Michael Gerson: The golden days of sleaze
American politics has become a case study of the type that college professors employ in Ethics 101. If the economy is good, does presidential corruption actually matter?
That Donald Trump and members of his circle are corrupt has been established beyond doubt. There is the financial corruption of using the presidency as a marketing tool for Trump businesses; of foreign governments seeking influence by spending at Trump properties; of close associates being paid for influence by foreign entities; of industry advocates and lobbyists being appointed as industry regulators; of the Trump Organization expanding overseas operations with the help of foreign governments; of possible money laundering through Trump properties. And all of this in the context of a president fighting tooth and nail to shield his financial records from public scrutiny.
There is a political corruption of inviting a foreign government to interfere in a presidential election; of seeking politically motivated investigations against opponents; of attempting to block and discredit legitimate investigations of Trump’s own questionable activities; of directing secret payments to women with potentially damaging information; of attempting to influence ongoing federal investigations.
These activities do not need to be illegal to be corrupt, just as the president does not need to be a criminal to be a deceitful schemer who undermines important legal and ethical norms.
But so what? Why should financial and political corruption matter if the unemployment rate is less than 4 percent?
For guidance, we might turn to “The Death of Outrage” by William Bennett. “No great civilization — none — has ever been judged great because of wealth alone,” argued Bennett. “If we have full employment and greater economic growth — if we have cities of gold and alabaster — but our children have not learned to walk in goodness, justice and mercy, then the American experiment, no matter how gilded, will have failed. A strong economy is a good thing. But it is far from everything.”
Bennett went on to talk about how capitalism itself depends on good private character; how our system of government requires leaders of integrity; how failings of character can’t be neatly compartmentalized. “A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power and contempt for the rule of law,” he wrote, “cannot be a good president.”
Above all, Bennett argued that the cultivation of character depends on the principled conduct of those in positions of public trust. “During moments of crisis,” he wrote, “of unfolding scandal, people watch closely. They learn from what they see. And they often embrace a prevailing attitude and ethos, and employ what seems to work for others. So it matters if the legacy of the president is that the ends justify the means; that rules do not apply across the board; that lawlessness can be excused. It matters, too, if we demean the presidency by lowering our standards of expectations for the office and by redefining moral authority down. It matters if truth becomes incidental, and public office is used to cover up misdeeds. And it matters if we treat a president as if he were a king, above the law.”
All this was written while Bill Clinton was president. And Bennett himself now seems reluctant to apply these rules “across the board” to a Republican president. This is not unusual. It is the political norm to ignore the poor character of politicians we agree with. But this does nothing to discredit Bennett’s argument.
If you are a sexual harasser who wants to escape consequences, or a businessperson who habitually plays close to ethical lines, your hour has come. If you dream of a having porn-star mistress, or hope to game the tax system for your benefit, you have found your man and your moment. For all that is bent and sleazy, for all that is dishonest and dodgy, these are the golden days.
The responsibility for this state of affairs does not just lie with those directly at fault. Their success depends on the far greater number of those who defend them, ignore them and enable them. Those who declare “case closed” on the president’s conduct, or hope to “move on” from accountability, are complicit in lowering public standards and dishonoring the political profession. Corruption without censure is the endorsement of corruption itself.
A strong economy is a good thing. But it is far from everything.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.