America suffers from a persistent misunderstanding of the role of character in public life. For some — a diminishing few — political leaders should be moral exemplars. They should be men and women whom children can look up to and emulate.
Democrats surrendered this standard in their defense of President Bill Clinton. Republicans are abandoning this standard in their defense of President Trump. There is apparently no remaining constituency for the belief that high office should involve moral leadership.
Given human nature, this expectation was always a recipe for disillusionment. But while it is true that politicians are not called to be pastors, something has been lost in abandoning the ideal of rectitude. Clinton did not just conduct a quiet affair. He exploited an unequal power relationship for sexual favors. He expanded the boundaries of acceptable exploitation. Trump did not just (allegedly) have a fling. He bragged about sexual assault and dismissed it as locker-room talk. He expanded the boundaries of acceptable misogyny.
It is one thing for public officials to fail a moral standard. That makes them human. It is something else to shift a standard in favor of cruelty and abuse. That makes them poor stewards of public trust.
This points to an underestimated role for politics. Politicians may not be moral examples, but they help set the margins of permissible behavior and speech. I’m not talking about the law. We have a Constitution that protects hurtful, even hateful language. But public officials help determine the shape of social stigma, which is based on our self- conception as a community.
Stigma has a value determined by context. Social stigma against HIV/AIDS or against mental illness damages lives and undermines public health. But the stigmas we feel against misogyny and against racism are tremendous social achievements. Shifting those social expectations in favor of decency was the hard, sometimes dangerous work of generations.
And political leaders — displaying good public character — have helped determine those expectations. It mattered when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. It helped break an oppressive social convention against the social mixing of blacks and whites. It mattered when Clinton began the tradition of celebrating Eid al-Fitr at the White House. It sent the signal that American public traditions reach beyond Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism. It also mattered when Trump in 2017 discontinued the White House Eid celebration.
A significant factor in Trump’s appeal has been the argument that “political correctness” has gone too far. There are college campuses — yes, you, Evergreen State College — where consciousness has been raised into the stratosphere of silliness and boorishness. But Trump’s political use of this idea has had little to do with academic freedom and disruptive student protests. It has had everything to do with testing the limits of prejudiced public language against migrants (particularly Mexicans) as potential rapists and Muslims (particularly refugees) as potential terrorists.
This is a failure of public character with serious consequences. Trump is urging Americans to drink at a poisoned well of intolerance. This desensitizes some people to the moral seriousness of prejudice. It creates an atmosphere in which bigots gain confidence and traction. And one sad social consequence is the emboldened racism of Roseanne Barr and many like her, many of whom surely believe — on good evidence — that the president of the United States is on their side. The combination of Trumpism, social media and (at least according to Barr) sleeping pills creates a powerful disinhibition to hatred.
There are many drawbacks to being ignorant of and indifferent to history. But one of the worst is a failure to appreciate the depth of U.S. racism and the heroism of the long struggle against it. We are a country in which 1 out of 7 people was owned by another. We had an American version of apartheid within living memory. It was a hard-won lesson that racism is a form of oppression that destroys the soul of the oppressor as well. We honor that lesson, not out of tender sensibilities, but because of long, difficult experience. Much of what is attacked as political correctness in politics (as opposed to on campus) is really politeness, respect and historical memory.
“I had on my side,” said Frederick Douglass, “all the invisible forces of the moral government of the universe.” True enough. But it eventually helped to have reinforcement from the U.S. government as well. And it hurts to have a president of poor character placing his thumb on the other side of the moral scale.