A parish priest that I’ve known for years, though politically savvy, doesn’t follow the Democrat debates. Refreshingly cynical about both parties, he knows that to say the Forces of Darkness are presently arrayed against the Camp of the Saints would be a half-truth; he still insists on distinctions: “That party promotes everything that is evil.” He doesn’t see the need to examine the entrails of its moral decomposition. Let political junkies listen to Hillary and Bernie celebrate Planned Parenthood, gay marriage, a woman’s control of her own body, LGBT equality. And let those who have ears to hear, hear.
The Republicans, to be sure, have their jacks-in-office enforcing club rules, dodging “divisive” issues, and pondering whether to redo the senate suite in muted mauve or pale aqua. Yet despite business as usual, one can’t help but notice a greater willingness to engage those pesky moral questions. Candidates no longer reflexively concede, as in another rotten state, that “virtue itself of vice must pardon beg.” With the exception of the frontrunner (and John Kasich, who seems pleased as punch to have danced at gay weddings), they have learned that it is possible, maybe even politically advantageous, to stand up for those formerly embarrassing “social issues”—that is to say, civilization. Carly Fiorina may have helped show the field how it can be done. Maybe her gag reflex over the phrase “Planned Parenthood” and her fearless ripostes to those presuming to put her on the defensive, emboldened other candidates to talk back.
Another unabashed defender of decency was Dr. Ben Carson. But standing on the stage like a jamb statue for two hours was not what the age demanded. A distracting tic that the earnest physician shared with Trump, Rubio, Kasich, Cruz, et al, was his readiness to laud the unerring decency and discernment of “we, the people”—the same collectivity that twice delivered us to Obama and Biden. The Catholic poet Charles Peguy, himself a poor man of the people, thought such praise generally undeserved: “Flattering the vices of the people is lower and more vile than flattering those of the great.”
After occupying the heights with Trump, why did the doctor’s fortunes plunge so precipitously? Was it his vagueness on foreign policy, his lack of fire in the belly, or his confession to certain ‘elitist’ amusements that the people rarely share? The current president is into rappers like K Dot and Mos Def, and has Beyonce over for post-prandial entertainment at the White House. And most Republican candidates profess Joe Six Pack affinities in cultural and musical matters. Not Dr. Carson. When asked at a town-hall about his taste in music, he confessed a preference for the classics. No, not classic rock like normal folk, but baroque. After Beyonce, Bach cello concerti in the People’s House? Who would want to have a beer with a guy like that?
Well, after his washouts in several states, Dr. Carson decided that the same rival who had called him “pathological” and ridiculed his religion was, at second glance, an acceptable candidate worthy of his endorsement. The surgeon assured his followers that Mr. Trump was really two different people, one of whom was quite thoughtful and patriotic. One could even have a conversation with this nice Mr. Trump, the one we don’t see in front of the cameras. The implication of this strangest of endorsements is that we, the people, could embrace Dr. Jeckyl without anxiety over a bestial transformation. We were also assured that the offer of a role in a Trump administration was not a factor in his decision.
What a contrast to the quiet, monogamous surgeon, this lordly billionaire who lives in the biggest city, in the tallest tower, with the most unbelievable, most fantastic company, who’s going to construct the biggest wall since the Ming Dynasty, if only the highly educated and not-so-educated—he loves them all—give him the chance to make America great again.
