The Trump Lesson

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial unintentionally points out the fundamental flaw in modern American politics: the divorce of leadership from trust.  

The Journal righty asserts that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a terrible argument when he decries the corruption of our political system. Trump is fond of saying that he is the most trustworthy candidate because he is the richest candidate. His logic goes thus: other candidates need money for their campaigns. Money in politics never comes without strings. Therefore other candidates are beholden to donors, lobbyists and special interest groups who finance them. Since Trump doesn’t rely on donor financing, he isn’t a “puppet” of donor interests.

The problem with that logic is where it takes us. If wealth is the only reliable avenue to donor-independence, then only the wealthy need apply for POTUS. This is clearly not a very democratic idea. The Journal makes that point well, but fails to ask the next question.  

Trump’s message is playing well — he’s leading in polls — and that brings us to a conundrum. We don’t want an aristocracy wherein the White House is a stopping-off for only the rich and famous. Neither do we want our president to be a pawn. Neither the president nor the presidentcy should be bought. So what are we to do? 

The only reasonable answer is an unlikely one: find a candidate who can be trusted to do the right thing. If we want our president to be neither a puppet nor a prima donna, we have to elect someone we can trust.  

We might as well be looking for a unicorn.  

Our culture has become so cynical, our politics so broken, and our candidates so committed to their own brand, that even the idea of trusting a politician seems laughable. We’ve put our trust in public figures before; it never seems to work out.  

The subtext of Trump’s logic is interesting. He is not claiming to have the integrity to stand up to campaign donors and follow the dictates of conscience. He is claiming to have the money to do so. And he is implying that his opponents have neither. Trump seems to be tacitly acknowledging the cynicism we all assume: none of the candidates can actually be trusted. And, Trump is saying, since we’re all slimy, at least choose the one of us who is slimy and rich!  

If presidential candidacy is entirely about platform and “looking presidential,” then we will always be left with these kinds of Trump-ian, second-best reasons for voting. As long as we leave trust out of the question, we’ll always settle for electing campaigners rather than leaders.  

The second man ever to be elected president of the United States wrote: 

The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue. We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. 

The Trump campaign is showing us just how dark our City On a Hill has become.  

Let me be clear: I am not advocating for theocracy. In fact, I’d rather not assert any link between religious people and trustworthy people. Those two spheres are independent of one another. But I am saying that American presidential candidates have long since stopped giving us reasons to trust them in favor of giving us reasons to vote for them. 

And our democracy is the worse for it.