Moral Courage And The 2016 Campaign

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 201
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Much has been made about the importance of strength in a president, a trait championed almost to the point of caricature by Donald Trump. Yet little has been said about the importance of moral principle and the capacity for moral courage, without which strength is toxic. Vladimir Putin is strong, and that is one of the traits Trump so admires in him. But the kind of morality that strength serves and the willingness to sacrifice his political future to moral principle are not sources of admiration in Russia's leader.

The importance of morality and moral courage in public life were recognized by our first president, who reminded us in his Farewell Address "that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." Washington guarded his reputation for moral courage so jealously that he remains a model for presidential behavior in the face of temptation and adversity. Not just a platitude, moral courage is demonstrated by taking action that puts the future of republican government, the needs (not wants) of the citizenry, and one's own political future above short-term political gain.

Against this standard, both candidates have had work to do. Only one has done it. Hillary Clinton made poor choices in the use of a private email server and the disposition of her emails. That she has acknowledged both errors suggests she recognizes the standard she failed to meet, Her admission of error took some courage. Learning from mistakes is essential in a president, so we can at least hope she has learned. For his part, Donald Trump has consistently put personal financial interests above Trump University students, contractors he has hired, and investors in his bankrupt ventures. He has admitted none of this, equating denial with strength, and so appears to lack the courage to admit error and the capacity to learn.

Moral courage is required of political parties too, and here the Republican Party has failed us the most. Too many of its leaders seem to operate on the principle of "my party right or wrong," supporting a candidate who has heaped calumny on groups as diverse as immigrants, Muslims, women, reporters, prisoners of war, and people with disabilities. Most recently, they have ignored a series of statements about Vladimir Putin, American generals, NATO, and nuclear proliferation that, had they been uttered by a Democrat, would have been labeled treasonous. Only a morally courageous few have refused to support their candidate's egregious statements. History may not reward such moral courage but hopefully will remember it.

Moral courage is not a painless path in public life. It is easier to preach than practice, requiring as it does the ability to act against public and/or personal preferences. The choices politicians confront are often fraught with a conflict in moral values. Being able to wrestle with such conflicts, determine the best interests of the nation, and then act with (politically astute) moral courage is what James Madison hoped for in his desire that "enlightened statesmen" would be at the helm.

Clinton and Trump may have electoral legitimacy. They were chosen in the primaries by millions of voters. One of them will soon be chosen president. Yet moral legitimacy to govern is a higher standard. It sometimes requires reining in supporters rather than agreeing with them. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln condemned both the North and South for slavery. He asked them to forgive each other, "with malice toward none; with charity for all." It was a very hard sell to a soon-to-be-victorious Union. He told political friend Thurlow Weed that "I believe it is not immediately popular." Yet, he added, "it is a truth which I thought needed to be told."

Casting his vote in support of Republican President Jefferson's Embargo Act to punish the British for depredations at sea, Senator John Quincy Adams, a Massachusetts Federalist acting against the wishes of his party and state, said that "highly as I reverenced the authority of my constituents . . . I would have defended their interests against their inclinations, and incurred every possible addition to their resentment, to save them from the vassalage of their own delusions."

Both Lincoln and Adams paid a steep price for their moral courage, but they set an example of what it means to be a president, what it takes to be a politician, and the limits of party loyalty. The public may seldom reward such bravery. But without it, we will face many more unpalatable parties and ethically compromised candidates.