I can remember every American president going back to Jimmy Carter. Some have been better than others, but none has been as devoid of public virtue as Donald J. Trump.
Bill Clinton had an affair in the Oval Office. George W. Bush’s government tortured terror suspects. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS epidemic until he couldn’t anymore. This is not always a moral or perfect or wise country, and we do not always have moral or perfect or wise leaders.
If those men weren’t always good, however, they at least wanted to be seen as good. What’s more, they wanted Americans to believe they live in a good country, that we are a good people. That belief may have involved a fair amount of self-deception and deliberate forgetting — or been used to justify terrible blunders — but it can be argued that in aspiring to goodness, at least, America also sometimes moved closer to that target.
Trump is different. He is not just a bad president — he’s a bad human being. His contempt for truth is unmatched. He shows disregard for the well-being of so many Americans. He is willing to wink at racists, bullies, and conspiracy mongers. And he is downright mean. Trump is not the source of the divisions that now plague the country, but it is fair to say he is a deliberate catalyst, happy to set us against each other if it gives him any kind of advantage. He calls for America to be great. He does not nudge us to be good.
A conservative friend once told me that a president cannot make the economy better, but he can screw it up. I suspect the same is true for the country’s virtue. Joe Biden, the former vice president, has spent much of his presidential campaign pledging to restore the “soul of America.” That sounds like an impossible task. Nonetheless, to that end, his campaign has featured videos of Biden simply acting kindly to a child with a stutter, and an artist with an intellectual disability.
Is some of this performative? Perhaps. But there is value in what many conservatives these days dismiss as “virtue signaling” — sometimes it pays off at the polls, sure, but it also can shape how we are expected to behave toward one another. And any small measure of added grace in our public life is infinitely better than the ugly status quo.
“I’m so starved for basic compassion from our government that stuff like this wipes me out emotionally,” the writer Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted after seeing one of the Biden videos.
Conservatives once seemed to understand the need for character in high office. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the commentator (and former Cabinet member) Bill Bennett released The Book of Virtues, designed to help teachers and parents impart moral lessons to young readers. Those virtues — self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith — don’t sound anything like the current president. Yet here we are.
That isn’t to say all of Trump’s supporters are hypocrites. I grew up in central Kansas, among the conservative Christians who now comprise some of the president’s most devoted supporters. I still love and respect many of those people, even if I bitterly disagree with them. Some fervently believe that abortion is murder, or that they stand to lose their religious freedom under a Democratic administration. So they are voting for virtue as they understand and prioritize it.
I don’t agree with those notions, and don’t expect to argue my old friends out of those positions. But one wishes they had a broader sense of what it means to be “pro-life,” or that they were more eager to ensure that non-Christians were also assured of their right to live and worship freely. Perhaps, by expanding their own sense of virtue, they might reconsider their support of a man who has given up fighting the deadly COVID-19 epidemic, who has mistreated and separated migrant children from their parents, and who routinely attacks Muslims in his speeches and policies.
Such differences in opinion will persist after the election. Our fights will not end. Which is why Biden probably can’t save America’s soul — the soul, if it even exists, is too conflicted. Still, it is good and necessary that he tries. And it makes him a better choice in this election than Trump, who seems only too happy to wallow in the mud.
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