A confession: I’m an incorrigible moralist. By which I mean I have the irritating tendency to moralize anything and everything, and my first instinct is to believe that we are bound to do the right thing, even though, as the saying goes, the heavens may fall. But I’m also no naïf, and I know full well that human frailty, finitude, and sinfulness mean that simply doing what we think is right is not just hard, it is sometimes well-nigh impossible. This is especially the case with the things we do together, economics and politics most obviously, and so my thinking in those areas is marked by a constant tension between moral and political realism, between recognizing ourselves as bound to a moral law not of our own creation and recognizing ourselves as inhabiting a world of moral and material scarcity. To paraphrase St. Paul, we know (for the most part) what we ought to do, but we do not and cannot (consistently) do it, and the same is true for all.
This is, I think, roughly where Daniel Strand wants to land in his recent defense of Al Mohler’s announcement that he is endorsing President Donald Trump for the 2020 election. Mohler’s endorsement is notable because he’s angling to become the head of the Southern Baptist Convention and was quite critical of Trump in the 2016 election. (He also helped protect Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Life Commission, from scurrilous attacks from the SBC’s most conservative corners). Strand seems especially exercised with David French’s critique of Mohler and thinks David—and the rest of us—could use a bit more pragmatism in our thinking about politics, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. Trump is no saint, never mind a “very stable genius” playing four-dimensional chess against his foes. He is, even on Strand’s account, a lying cheat whose leadership leaves a great deal to be desired but who also, the argument goes, might be a reasonable choice, even for an evangelical moralist like me.
The moralist in me, of course, thinks this is a terrible idea, for among other things it amounts to endorsing the idea that personal character is largely irrelevant to a leader’s public effectiveness. In some manner this is obviously true. George W. Bush is, by all accounts, a good man who certainly did not suffer the personal flaws of, say, a Donald Trump or Bill Clinton. But he botched the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. He certainly would not have been a better president had he been willing to violate his wedding vows, but his moral steadfastness in this regard did not much help him lead effectively (at least in those two cases). But that’s not quite the end of it, for Trump’s private failings are not limited to his serial adultery. He is, quite obviously, a man who has built his career around a studious disregard of truth, cheating others of their due, slander, and inhabits what seems like an all-consuming narcissism that goes way beyond your standard politician’s robust ego. (It is no wonder he was a modest success at the reality TV genre.) These are, quite obviously, not just private peccadilloes, but significant impediments to his effective leadership. They make it all but impossible for political opponents and allies alike, never mind subordinates, to take him at his word. So when crises hit—like our current pandemic—he is especially unfit. Consider: for while it may indeed be the case that the US has not done, contra our many Cassandras, especially badly in our pandemic response (though neither have we done especially well), is there any doubt that Trump’s ability to rally the country rhetorically, never mind his ability to marshal our public and private resources effectively, have been awful? The fact that Trump has gotten markedly worse polling than governors and other national leaders is really no accident. Isn’t it obvious that a significant obstacle to his effectiveness is his own set of “private” moral failings, all on inglorious display during his daily press briefings?
Still, the ever-pragmatic Strand sighs and notes that, yes, Trump has his failings, and some of those failings are even ones rooted in his character. But politics is often about making choices between unappetizing alternatives, and whatever Trump’s failings, he is, we might think, on the side of angels when it comes to the federal courts and religious liberty. The rising tide of worry about the place of precedent in Supreme Court decisions is just the tip of the iceberg of angst among those committed to a pro-choice politics, as they contemplate the possibility that Roe v. Wade might be overturned. For anyone committed to the pro-life cause, overturning Roe is integral to its success, even if it is, ultimately, only one part. It’s also true that the Trump administration has been much friendlier to claims of institutional religious liberty, an issue that will continue to loom large as the country grapples with whether and how to include sexual orientation and gender identity in civil rights laws. I doubt Trump feels strongly about these issues, at least not in the same way he seems to feel strongly about trade and immigration. But he’s unworried enough about how his political opponents see him that he’s willing to engage in some of the purest transactional politics we’ve seen this side of, well, everyday politics in Chicago. And this is the nub of Strand’s pragmatic defense of Trump: sure, he’s a scurrilous SOB, but he’s up-front about the game we are playing in politics and understands you have to get your hands dirty a bit to get anything done. That’s the way things sometimes go. Or so says the pragmatist.
