The Bully Pulpit

There’s an old saying that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intensions.   If you run a stop sign you deserve a ticket.  But if I run a stop sign it’s because I’m rushing my child to the urgent care center, making stop-sign-running momentarily permissible.

As humans we find all kinds of ways to justify actions one day that we would have condemned the day before.

Consider the counterintuitive rise to power of Donald Trump.  In the modern Republican Party white evangelicals are a key constituency.   Without their support, winning is a long shot.  But during the primaries Trump tossed aside “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, the pre-season faith-on -his-sleeve favorite of the evangelical cause, and in November it was never a contest.  White evangelicals backed Trump with over 75 percent of their vote.

At first blush Trump would have seemed an unlikely champion for a voting block that has traditionally examined other presidential candidates based on things like long term support of conservative causes, a publicly-professed and long held commitment to a protestant church, a track record of marital and family fidelity, and a stated desire to govern in accord with conservative biblical principles.  Nevertheless it was Trump who became the evangelical’s Christian soldier.

When voters seem to shift their moral gears so easily, some critics call it hypocrisy.  I’m not so sure.

As noted before, humans have an endless ability to rationalize actions that conflict with their own sense of right and wrong.  As Americans we put our hands over our heart and pledge our allegiance to a country that delivers liberty and justice to all, while knowing full well we have occasionally fallen far short of that noble ideal without a great deal of hand-wringing.

Sometimes, in order for us to maintain our carefully built up image of ourselves, we have to have someone else quietly take care of a situation or two that requires actions we wouldn’t condone ourselves, but that we recognize needs to be done so we can continue to live in the glow of our own moral certainty.

Sometimes we need a bully—one who is on our side.  Someone who will take the gloves off and go bash a few heads so we can get the problems fixed that need fixing.   To bash those heads ourselves would require us to do some unseemly things.  But if the bully takes care of it we get the results, and we didn’t have to get our own hands dirty doing it.

Enter Donald Trump—a man of power and demonstrably flexible morals, who says he’s more than willing to smack down the bad guys on our behalf.   “Trust me,” he says in effect, “to be the bully you need to fight your battles—ruthlessly when necessary.”

It is not necessary for such a person to be a moral giant.  All that’s required is our confidence in his ability to pick his targets and land a good punch.

Last year the other Republican candidates sought your vote by touting their record of religiosity and long-term conviction the conservative cause.  Trump just said “nuts to that.  Elect me, and I’ll beat up the kids on the corner who’ve been grabbing your lunch money.  And when I’m done with them, there won’t be much left.”

The speed with which Trump swept aside all challengers in the Republican race was stunning to behold, but not surprising.  As humans we’ve decided more than once that if your opposition is immoral the use of immoral tactics to defeat him is morally permissible.  Sometimes you just need to hold your nose and get it done.

In all of this I’m not attacking Donald Trump.  He’s simply the man nearly half the country was looking for in the Age of Anger.  He’s just the reflection we see in our modern social mirror.  Enough with the niceties, voters said.  We’re tired of niceties.  Just get in there and set things right.  Do what you need to do.  We’ll look the other way when necessary.

Fine by me, he replied.

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