Szuhaj: Moral Authority

President Donald Trump lacks the moral gravitas needed to govern effectively.

by Ben Szuhaj | 10/12/17 1:30am

After racial slurs were found written outside of the dorm rooms of five black cadet candidates at the United States Air Force Academy, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the head of the preparatory institution, addressed a crowd of cadets on Sept. 28. In a roughly five-minute lecture that neither minced words nor beat around the bush, Silveria said that “small thinking and horrible ideas” had no place at the school. Those who could not treat their fellow cadet candidates with dignity and respect had to “get out.” When addressing the crowd as a whole, Silveria said: “If you’re outraged by those words then you’re in the right place ... You should be outraged not only as an airman, but as a human being.”

Silveria’s message is not earth-shattering. It isn’t new, and it isn’t scandalous. It shouldn’t even be news by today’s standards. The fact that it is reveals something important: An American leader denouncing hateful speech in a public forum is sorely lacking in 2017. It’s something we want and need.

President Donald Trump’s main strategy during his campaign and his presidency has been to tacitly and sometimes forthrightly condone hate speech by drawing into question what actually qualifies as “hateful.” In a world of alternative facts, objective wrongs can be considered right — or at least, their wrongness can come into question. In the wake of the far-right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump painted peaceful counter-protestors with the same brush as tiki-torch carrying white supremacists.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”

Of course, the reason nobody wants to say it is because it isn’t true. Making a bogus claim under the guise of I’m-the-only-one-brave-enough-to-speak-his-mind is not noble.

And it’s far from benign. To use Charlottesville as an example, a reductive lie such as the one Trump told about the events unfolding carries significant weight. He holds the office of the President of the United States, an office traditionally enshrined with the responsibility of acting as the moral authority of our nation. Not only is Trump not upholding any sort of consistent moral standard — in fact, the only consistency that can be found in what he condones versus what he denounces is how much he likes the object of his rhetoric — but his failure to provide any sort of moral authority is a surreptitious threat to the strength of our country. His only teachable lesson is one in a perverse form of tribalism — even his catchphrase: “You’re fired!” encapsulates this world view. At the moment of failure, in Trump’s eyes, you no longer deserve to be part of the group. You are out. On the other side of the same coin, Trump seems to believe fiercely in “loyalty.” During the investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, he asked former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey for his loyalty in a one-on-one dinner at the White House. Comey claims he offered his “honesty” instead. Comey was later fired.

This is one of the most alarming moments of the Trump presidency. To some, asking Comey to drop the investigation amounts to obstruction of justice, the same charge former President Richard Nixon was accused of. Whether or not a criminal charge would stick, the problem with Trump’s thinking remains: The American government is not tribalistic. It is a carefully constructed orchestra of democracy whose separation of powers is enshrined in its blueprint, the U.S. Constitution.

Even Trump’s assertion that the federal government can and should be run like a business is fundamentally flawed — the American government, to reason along Trump’s quasi-authoritarian lines, is much more like an industry proper than a single corporation. The legislature operates separately from the executive. Each are tasked with separate missions. The same is true of the judiciary. Even within the executive branch, different agencies are supposed to operate independently of one another. That is why FBI directors serve 10-year terms — they are supposed to be above the sway of any one president. This basic fact of separation of powers frustrates Trump, who views himself as a business magnate, a titan of industry. But the same horizontal integration that is allowed, to an extent, in private business is not allowed in the public sector. It is unconstitutional.

Trump’s corporatization of government is a distraction from one of the easiest and most important charges of the presidency — that of moral authority. Even if Trump failed both to comprehend the nature of our Constitution and to enact effective policy, he could at the very least react appropriately to contentious events. Having the proper reaction to hate speech is not hard. It does not take incredible powers of oration to tweet at 3 a.m. — God knows Trump has been doing it long enough. In the case of hate speech, all Trump needs to do is get the message objectively right by denouncing it. For Trump, the revised recipe would be simple: a dash of awareness, a pinch of actual leadership and two tablespoons less ego. He could even recycle previous tweets if he didn’t feel like writing out new ones.

“It is a shame that the biased media is able to so incorrectly define a word for the public when they know that the definition is wrong. Sad!” could become: “It is a shame that white supremacists felt the need to incorrectly overshadow peaceful protests in Charlottesville when they know that doing so is wrong. Sad!”

Tautologically, leaders lead. They are required to set an example, both in action and in speech. The second half of this job description is more important than most people care to admit. For some reason — perhaps because of the backlash against “political correctness” in the name of “free speech” or because of the pervasive dissemination of social media — the subject of speech has become the center of many discussions. Paradoxically, this hyper-focus on speech has seemingly stripped it of much of its power. Say something too “politically correct” and you and your speech are written off as “fake news” — liberal delusions afraid to confront the harsh reality of the word. Say that you support U.S. manufacturing to the same people who uphold political correctness and you might be labelled ignorant or backward, regardless of how much you may know about economics or geopolitical trends. Say you’re running for president and you talk about Mexicans as rapists and murderers. Later, it comes out that you like to brag about sexually assaulting women, then as president you threaten nuclear war with North Korea simply on impulse. Well, even if we begin to tune out your statements, even if we try to convince ourselves that the world still turns after such outrageous statements are said by the President of the United States, even as we become increasingly divorced from the reactions to speech, words still matter.

Everything that’s said matters, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. Language changes how we think and how we view the world. It’s easy to normalize speech that makes us more hateful and more divided when making a claim for nuance in speech is automatically viewed as reflecting a coddled or soft character. That’s why Silveria’s message is so important: To have a dignified, respected leader tell us that we should be offended by racial slurs, that we should be outraged by certain words, is a valuable confirmation of a shared national conscious, of a common belief in absolute right and wrong that has become harder and harder to recognize during the Trump presidency.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 12, 2017 issue of The Dartmouth.