness to a degree from which we may never recover.
To think about how much America has changed in just two years, try imagining how any of the almost daily revelations of dishonor within the Trump administration would have been viewed and discussed by the media and the public under any prior administration.
Imagine if President Obama had questioned the heroism of his 2008 presidential opponent, John McCain, because he had been captured when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and then went on to spend day after day bad-mouthing him even after his death.
Imagine if George W. Bush had refused to divest himself from businesses he owned and then brazenly directed millions of dollars in government revenues towards those businesses.
Imagine if President Reagan had ignored the pleadings of his own White House legal counsel and national security officials to approve top secret security clearances for his adult children, who remained connected to their own outside businesses.
Imagine if Jimmy Carter had lied or misled an average of 11 times a day, which is the current running total for President Trump according to the Washington Post.
The American constitution has so few real checks on the president’s personal and business behavior because our founding fathers simply could not imagine that a president would do any of these things, much less all of these things. They lived in an era when honor still mattered.
I certainly recognize that presidents have lied to us at times in the past. But I also know that presidents have suffered in the public’s estimation as a result. When President Clinton’s lie about his affair with Monica Lewinsky was exposed, he acknowledged his shame publicly and apologized to the country in what had to have been the most painful moment of his life. When the White House tapes exposed Richard Nixon for who he was, he had to resign in disgrace.
Trump would have dismissed it all as “fake news,” and moved on to the next lie or distraction without skipping a beat. After all, you can’t shame the shameless.
If you don’t think the world has changed in the past two years, try to imagine Republicans in Congress today telling Trump it was time to go, as GOP leaders did with Nixon back in 1974. And Nixon looks like a Boy Scout by comparison.
Trump’s former top campaign officials, his former personal lawyer, and his first national security advisor are all headed for jail for various forms of dishonesty. Half his original cabinet has left under clouds of scandal. Yet none of that matters to his supporters, who seem blind to the consequences to the nation’s soul. While the pending incarceration of all of these individuals is a hopeful sign that all is not lost, does anyone really believe that most of them won’t be pardoned before Trump’s term is up? Particularly the ones, like Paul Manafort, who continued to lie for the president?
We have a man who views the world like a Mafia don (he calls cooperating witnesses “rats,” after all) and the voters gave him absolute power to pardon his henchmen. What a country!
I’ve never been a Republican, but I certainly remember when things like honor and integrity were seen as values for many within the GOP. It was a party that once claimed to stand for personal responsibility, service to country, and family values. How quaint that all seems in the age of Trump. Today the party is led by a preening, self-absorbed, makeup-wearing man-child who inherited his fortune, faked bone spurs to avoid Vietnam, and whose notion of family values is probably best expressed in “grab-‘em by the …”
And, if you believe the polls, forty-some percent of the country, and virtually every Republican, says: “Who cares?”
Forget the slippery moral slope. As a nation, we’ve fallen from the cliff and we’ll be facing the consequences of life in a post-moral, post-decency society for generations to come.
Once we allow the guardrails that have kept society more or less on the straight and narrow to be so thoroughly stripped away, the disincentives to any and all forms of dishonesty or dishonor virtually vanish. We humans are quick learners, so it won’t take long for such a message to work its dark magic on society, from Washington to every corner of America.
When we say that it’s fine for the leader of the country to lie multiple times a day, to bully the less powerful, to dishonor the dead, to pal around with criminals, white supremacists, and dictators, and to pay hush money to porn stars, we can no longer claim any kind of moral high ground. We can no longer pretend that morality or decency or honor has a place in American society. When we don’t speak out in opposition to the debasement that President Trump’s actions represent to this country and its sense of identity, we dishonor ourselves. When an entire political party is willing to prostrate itself before such a man, it has lost any claim to legitimacy it might have once had.
I know these are strong words, and I don’t write them casually. Yet I can truly say that after more than two years of Donald Trump as president, I and many others are sickened by the dishonor that we are all witnessing every single day in the Trump White House.
Who, if not us, is going to stand up for the America we once knew?