When a consistent, principled constitutionalist like Ted Cruz is viable, why would a Christian gamble on a twice-divorced casino mogul of ever-evolving principles? Nonetheless, the prospect of someone of unstable views as the only alternative to a Democrat with all too stable anti-life commitments, should moderate one’s criticism. And why ally with so many detractors whose insults have unintended consequences? Pope Francis, who found much to praise in communist Cuba where Christian dissidents were dragged off under his very nose, reserved his chiding for that wall-building capitalist. (Cuba has no such walls, only an ocean where thousands have risked death attempting to reach the land of capitalist greed.) Similarly impotent was the National Review’s take-down issue. Michael Medved, the movie addict, slammed Trump for his border security plan and his call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration—“until we can figure what the deuce (slightly emended) is going on.” And then there is the mass condemnation over his incitements to violence. Unlike Bernie and O’Mally and others who accept their role as “flak-catchers” when “mau-maued” by Black Lives Matter, Occupy This and That, Move On, and the usual motley of dissidents, militants, anarchists, and tantrum throwers, Trump tells them to move on: “Get ‘em out, just get ‘em out.” And then he commends the police, a fascist reflex if ever there was one. Obsequiousness is not among Trump’s character flaws.
To read the “#Never Trump” editorials is to come away with the impression that never before in American history has electioneering been so vulgar. George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting of “The County Election” in the St. Louis Art Museum suggests such a suspicion is ahistorical. Among the earnest citizens, Bingham shows a rag-tag of pugilists, dicers, drinkers of hard cider, one so besotted that he has to be dragged to the booth to exercise his franchise. Propped against the porch is a bright blue ironic banner proclaiming the Jacksonian legend: “The will of the people is the supreme law.” Today, the slogan might adorn a ball cap. Alexis de Tocqueville who traveled thousands of miles in the early 1830s studying Democracy in America found much to commend. Seventy percent of the electorate voted, most of them responsibly, showing ‘engagement’ with the process; but this well-wisher of the American experiment worried about the “feverish state” that characterized electioneering. He noted that most men of character and intelligence recoiled from a profession where “they must haunt the taverns, drink and argue with the mob.”
Those with sufficient ambition—that ‘fire in the belly’ which Washington thought a disqualifier for office—were usually as ignorant as they were corruptible. De Tocqueville was appalled that a man like Davy Crockett, who could scarcely read, who scratched out his living hunting bear in the cane brakes, could run for congress. Like Trump, Davy was given to “brag” and self-description. He fancied himself the “yellow blossom of the gum swamps,” “the ring-tailed roarer of the western woods,” “a man ‘o gumption—with bark on,” and so forth. If de Tocqueville heard these gasconades, translation would have presented a problem. Where Crockett boasted in metaphor—the poet’s way—Trump just asserts: ‘I’m the nicest guy…. I have the biggest heart…. I’m a genius.’ Both office-seekers were dismissed as mere entertainers, but the woodsman’s unschooled vigor of expression puts the billionaire—a product of the best schools with the best grades—quite in the shade. Another sign of decline?
More serious censure has come from Christians for whom character is an issue. Trump’s alacrity in transforming yesterday’s “great guys” and “tremendous people” into monsters of mendacity is not attractive. The status of a competitor in Trump’s world seems entirely dependent on political calculation. Back in the days of the “bromance,” he warned Cruz not to get too close (in the polls), or “that could change,” and here he was never more a man of his word. Nor is his willingness to trade with Trojans or Greeks (“Hey, I’m a business man”) reassuring. And after the death of Antonin Scalia, can Trump be relied upon to correct the radical drift of the last few decades? Whatever his failings, Ted Cruz seems determined to avoid the catastrophe of two or three more unstable swing-voters like Roberts or Kennedy. But how reliable is praise of Scalia from a man who touts his ability to “make deals” and get along with everyone?
On the positive side of the character question is his family, this despite his third marriage. His son Eric dedicates time and money to good works—thirty million to St. Jude’s Hospital to help terminally ill children. The brothers are outdoorsmen who like to hunt, an avocation that has earned the wrath of PETA. The daughter, Ivanka, expecting her third child, is proud of her family: “Nobody’s … a drug addict, nobody’s driving around chasing women, snorting coke.” If this sounds like a low bar for character evaluation, think of other high-profile political celebrity families. And remember that while Trump’s loyalties may be in flux, Hillary’s are the fixed and doctrinaire values of a devout Democrat. And here there will be no uncertainties. “That party promotes everything that is evil.”