Fair enough. Like I said, I’m no naïf. Purists don’t get things done, in politics or elsewhere. But just how “realistic” or “pragmatic” is it really to support Trump for reelection in 2020? Is Al Mohler being the realist while Never Trumpers like me wallow in our fanciful idealism?
Whenever I read Machiavelli’s The Prince with students, our discussion focuses a great deal on the question of “necessity,” for Machiavelli commends to the reader all sorts of immoralities as necessary for success in politics. But there’s an interesting ambiguity in The Prince. Machiavelli’s advice through much of the text focuses on the political success of the Prince himself, his ability to acquire and hold power for his own ends. But he ends with a rather stirring peroration for the Prince to use his advice to expel the foreigners all too eager to set up camp in Italy. Political success for Machiavelli seems to mean both his native Florence’s independence and prosperity and the Prince’s own political success as well. Or, to put things a bit more abstractly, Machiavelli seems to commend immoralities as necessary to reconcile public and private glory.
And that’s the reason to read Machiavelli, for his unwavering commitment to necessity and the way it highlights for us just how the claim of necessity is always and everywhere inherently incomplete. That is, when someone counsels pragmatism or necessity, we must always ask, “Necessary for what?” Is it necessary for glory? Riches? Virtue? So when Strand and others rather pragmatically advise us to support Trump and accept (if reluctantly) his rather obvious private self-enrichment as necessary, we ought to ask for what is it necessary.
Strand and Mohler’s answer seems to be that Trump is necessary to the end of a political order in which our religious liberties are protected fully and abortion loses its constitutional protections as a step toward its diminishment. But what gives our Christian pragmatists—if we can call them that—confidence that this is what we are likely to get, especially if we lift our eyes just a bit and look past 2020? Whatever steps Trump has made via executive order or judicial appointments to buttress the former, his general odiousness has quite obviously helped accelerate partisan divisions over claims to religious liberty. These divisions mean, I think, that those seen as sympathetic to Trump—white evangelicals above all—will get no hearing from their political foes in the years to come. Perhaps they wouldn’t have in any case; certainly Mark Tushnet’s infamous blog post in 2016 suggests something in that direction. But playing the pragmatist game full tilt makes it hard for others to believe that evangelicals are willing to play fair or are interested in persuading the persuadable; indeed, it suggests something quite the opposite. The same goes with abortion. The pro-life cause made progress over the past couple of decades by emphasizing its (rightful) moral claims and recognizing that a combination of legal wrangling, political action, and moral suasion would end abortion in America. Casting in with Trump, even if marked by the pragmatic asterisk, makes that project much harder, especially when large swathes of black and Latino America despise him so much. Socially conservative politics has for too long underplayed the plight of racial and ethnic minorities, and its willingness to continue doing so makes it increasingly improbable that conservatives can or will achieve any of their goals. We may, with Trump, get the end of Roe or a few more executive orders or court decisions in our favor, but the price may be an electoral landscape where the pro-life movement and traditional churches have even fewer allies than before.
Here then is really where the counsel of pragmatic realism falls flat: it is not realistic enough.
But hitching one’s wagon to Trump means more than just signing up for his policy choices on religious liberty and abortion. It also means signing up for his obvious disdain for racial minorities, his love of crony corporatism, his antipathy toward immigrants and refugees, and so on. No politician or party is perfect, and suggesting that politics can be merely the art of the ideal is foolish. But neither should we be naïve about what price we are likely to pay—and what price we are asking other citizens to pay.
Reading Machiavelli is exciting for college students, in large part because it punctures the kind of do-gooder pablum that high school civics all too often dishes out. Simply being good in order to do good is not enough. That is true. But simply being skilled—to have what Machiavelli calls virtú (as opposed to virtue)—in order to do good is also not enough. If we ask, for instance, why we should want robust religious liberty protections and an end to our abortion regime, the answer isn’t one of interest or power; the answer is justice. We want those things because we think religious liberty is an aspect of justice; it gives people their proper due. For human beings want more out of themselves, their neighbors, and their political communities than just agglomerations of power. They want themselves, their neighbors, and their political communities to do what is right as well. That we cannot—because of scarce resources, human finitude, and good old fashioned sinfulness—is a tragedy, and it is a fool who does not recognize this as a permanent feature of our political order. But we would be equally, if differently, foolish to also not recognize that human beings are more than just our scarcities and that we long for what is genuinely good, beautiful, and true. The “real” art of realism is to acknowledge and navigate between both.