Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (1835) notes, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than America”. Ignoring the fact that perhaps ‘Christian values’ no longer hold sway in any democracy (not even in Catholic Italy), the reality of America’s relation with morality over its souls in democracy could never have been further from the truth.
While it has been a trend in the making, perhaps Donald Trump (self-confessed nondenominational Christian) retains infamy as the wrecker-inchief for publicly disdaining all existing norms and interpretation of the dynamic ‘morality’ in American politics, like none before him.
This is a far cry from Franklin Roosevelt’s hoary intonation of the White House as, “a place of moral leadership”.
It is testament to the societal degradation that a man with such a despicable personal and professional track record of boorish and unethical (let alone immoral) conduct throughout his life could command 47 per cent of the popular votes (over 74 million) cast in his unsuccessful rebid in the 2020 US Presidential Elections.
Gallup’s study on personal values and beliefs in America found a definite shift in the normative standards proscribing certain behaviors that arose through American tradition, practice and religious teachings that defined the American way historically. For example, while only 7 per cent thought polygamy to be morally acceptable in 2003, that number shot up to 23 per cent, last year. The libertine attitudes on personal relationships in recent times have replaced the context of ‘morality’ to increasingly imply issues like ‘consideration for others’ (18 per cent), racism, lack of integrity, lack of personal accountability and greed. It is still befuddling that an individual like Trump who scores so low on traditional issues of personal relationships (Christian values), as also on modern concerns like ‘consideration for others’, racism, integrity, greed etc., manages to rally half of America behind him.
One would have imagined that post the 6 January 2021 attack on Capitol Hill and the subsequent impeachment for insurrection (with the dubious honour of being impeached twice), Americans would have realised the dangers of supporting an amoral anarchist like Trump. Far from it, his base is as rock-solid as ever, even as the former President has now been charged with a crime.
His illiberality, and his xenophobic and undemocratic actions rail against America’s purported stance as the beacon of morality, democracy, and progressive enlightenment. The barely disguised ‘America First’ is openly selfish, exclusivist and revisionist in its suggestions.
Despite the litany of personal and legal tribulations which include a hush-hush payment made to an adult industry star to buy her silence on her relationship with him, Trump remains brazen, unrepentant, and possibly the strongest that he has ever been electorally, given the rally of all Republicans (even his rivals), around him.
Curiously, the dirtier the accusations get, the more grandstanding he does and emerges as the All-American hero of the ‘anti-establishment’ (as perceived by his band of ‘rednecks’ from the hinterlands).
His braggadocio includes calling the case an ‘election interference, kangaroo court’ and one that was essentially a ‘political persecution’ with him going on to question the judge’s impartiality with the insistence that he ‘hates me’ etc.
Amidst this drama, Trump’s support only shores up! Fox News released latest data that Trump widened his lead over his principal primary race candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Trump raked in 54 per cent favourable votes whereas DeSantis managed a measly 24 per cent). True to his provocative track invoked prior to the 6 January 2021 rebellion, Trump has yet again warned of ‘potential death and destruction’ for the country!
While his legal cases have followed due course and process of justice, there is really nothing new or surprising about Trump’s presumed peccadilloes, as he has said and done far worse and got away with the same ~ instead, it says something about politics in global democracies in general, and American politics in particular.
The electoral power of bigotry, supremacism, lies (Washington Post’s fact checker tallied 30,573 false or misleading statements attributed to Trump during his term) and manufacturedhate of ‘others’ (e.g., Blacks, Muslims, Immigrants etc.,) resonates far more deeply and powerfully than what the historical notions of morality, decency, liberality, and inclusivity in a leader, would offer.
It reflects the preferences of the electorate and the ability of the man to dish out more of the same, consistently, and unrepentantly.
Ironically it was left to the least visible of the four-living former-Presidents, George Bush, also a fellow-Republican to equate 9/11 attackers with Trump’s mob on 6 January 2021 as the ‘children of the same foul spirit’ whom ‘we’ have a ‘duty to confront’.
The former President reflected, “So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together”.
But even Bush who was no policy dove himself and could be credibly accused of creating the template for amoral politics with his own baggage of insincerity ~ ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Gulf War etc. ~ is horrified at the narrative of popular support towards someone who slips far lower than himself, Bill Clinton or even Richard Nixon.
One explanation given is that Americans judge Trump by his actions in office as opposed to his character and values.
This does not stack up given his actions in office, but at least it clarifies and ratifies the dangerous assumption that personal morality and character do not matter in electoral choices.
It seems that a large constituency truly believes that the most effective way of ensuring a bright future is by mocking the proverbial ‘others’, reneging on multilateralism, historical allies and by supporting symbols of the past like the controversial Confederate flag.
Trump loves the spotlight (good or bad) and this indictment offers the showman the opportunity to spin the situation to his advantage, but he will need to be careful with his dialing-up of ‘Trumpism’ as people are feeling the pinch of socio-economic chaos in the post-Covid era and could do with less drama, chaos and rabble rousing.
But that too is conventional thinking as the 2024 Presidential election will truly test if America has abandoned all pretenses to morality, democracy and inspirational leadership.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)