Donald Trump Embodies the Worst of Moral Relativity

It may seem outrageous that so many are willing to overlook Trump’s lechery, but he’s not subject to the same moral standards as the average politician.

Many have tried explaining why President Donald Trump has not suffered consequences for his sexual misdeeds as other powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein, have. I think they are trying to explain the wrong thing. First, because a good argument can be made that he has paid and keeps paying for his acts as the most unpopular of modern presidents. Second, because the more we know about this president, the more opportunity there is, even among Republicans, to rethink what had previously seemed unimportant.

But that’s not why I’m skeptical of those saying he’s getting off scot-free. I’m skeptical because his critics are comparing people who can’t be compared: private citizens and the most powerful human on the planet—because Trump is the president, there are factors at work that don’t apply to, say, Kevin Spacey, who isn’t subject to the prevailing standards of “character” and “authenticity,” nor is he central to the practice of demagoguery.

If we focus too much on this false binary—Harvey Weinstein et al. versus Donald Trump—I think we risk overlooking what’s happening. Character, authenticity, and demagoguery are fickle mistresses. They giveth and they taketh away. These forces elevated Trump to the Oval Office, but they could be the very same forces leading to his downfall.

To understand the politics of sex scandals, we have to understand the role of “character” in American politics. Politicians tend to present themselves as having good moral character, said Hinda Mandell, a professor of communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Sex Scandals, Gender, and Power in Contemporary American Politics. A politician wants to be seen as someone we’d have a beer with. Republicans tend to present themselves as good in strict conservative Christian terms.

But Trump is different. “He never presented himself as having steadfast character,” Mandell said. Indeed, the opposite. “He was upfront about being a mover and shaker, a bully, a little bit impatient, a showman, a womanizer—not a politician.”

This is important to note—because most politicians present themselves as morally upright, and because most Republicans present themselves as morally upright in explicitly Christian terms, sex scandals are devastating. Of course, part of the reason is sex, but the other is fraud. They reveal themselves to be not who they said they were.

Trump is precisely who he said he was, and thus never lost the good will of supporters when it was revealed that he said he could “grab [women] by the pussy.” Indeed, if anything, the Access Hollywood tape reinforced what was known: Trump is a lecher.

For this reason, you can’t exactly call the president a hypocrite. “He never said he played by the rules,” Mandell said. “He did away with the façade most politicians have and, because he did, many had the impression that he was more authentic than Hillary Clinton.”

“Authenticity” holds as much significance in American politics as “character.” Perhaps more. It presumes something that is nearly universally unquestioned: that beneath this exterior resides the “real me.” In the economy of politics, the “real me” is the gold standard. Voters prize it over the carefully constructed representation of a TV personality.

But how do we know what counts as the “real me”?

It’s not as clear as you might think, wrote Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor of philosophy. In a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times called “In Search of the True Self,” Knobe suggested factors that count as the “real me” are arbitrary. He illustrated his point using the case of Mark Pierpont, a prominent evangelical Christian who advocated for “curing” gay men of their homosexuality. Turns out, Pierpont was gay. How do we understand this? Some would say “deep down” that Pierpont always wanted to be with men, but didn’t act on those impulses out of fear.

But, Knobe said, you could use the same logic to arrive at the opposite conclusion:

Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what is most essential to the person he really is.

What does this suggest about authenticity? One, that authenticity is more complex than you’d think, and two, that authenticity is bound up inexorably with values. “People will tend to arrive at different judgments regarding the nature of Pierpont’s self depending on [what] they think” of homosexuality, Knobe said.

Here’s another way of putting it: we see what we want to see. What’s authentic about Trump has little to do with Trump himself, and more to do with his supporters projecting their values onto him. Indeed, the president is an empty vessel of a man, an utterly black moral void.

How else can we explain the president’s support from evangelical Christians, who opposed the last president mired in a sex scandal? It can’t be “character” or “authenticity,” because these terms suggest a fixed identity, whereas Trump is a paragon of slithering relativity.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Trump did not present himself as having upright moral character, but also unlike Clinton, Trump was up-front about his lechery, something you’d think evangelical Christians would find repugnant, given they opposed President Clinton on the same grounds.

You and I would call that hypocrisy, but to the evangelical mind, it isn’t. To see why, swap “Pierpont” for “Trump” in the above formulation: “[Trump] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with [a woman not his wife], he will be betraying what is most essential to the person he really is.”

That’s exactly right, Knobe told me in an email. “Even if a person does morally bad things, we won’t necessarily think he is morally bad,” he wrote. “We may conclude that he is a morally good person ‘deep down,’ and that his actions don’t reveal the person he truly is. This seems to be the attitude some people have taken toward Trump.”

How can evangelical Christians apply standards to one person but not another? Why wasn’t Bill Clinton a Christian “deep down” to them?

Demagoguery is probably the reason. According to Patricia Roberts-Miller, demagoguery is a process by which everything is boiled down to the opposition between “us” and “them.” In her fascinating short book Demagoguery and Democracy, she writes that an “expression of inner truth is, for many people, a more valuable quality than being truthful about our shared world. It has to do with the sense that the audience believes a person is truly a member of the in-group, so the authenticity comes from believing the person is incapable of being dishonest, and really is one of us.”

Demagoguery is why evangelical Christians rallied against a man married to one woman all his life but stood with a man who regaled the world of his sexcapades and fathered five kids with three wives. It did not matter that Bill Clinton apologized for his “sins.” It did not matter that his apology revealed a “true self.” Moreover, it does not matter that Trump never apologized. As for Trump’s “true self,” it’s whatever evangelical Christians say it is. If there was ever such as thing as moral relativity, this is it.

If Donald Trump were a normal president, he would address the many scandals of his administration with appeals to reason, transparency, accountability and good faith. Instead, he has met controversy with controversy, the effect of which is to alienate soft supporters, embolden hard supporters, and slowly contract the circumference of his sphere of power. It’s like he’s in a co-dependent relationship with his base. Neither will warn the other of bad times ahead.

Politicians have used these psycho-rhetorical tools since forever. But most politicians know they are tools. They don’t invest in them. Trump is different. All that matters is his tribe, which puts him in an untenable position in a democracy as diverse as ours. He believes in those tools as much as he believes in anything. But he doesn’t appear to see they giveth and they taketh away.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.