After his performance over the past two weeks — from insisting that there were good people in a crowd dominated by neo-Nazis and Klansmen to defiantly pardoning convicted immigrant-hating former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio — it’s clear that Donald Trump is incapable of providing the moral leadership critical to the modern presidency. Last week, journalist Mark Landler declared that Trump “relinquished what presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan have regarded as a cardinal duty of their job: set a moral course to unify the nation.”
However, this sense of disappointment lies upon the faulty assumption that modern presidents have actually steered a moral course for the nation. True, Americans want their presidents to project moral authority and provide reassurance that we live in a righteous nation, even when it acts in ways inimical to our professed national values. But even our most venerated presidents sometimes employed the rhetoric of morality to shroud shameful actions.
Trump’s blunder was not that he failed to put America on a more moral path. It’s that he failed to provide Americans with moral reassurance regardless of their or their government’s actions. His presidency may have finally taken a mortal blow because he could not manage this distinction.
Always anxious about their nation’s youth, lack of established church, multiracial population and instinctive anti-statism, Americans have long needed rhetoric that plays into exceptionalist narratives about the virtues of the American experiment. Absent a unified identity, the Constitution, as historian John Murrin argued, became the nation’s moral compass.
Americans left and right could agree on little beyond veneration for the Constitution and the belief that it provided a shining moral beacon for the world. But they needed regular reassurance from their president, the high priest of American civil religion, that they remained aligned with that moral vision.
The importance of moral rhetoric over moral action can best be seen in one of the country’s most popular presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was responsible for one of the country’s most dishonorable actions — the internment of Japanese Americans during the World War II. Executive Order 9066 required little rhetorical muscle thanks to Roosevelt’s capacity to mobilize war as a moral crusade, which created a powerful cover for a policy that even his own presidential library recognizes as a “blemish.”
The week he signed the executive order sending thousands of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, Roosevelt devoted his Fireside Chat to the morality of America’s past, present and future: “Washington’s Birthday is a most appropriate occasion for us to talk with each other about things as they are today and things as we know they shall be in the future,” the president told Americans on Feb. 23, 1942. “Washington’s conduct in [the Revolutionary War] has provided the model for all Americans ever since — a model of moral stamina.” Washington’s morals, used as a guide in the fight against Nazis and an imperialistic state in Japan, would prove once again the special righteousness of this country. “In time of crisis when the future is in the balance, we come to understand, with full recognition and devotion, what this Nation is, and what we owe to it,” Roosevelt declared.
Roosevelt’s insistence that the crusade against Japan was rooted in a code of ethics laid down by the Founders meant that the decision to round up citizens as part of that crusade could pass the most basic of American moral tests. The racism that the American war state deployed to erase the citizenship of Japanese Americans only furthered the assumption that Roosevelt was acting not just in the nation’s military interests, but in its moral interests as well.
Forty years later, another president, one who venerated Roosevelt but espoused an ideology very different from his, echoed his appeal to American morality. Ronald Reagan explicitly embraced the call to action of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and the rising conservative evangelical movement, which he credited in 1983 with “keeping America great by keeping her good.”
For Reagan, moral language was central to the American promise. Reagan urged American evangelicals to “speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military or moral inferiority.” For all the fear of military annihilation, Reagan said, “the real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root it is a test of moral will and faith.”
Yet Reagan dropped the ball on one of the greatest moral crises of his presidency. He moved slowly, woefully so, to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic as it ravaged U.S. communities. The first cases of AIDS-related deaths began to make news in the U.S. in 1981, but the president mentioned AIDS only once between 1981 and 1986 — when he was asked directly about it by a reporter in 1985.
In fact, his 1985 budget actually called for a reduction in funding for HIV/AIDS research. Behind the scenes, Reagan was probably aware of the epidemic — Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, himself an evangelical Christian, was waging a battle with social conservatives in the administration over how best to meet the crisis. But while the administration debated, 20,000 Americans died.
Researchers and activists showered Reagan with criticism for failing to address the crisis. Yet Reagan never acknowledged his slow response as a moral failing. Instead, his statements were loaded with a different language of morality, one that suggested that Americans need not worry that their government had failed. When he finally delivered a major address involving AIDS in spring 1987, Reagan declared: “Let’s be honest with ourselves. AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
For Koop, AIDS was a potential pandemic that required the best scientific response, including sex education. Yet Reagan rejected this view, siding instead with the belief that AIDS was a test of America’s moral institutions, including individual responsibility and heterosexual marriage.
Roosevelt and Reagan personally valued setting “a moral course,” yet they supported policies that undermined core parts of the country’s moral code: equality and compassion. But the majority of Americans viewed these presidents as leaders who represented the moral core of the nation — not because of their actions but because of their rhetoric, their ability to assure Americans that they, and therefore the United States, were on the side of the righteous.
Both Roosevelt and Reagan allowed Americans to believe the fiction of the American Dream: that no one suffers unfairly in America, that our system is meritocratic and that we make the correct decisions about who is worthy of help and who is not. At every testing point, from the national ruptures of the mid-19th century to the hot and cold wars of the 20th, American presidents have accepted the obligation of assuring the nation of its uprightness.
In turn, Americans have unquestioningly accepted these assurances, taking to heart their leaders’ moral claims. Trump’s refusal to maintain this distinction between rhetoric and action, in part, helps to expose this pattern in U.S. history.
When Trump refused to unambiguously condemn marching neo-Nazis and Klansmen, and pardoned a sheriff who considered himself above the law and boasted about running concentration camps, he became a threat to the nation’s moral standing. His policies were always dangerous, but other presidents have had dangerous, morally bankrupt policies. For his predecessors, however, moral failings in policy have been distinct from moral failings in leadership. Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to present a challenge to the nation’s moral virtue. But he is exceptional in his inability to shore up Americans’ belief in their own morality.
The effectiveness of Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” was that it could do this work: #MAGA could be a moral stance (if you squinted hard enough). But as president, Trump dissolved the distinction between president and policy with his ham-handed hatefulness. And it won’t be easy to restore the distinction — or Americans’ faith in him and in themselves.