Szuhaj: The Integrity Trap

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/28/16 8:00pm

The American political system is in disarray. The seemingly enormous divide between Democrats and Republicans widens daily, and with the 2016 presidential race in full-swing, it isn’t hard to see the fissures forming within parties as well. Long gone are the days of bi-partisanship, the cross-party teamwork of the early 60s and early 80s. Today, we languish in the grip of a political gridlock, a stagnation dotted periodically with brief moments of hope. We say, “If only we elect him, then things will really happen. He’ll do things. He’s not a politician.” What does it say about the state of American politics that the claim to fame of the current Republican front-runner is that he is not a politician?

Take a moment and imagine a world wherein surgeons were so mistrusted, you asked your plumber to operate on you instead. How did we get here, you ask? The root of the problem lies in the fact that politicians need to appeal to their bases, or else face attack ads and debate-floor accusations of “compromising” on their values. That being said, if you asked any American first-grader, they would tell you — compromise is a good thing. A lack of compromise is what leads to gridlock, which leads to voter disenchantment and the decrying of a broken political system. And yet, it is this very climate that allows outsiders and radicals to gain support, to claim “never to compromise on their values,” and, as such, to be elected. I call this the “Integrity Trap.”

Return to childhood for a moment. Weren’t you instructed, in some way or another, to act with integrity? Integrity this, integrity that. We hear phrases like, “He is a man of integrity,” or, “Always act with integrity,” and so on. Integrity, in American society, is synonymous with strength of spirit, will, mind and morals. As such, it is consecrated on the highest level — a cardinal virtue.

Almost nothing is absolutely good, including integrity. In fact, integrity can be a sin, and often can be the label we use to euphemize a particular subset of sin — ignorance, obstinacy, petulance and insanity. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, right? Is integrity, as it has come to be known in the landscape of American politics, not a glorified encapsulation of the same idea? “Oh yes, he sticks to his guns”…even if the filibuster will only delay a vote until after the next campaign cycle. Even if it means wasted taxpayer dollars and time.

The quintessential example of ignorance, obstinacy, petulance and insanity passing itself off as integrity is Donald Trump. Trump, who vows to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Trump, who vows to shut down sections of the Internet. Trump, who vows to “take care of women,” while simultaneously de-funding Planned Parenthood. Trump has no place in politics, no tact or grace, and yet this non-elegance is the very quality that leads voters to flock to his campaign. “He is honest.” No, he’s not. Being blunt does not make him honest. He’s an anti-politician, facing very adult problems with very childish solutions, spewing absurd campaign promises left and right and then vowing to back them up. He claims he can do this because he is funding his own campaign. He is not in the clutches of the billionaires. Money, somehow, has become equated with faux-integrity.

In the world of international terrorism and global trade, a lot of Americans are scared. Some of them look to Trump for comfort and support. He is a beacon of stability in an otherwise chaotic landscape. This is not a new phenomenon. History has shown time and time and again this is one way dictators rise. They rise from the chaos, promising stability, riding on a wave of terror, either with guns, or, in Trump’s case, with so-called integrity.

Thankfully, the American political system was designed to stymie the efforts of a lone individual re-defining the system. Even if elected, Trump very likely won’t be able to “stick to his guns,” without facing impeachment. But he shouldn’t be elected in the first place — not by an informed citizenry anyway. As tempting as his facade of uncompromising conviction and infallible promises may be to some disenchanted voters in a modern political landscape of non-action and conflicting interests, electing to government more representatives who promise to cling irrevocably to their values will only perpetuate the system. As backwards as it may sound, integrity is not always a good quality in our politicians.