There’s been a whole lot of discussion around President Trump lately by conservatives offering “see, he’s getting results” as a reason for comfort to those still not aboard the Trump Train. Dennis Prager penned a think piece in National Review offering reasons why “Trump is too far from their ideal leader for some conservatives to support him.”
Jonah Goldberg retorted, correctly, that Prager’s description of a “civil war” is a weak and incorrect motivation for supporting Trump. Erick Erickson took the right and the wrong and offered opinions on both.
These men are far smarter than I, so I won’t rehash their arguments, but I will quote Erick on his salient point against Trump. “I’d prefer to deal with good people of sound character advancing good ideas.”
It’s confusing, because we all have different ideas of “sound character.” Trump supporters argue that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Trump critics answer that supporters are setting the bar far too low in comparisons with the Clintons’ and Obama’s worst transgressions.
But allow me to suggest that we’ve all walked too far into the forest and are arguing over trees. The basic issue is that we’ve bought one of the oldest philosophical falsehoods in existence, that the ends justify the means.
In any important decision, outcome-based thinking allows us to determine the ends and fit the means to those ends to achieve them. In an amoral calculus, like constructing a bridge or a building, determining that the bridge should carry a certain weight, or the building should rise to a certain height, the means are fairly straightforward. But when human morality is brought into the situation, means become everything.
Should we knock down homes around our building to make room for the foundation required for our building, or should we lower our expectations of the height of the building? Should we make our bridge too low to allow certain ships to pass under, or should we spend money to increase the clearance? Should we buy American steel or foreign steel? Should we cut corners, even if the outcome isn’t affected, or should we proceed exactly according to the engineering plans?
Conservatives have always valued the means above the ends. Confidence in the means is exactly what allows conservatives, and proponents of classical liberalism–life, liberty, the the pursuit of happiness–to conserve ideas that transcend outcomes.
One example: conservatives believe that a small government, strong family, economic opportunity, and justice for crimes (not social justice) will result in a society with racial equality, less poverty, and social harmony among all people. It’s the very means implicit in less government intrusion, promotion of family, a capitalist rewards-based economy, and a strong consistent system of criminal justice which will produce the outcome.
Liberals, however, believe that the outcomes themselves are to be pursued in a straight line by proclaiming them as law. That racial equality shall be the law and here is how it shall be done, regardless of the means to do it. Since all laws are ultimately enforced at the barrel of a gun, by the use of power and force, that’s how the outcomes are generally obtained.
In the liberal model, the ends justify the means, and the power of government determines the winners and losers, to the second, third, and nth degree of incidental consequences. This is why America, ruled by liberal thought of government (whichever party is in power) for 75 years, has hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations, enforced by myriad offices and agencies and departments of the federal Leviathan.
All ends justify the means to those ends in the liberal model, which really defies human nature. This is why abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and eugenics are so popular in progressive intellectual circles.
The ends do not justify the means, but Donald Trump does not believe this. Every president has to choose their battles, so there are plenty of times when ends and means are muddled. Even President Reagan had his problems (Iran Contra). President George W. Bush tended to side with ends on many issues like Saddam Hussein and “nation building” in Iraq. But the means were always elevated in those two presidents’ administrations.
In Obama’s 8 years, ends were all that mattered. And in the Age of Trump, means have been totally defenestrated.
Trump’s purpose in life, his “teleology,” is to win. Winning has no obstacles like means. Cheating is defined as breaking the rules in a way that will result in being caught. Deals with Russia are okay as long as they don’t cross a line, but skirt against it. Since Congress passed laws exempting the president from most conflict of interest laws, Trump will take full advantage. Since Trump can appoint his relatives to senior positions in the White House, he does so.
Since Trump isn’t required to release his tax returns, he will never do it. Trump isn’t required to disclose his charitable giving, or back up his claims, so he won’t. He’s not required to tell the truth except under oath, so he lies to win.
With Trump, America will win. There’s no doubt about that. The United States is the most powerful nation on earth. No other country has ever enjoyed the level of global hegemony of the United States since Hadrian built his wall across the British Isle. No nation (or combination of nations) on earth could defeat the Romans at that time, and no nations can defeat America now.
I may agree with the outcomes and ends that Trump set–such as exiting the Paris Accords, or appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, or beginning to dismantle the administrative state. These ends may actually help to restore the ability to govern through means and conservative values, but those victories are really incidental to the man who achieves them.
Therefore, regardless of what Trump might “achieve” in his ends, I cannot support him for totally ignoring the means. It’s not conservative–in fact it’s the opposite of conservative–to give no value to means over ends. It’s the liberal model, with ersatz conservative outcomes.
Like Ozymandias, a kingdom built on ends, without the supporting ideals of means, will eventually collapse. It cannot stand, because the ideals themselves are the means through which those outcomes are achieved.
Trump is building a building, erecting a bridge, trying to achieve a form of greatness, without the tools to make them stand. It’s all form and no function. It’s an amoral form of social engineering, that ignores the human moral consequences of cutting corners. And like a bridge built exactly to the engineer’s minimum standards, using the lowest quality materials that meet those requirements, it will fail.
Trump loyalist conservatives who stop and engage in some introspection know this. They know they’re investing in an illusory victory. But they want to get the bridge built, the building constructed, the MAGA completed. In the end, they’ll be disappointed. The results may last for a while–the Romans got Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius after Hadrian.
But pursuing ends over means ensures a society’s collapse. History shows it over and over again.
The Bible instructs us to value means over ends. God created man in His image. We have the capacity to discern moral goodness, or to abandon it for evil. God Himself controls the ends, but mankind controls the means.
That Trump does not accept this fact is the entirety of the reason I cannot place my trust in the man. Though I may agree with many of his achievements, and laud those when they advance the cause of conservative ideals, I cannot trust a man who is incapable of sharing those ideals.
Dennis Prager, of all people, should know this. The others who ride the Trump Train and really know better will eventually return from their fantasy. The culture war was never about outcomes, it’s always been about means to those ends.