Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a presidential candidate in 2012, has dared to defy the discipline of his party by criticizing US President Donald Trump’s actions and evident intentions revealed in his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump solicited Ukraine’s help in unearthing a scandal concerning his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Democrats accuse Trump of using the threat of holding back military aid to the regime to put pressure on Zelensky. Looking for help from all quarters, Trump then publicly appealed to China to help in exposing what he claims to be corruption involving Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
On Twitter, Romney dared to react: “When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated. By all appearances, the president’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Decided by a politician on the exclusive basis of seeking an electoral advantage, a criterion that applies to every act and every decision, without exception, of most politicians in a democracy
Romney appeals to an abstract moral ideal. He speaks as if everyone agrees that there is something suspect about acts that may be “politically motivated.” If taken literally, this would make practically everything politicians do in America’s current system of oligarchic democracy suspect. But Romney expresses his indignation on what he deems to be Trump’s hypocrisy of defending his obviously politically motivated actions as a combat against corruption. When asked about his insistence on investigating the Bidens, Trump replied: “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign, but I do care about corruption.”
If the reason for impeaching Trump were the lies he tells, he should have been impeached more than 12,000 times, according to the count of The Washington Post. But so should George W. Bush have been impeached for far more consequential lies than Trump’s concerning the motives for invading Iraq in 2003. Had he not resigned in 1974, Richard Nixon would have been impeached for lying. Bill Clinton escaped destitution even though he admitted lying. And wasn’t Barack Obama lying when he promised hope, change and transparency but then waged a war on whistleblowers while continuing the Bush wars he had claimed to oppose? Americans now expect presidents to lie. That is why the new criterion for impeachment is hypocrisy.
Vox observes that “Trump went as far as to insist ‘this is about corruption’ or a close variant of that statement six times in less than 40 seconds.” If anything, this shows how seriously Trump has taken on board the “wisdom” of a certain Adolf Hitler, who wrote in “Mein Kampf” that for “the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.” This has proved especially useful now that presidential lying has become something to be expected, if not a positive virtue.
The ultimate irony here lies in the fact that, for all his lies about his own intentions, Trump is closer to representing the truth about how politics works than Romney, who relies on the falsehood of supposing that acts motivated by electoral concerns rather than democratic ideals are exceptional, whereas in reality they are the norm. Trump’s contribution to our understanding of US politics has been significant: He has consistently displayed through his acts what all trained politicians have been skilled at hiding. It isn’t that he does things other politicians don’t dare do. It’s just that he does them without taking the precaution of keeping them out of public view.
In order to survive in politics, politicians will do literally anything to ensure their election. That includes compromising themselves with lobbyists, seeking dirt on their opponents or creating it whenever it seems credible to do so, as well as endorsing policies that are in direct contradiction with their stated ideals. The reason for doing so may be of two types: they may need to fulfill promises made to significant donors or, sensitive to polls in the runup to elections, they may feel the need to bend with the winds of popular opinion as transmitted by the media. The essential problem they struggle with has little to do with making decisions in good conscience and everything to do with managing their image once they have succumbed to outside influences.
But there is a further irony Trump exemplifies. He doesn’t just get away with bending the truth. He thrives on it. His base sees it as virtuous in the Machiavellian sense of action required to consolidate power. By acting despotically and lying about it, Trump appears like a daring leader who gets the job done.
Many Americans who don’t consider themselves Trump loyalists nevertheless respect what they see, interpreting is as his courageous effort to challenge an establishment they no longer trust. Their culture tells them that, like P.T. Barnum, Trump may be a huckster, but he’s also a talented huckster and, however phony the show, they still love to buy tickets for the circus. That’s also because they’re convinced that the Romneys and Adam Schiffs who criticize Trump are also hucksters, but with less entertainment value.
US culture has succeeded in elevating what might be called the “idea” of capitalism and the amoral pursuit of influence into something intended to resemble a moral system. But capitalism is not an idea and even less a philosophy. Instead, it is a practice and a set of always shifting rules and laws built around the use of money.
Nevertheless, in the US, people “believe” in capitalism, in a religious sense. This means that for the average person, self-serving behavior, which in other cultures tends to be condemned as antisocial, often appears as a virtue. The self-proclaimed philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who has many fans in government and business, turned assertive self-interest into the supreme moral virtue.
American culture nevertheless attempts to distinguish between positive or innocent forms of self-serving behavior and criminal ones. And while most other cultures elaborate complex, tacitly understood rules to define and regulate human relationships of all kinds, US culture counts on the formality of the law to be the exclusive arbiter of behavior. In other words, if you can get away with any self-serving practice, however antisocial, it doesn’t matter how other people perceive it so long as the law doesn’t specifically condemn it.
This moral orientation has spawned an economy and a social environment in which ambition — even excessive ambition — will typically be rewarded by both financial success and celebrity. And because people count on the law to make the ultimate decisions when self-serving individuals or corporations enter into conflict, it is a system in which lawyers play an exaggerated role in the regulation of human interactions. The combined force of the celebrity associated with financial success and rule by law (not the “rule of law,” a pregnant myth designed to maintain the stability of the status quo) means that those who have the financial means to control not just the formulation of the law, but also its application, will have the power to mold social institutions in a way that serves their interests.
In his dialogue “The Republic,” to set things up so that Socrates could propose and define a moral reading of the meaning of justice in a political entity, Plato attributed to the Sophist Thrasymachus the definition of justice as actions that are conducted “to the advantage of the stronger.” This allows Socrates to demonstrate that justice is not about self-interest or the rules imposed by the stronger members of the polis, or even the law that focuses on behaviors that are required or forbidden, but that it is about the “good,” a virtue or moral quality that has its parallel in the idea of the human soul and its striving for happiness (eudaemonia) through virtue.
Mitt Romney acts as if Socrates had created the norm for political behavior in the US, a norm accepted by both politicians and the people in America’s democracy. But Trump demonstrates that the workings of the current system, of which Romney is a part, correspond more to Thrasymachus’s definition.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.