Trump brazenly despises even the idea that moral or ethical standards shape his conduct or define the nation he leads. He rejects distinctions between good and evil for an ethic of explicit self-interest that Americans have never seen before in the White House.
Trump questioned the Catholic faith of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and ridiculed the grief of a widow who voted for her impeachment. He mocked Utah Senator Mitt Romney for saying “in a moralistic way” that his oath before God compelled his vote in the Senate to condemn Trump.
“Do you think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” Trump asked reporters. “I’m not.”
The transactional reasoning evident behind Trump’s conduct sets his presidency apart. Whatever their failures, his predecessors made the White House what Franklin Roosevelt called “a place of moral leadership.”
“We have had more moral, or less moral, presidents,” said Pete Wehner, who held a leadership position in the White House under President George W. Bush. “We’ve never had a president who takes psychic pleasure in breaking moral standards or discrediting morality as a concept.”
Trump scorned notions of virtue long before his presidency. He dubbed his youthful struggle to avoid sexually transmitted diseases “my personal Vietnam”. Fifteen years ago, he bragged about behavior that amounts to sexual assault against women, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you go.” He subsequently denied any actual misconduct and subsequently dismissed the comments as “locker room discussions.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump put these qualities on a bigger stage. He decried John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of the Vietnam War and adopted torture as a military tool.
He imitated a disabled journalist who questioned the veracity of his memories of 9/11. He belittled the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq after they criticized his attacks on Muslims.
He ridiculed the ranking and physical stature of Republican rivals Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. He insulted Ted Cruz’s wife and baselessly linked Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“The man is completely amoral”, ends up fulminating Cruz. “Morality does not exist for him.”
Undefeated by the presidency
Those who hoped the size of the Oval Office would change it were disappointed.
Trump complained about the unfairness of a law prohibiting American companies from bribing officials of foreign governments. He defended asking the Russians for help on the grounds that any campaign would – and signaled he would do it again.
President Abraham Lincoln once looked beyond the Civil War “with malice towards no one, with charity for all.” Trump said the Ukrainian ambassador he sacked “will go through certain things”, and impeachment opponent Adam Schiff “has yet to pay the price.”
Kennedy vowed that America “will pay any price, carry any burden” to safeguard freedom. Trump questions the value of international defense commitments, insisting that other countries have played the United States for suckers.
“I want to take everything back from the world we gave them,” he once said.
Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” After an interviewer called Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin a “killer,” Trump replied, “Do you think our country is so innocent?
Barack Obama took advantage of his last prayer breakfast to call for humility and “pray that my faults will be forgiven”. Trump quoted poll numbers and stock values last week while boasting, “We are setting records that no one thought was achievable.”
Wehner, an evangelical Christian, concludes that the president cannot help it.
“Asking Trump to understand morality is like asking a person born blind to understand color,” said Bush’s former adviser.
Other presidents who have blatantly transgressed have paid homage to virtue. Bill Clinton apologized to the Republican-controlled Congress who removed him, admitting to the Americans, “I have sinned. Richard Nixon praised the nation’s generosity and selflessness in becoming the only president to resign.
Americans don’t expect this from Trump. Strong majorities have always told Quinnipiac University pollsters that he is not being honest, that he does not care about average Americans, and that he is not a good role model for children.
Yet Trump nonetheless forced the loyalty of his fellow Republicans. Ironically, one of the reasons is the fear that, without solidarity, what Attorney General Bill Barr calls “secular activists” will invade the party with traditional values and produce “moral chaos”.
Consider the former primary rivals that Trump savagely has. After the Ukrainian scandal erupted, Graham, Rubio and Cruz all expressed concern about a possible quid pro quo for investigative aid, but called it unproven.
At the end of the Senate trial, Cruz privately told White House lawyers that all 100 senators believed Trump was demanding a quid pro quo. But like Graham, Rubio, and all Republicans except Romney, Cruz insisted he didn’t deserve to be removed from office and voted to acquit him.
Cruz joined Trump for the prayer breakfast the next day.
“Together,” the Texas senator tweeted, “we prayed for unity, for the strength to love our enemies and for God to heal our land.”