Oh, Virtue

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The 6th US President

Haven’t written much about The Donald, or, indeed HRC. Because everyone else has. The mounting horror of on the one hand a narcissistic demagogue with the foreign policy acumen of a nine year old and on the other a career politician with several missteps too many is too, too awful to contemplate and educated jaws have been dropping worldwide.

Religion still collects votes and Times columnist Tim Montgomerie wrote an interesting little piece after he visited a South Carolina evangelical church where he shared post-service fried chicken (very good, it seemed) with Trump supporters who seemed surprisingly willing to overlook their candidate’s rather vague credentials in the piety department.

Apparently, it was Mr. Trump’s “strongman” vibe that they liked; the authoritarian, the decision-maker; the man willing, if perhaps not able, to show a bit of leadership when it came to all the goddam migrants, Muslims and Johnny Foreigners generally. At some length and with a surprisingly deep knowledge of the region, these articulate and informed South Carolinian Christians discussed how their fellow-believers were being wiped out across the Middle East and how, at home in America, secular judges were taking away religious liberties and “legislating from the bench.” The D was and is to them the man for the hour; they seemed to completely overlook the fact that his entire campaign strategy is about the glorification of the Trump brand – it’s almost as if he’s arrived there by accident. He appeals to a regressive, blue-collar patriarchal subgroup in which white men prosper because racial and ethnic minorities, to say nothing of women, are undervalued. “We don’t need an angel to defend Christianity,” someone remarked. “We need our own Putin.” No, you don’t. Really, you don’t. And, here’s why. Authoritarian winds are whistling through all and every ideological canyon and wherever they blow, a grim, grey spectre of Fascism treads not far behind. At the other end of the scale, political correctness, where truth is the new hate speech and tyranny has a happy face, is slowly and inexorably rotting your political culture, factionalism is everywhere and there’s quite simply a deficit of virtue in the campaigning, sloganeering and flag-waving.  Where are the virtuous ones? John Quincy Adams stands out as a model for twenty-first-century American politicians because he aimed not to please, but to do the right thing, irrespective of the cost. In James Traub’s masterful biography, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (Basic Books), our attention is grabbed very quickly: “[Adams] did not aim to please, and he largely succeeded.” Why? Because “…he lived according to principles he considered self-evident. Others of his contemporaries did so as well, of course; what set Adams apart was that his principles were so inviolable that he eagerly sacrificed his self-interest to them. As president he accomplished very little of his ambitious agenda in part because he refused to do anything to reward his friends or punish his enemies. Such inflexibility is a dubious virtue for a politician.” Adams, buttressed by strong Puritan parenting, spoke plainly. He believed that there were moral truths built into the world and into us all; that we can know those truths by the exercise of our reason; that knowing those truths, we are made aware of our obligations; and that, with this knowledge, we find the measure of how we should behave. Such freedom of speech is for us in our day more than intolerable but how much freer we might become if our modern day political aspirants dared to embrace a little old-fashioned virtue.