I’m glad last night’s debate stepped back from the edge of becoming a Jerry Springer episode. We all saw a calmer, more subdued version of Donald Trump, along with a less rabid, but laser-focused Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz is just a rock: He doesn’t change, although there was no need to ask Donald to “count to ten.” Remind me why John Kasich was there?
One of the best things I took away last night was a clear representation of Trump’s morality, based on his own statements, in one place at one time. I feel like we’ve overcome the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle just this one time, pinning down Trump on both issues and answers. That is, as well as it can be done, at least.
- Trump admires strength as an asset, but in an amoral sense. China’s brutality at Tiananmen Square is not right, in Trump’s morality, but it is strong, and to be admired. Putin’s brutality in eliminating political rivals (and former media aides) and putting down Chechen terror is to be admired.
- Trump believes in an eye-for-an-eye. There’s no moral inequivalence to Trump. Terrorists take out our families, so we can take out theirs. Whatever they do to us, we can do to them, in spades. He’s got the same mojo as Sean Connery’s character in “The Untouchables,” it’s the Chicago Way. When asked if it’s okay to violate the law to kill ISIS terrorists’ families, Trump said the law must be changed.
- Trump believes in the power of deals and negotiation. End-games and motivations of others are less important than getting what we (America, or Trump) wants. This is a key point of Trump’s morality. In Trump’s mind, the Israelis and Palestinians, if it’s possible to craft a deal, should pursue it, because negotiation is a sign of progress. If a deal isn’t possible, keep looking for an opportunity. This is a valuable lesson in business, but in the larger political world, it’s dangerously naive.
This morality isn’t new. But to compare it to Reagan is to misunderstand both men. What Trump’s morality fails to see–his blind spot–is that some ideas, and the people who hold them, are in themselves evil. Trump doesn’t see evil in the realm of ideas, or at least he doesn’t express that publicly. Reagan called evil evil.
Ben Carson, who is endorsing Trump today, said that there are two Trumps. “There’s the Donald Trump that you see on television and who gets out in front of big audiences, and there’s the Donald Trump behind the scenes. They’re not the same person. One’s very much an entertainer, and one is actually a thinking individual.” The Trump of the TV cameras doesn’t acknowledge that there are evil ideas; he only sees evil actions and attitudes.
Trump told CNN “Islam hates us,” and defended that at the debate. In that, he meant that a large number of Muslims express hatred for America. But he didn’t frame that in the way even Ben Carson did: That Islam and its teachings are incompatible with American beliefs. There’s no evil that can’t be negotiated away for Trump, including Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
It wouldn’t occur to Trump that we shouldn’t negotiate with Iran over nukes at all. It should be non-negotiable. We should simply stop them, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been advocating for years. Trump thinks we could make a better deal that gets what we want–and maybe we can, but that doesn’t mean we should negotiate. Walking away from negotiations, to Trump, is a negotiating tactic, not a principled stand.
I understand, as Ralph Reed opined in the Wall Street Journal, why many evangelicals would favor this kind of leader. He wrote that Trump isn’t getting any more support from evangelicals than John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012, about one-third. He wrote,
Despite what liberal pundits imagine, they don’t vote solely based on abortion and gay rights. A February Quinnipiac University survey found that the top issues for evangelical voters in the Republican primary were the economy (26%), terrorism (21%) and immigration (9%). Only 6% listed abortion.
To me, abortion is a deal-killer, but it isn’t to everyone (I wish it were). Reed wrote that Reagan beat Carter–proving that evangelicals don’t base their vote on a candidate’s piety (or Marco Rubio would win in a landslide). Nor should we.
But there’s an essential difference between piety and amorality. Reagan was not pious in church attendance or saying a lot of evangelical things. But he knew his Bible, and read it (some say daily). Reagan would never have called a book in the New Testament “Two Corinthians.” But that’s not the important difference. Reagan was guided by a deeper compass of good and evil than simply national self-interest. He believed that our goals ought to be moral, not just enriching.
The stunning public lack of Trump’s sense of “ought,” beyond an eye-for-an-eye and great deals is enough to disqualify him from the office of President of the United States. In private, he may express that “ought.” But if there are two Donald Trumps, how do we know which one is acting? I have to take my cues from the public version, as most Americans do.
I agree with Trump on one item from last night: There are two options before Republican voters. We must now choose either Trump’s GOP or Cruz’s GOP. The choice is clear to me.