On Moral Leadership

| January 21, 2017
NYTCREDIT: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

NYTCREDIT: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

On this day, hundreds of thousands of people are marching together throughout the world to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration yesterday. I write in sympathy with these marchers, with the hope of creating more understanding between the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, and the 66 million who did not. (Yeah, it’s a long shot, so I’ll try to keep it short.)

Here, I want to acknowledge Donald Trump as a moral leader. I think that we “on the left” don’t create enough space in everyday conversation to allow for this. We tend to get stuck on the immoral (or even just amoral) actions we’ve witnessed, and lash out with the claim that “he is not moral,” and so on. This kind of communication is likely to underscore many of the demonstrations today.

But I’ve done a lot of thinking about morality in the course of my education, and I think we should acknowledge that there are many visions of the good. Action that is in line with such visions are generally regarded as “moral.” Groups of people vie for the moral high ground—the argumentative advantage that their good is the good. When history settles, the winner gets to “write it,” as the saying goes. Prematurely then, we hope we are the victors, but sometimes we are not.

I think it may be unwise to pursue this moral position in the time of Trump. (Perhaps just too late.)

A more pluralistic understanding of morality has the consequence of raising the bar on our descriptions of the good. We have to say more about what we want, what it means, and why it deserves to be part of our vision. Of course we do this; we do it all the time. It’s the kind of talk we all look for in a visionary leader. But—and be honest now—when was the last time you sat down with a spreadsheet and charted out all the pieces of your vision, how they are connected, and what the costs are of achieving them? It’s the kind of thing we generally do shorthand (e.g., pulling bits from the news or op-ed pieces), allow others to do for us (re: especially “the political class”), or maybe even forget to do.

I think the cost of this omission of tallying the sum total of our vision of the good (assuming we even have one, or only one), is higher than we think. If, for example, our vision isn’t as coherent as we think it is, then we need to be more open to criticism. My suspicion is that many people voted for Trump because Clinton seemed to smug and sure of herself—and not particularly what she said or how she said it, but how her representation of policies didn’t sit well with the people actually experiencing economic despair.

Or, in other words, the Culture War maybe played a smaller role in Clinton’s loss than we think. Yet I’m not making an “It’s the economy, stupid” argument. I think the problem is about articulating a coherent vision of the good. I think it’s what Obama was able to do, though I think it’s fair to say he spent down most of the “capital” the Left has—for better or worse—pursing a diverse, meaningful agenda that unfortunately was not seen as doing enough fast enough for many Americans (well okay, maybe in a hasty sense it’s an “It’s the economy, stupid” moment). I don’t know if it was possible to do more, but he certainly didn’t go out of his way to cooperate with the Republican-led Congress.

So here came Trump with an alternative vision of the good. Racist. Sexist. Anti-immigrant. Isolationist. Anti-media. Anti-science. Anti-democratic. Fascist. But importantly: distinctly alternative.

It’s a vision nonetheless. It’s not even particularly coherent; I’m not sure how one can hold a coherent vision that’s anchored in an anti-science denial of global warming. But it was different than visions afforded by the Democrats. It was starkly different from even most visions outlined by more traditional Republicans. It was essentially an anti-establishment vision, and he wowed enough Americans to rise to power.

Philosophically, then, I acknowledge Donald Trump as a moral leader in a weak sense—allowing for room that his vision is compelling for some people as surely as other leaders inspire others. To acknowledge this is to step (however unwillingly) into a different political landscape than we’ve become accustomed to. I think it means we should at least contemplate abandoning the competition for “moral leadership” in a strong sense—meaning that we are somehow striving towards ultimate agreement and understanding, and a unanimously-shared view that a singular vision of the good has once-and-for-all risen above all others. As in the Christian-Judeo sense.

I think it’s important for the Left to start now from a different place. We should, instead, be focused on how the policy positions Trump represents (or, indeed, is unable to define) differ from our own. Particularly how we think they will lead to outcomes that we find undesirable. Once we’ve agreed on how to articulate that, we need to be more strategic in enacting communication that directs attention to our visions.

Yes, my heart is with the pussyhat, but my mind charts a somewhat different course for future moral leaders to help us achieve justice around the globe.

This short essay was drafted in an afternoon. I hope to be able to clarify and expand it over time!