July 27, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – This week, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic challenged Hillsdale College alumni to explain how Vice President Mike Pence, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn, and my alma mater can justify praise for and partnership with Donald Trump “using the values or principles that [they urge] on Hillsdale students.” With pleasure.
Across two separate articles on the subject, Friedersdorf contrasts a 2010 speech Pence delivered to Hillsdale with his 2018 commencement address, which purportedly shows that “the morals and behaviors he claims to value most are not actually what he values most.” Arnn, in an interview with conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, supposedly revealed he doesn’t really “believe that good moral character is really essential in an American president.”
“Lots of Hillsdale stakeholders emailed with similar concerns,” Friedersdorf claims. While the intellectual diversity at Hillsdale is broad enough that I’m sure we have our share of NeverTrumpers, I highly doubt more than a handful are seriously confused as to how this supposed inconsistency can be reconciled.
To be sure, Pence’s 2010 talk of the “command of humility placed upon” the presidency contrasts sharply with our present commander-in-chief’s more colorful defects. There’s no denying that Trump has, on numerous occasions in his life, fallen disgustingly short of the “traditional values and religious convictions” his running mate extolled in May.
Case closed? Hardly. Friedersdorf conflates multiple distinct questions, and maybe by unpacking them we can resolve a confusion that’s plagued the Right for far too long.
First, let’s take Trump’s infidelities and crude sex talk. It’s all obviously vile. Just as obviously, however, most of it is also at least a decade old (a comprehensive Atlantic rundown of Trump scandals published at the start of his presidency makes no mention of anything sex-related more recent than 2005). So this complaint (like similar attacks on Trump’s Christian supporters from pundits like David French) is basically that we’re partnering with someone who has an ugly past.
Now, it would be naive to assume 2018 Trump is a totally changed man (though things like his walking the walk on abortion despite his “very pro-choice” history suggest some degree of evolution). But while justifying his sins would be a moral compromise, neither Christianity nor conservatism has ever held that a man must be perpetually shunned or endlessly condemned for what he did or was in his past. We’re all sinners, and all capable of redemption.
Second, there’s the laundry list of present-day offenses Friedersdorf attributes to Trump. They’re a mix of valid criticisms and left-wing nonsense, and attempting to litigate them all would waste a lot of time while distracting us from the main point: that conservative Christians supposedly betray our integrity by praising and allying with the man responsible for them.
Taken at face value, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Pence and Hillsdale’s understanding of government. Yes, we’re supposed to seek the most virtuous leaders we can. But the Founders also taught, as in Federalist 51, that if “angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
This was one of first lessons drilled into me at Hillsdale: human nature is fallen. The Founders knew self-serving leaders would be such a constant of American history that they baked it into the Constitution, balancing the various parts of government so that ambition would be “made to counteract ambition.” They expected checks and balances to work through officeholders’ self-interest, not their high-mindedness.
In other words, they never expected selfless moral exemplars to be the norm, and understood that the task of good government doesn’t indefinitely pause just because we dislike the finite choices the democratic process has given us. The question remains whether to attempt to do good through a flawed vehicle, or accept an administration committed to massive evil.
Friedersdorf sort of acknowledges that the president’s impact on the country is also a factor, but he doesn’t explain why personal distaste for Trump should cancel it out. He simply caricatures Arnn and Hewitt as thinking “the ends justify the means” and not believing in “opposing the elevation and empowerment” of “flagrantly immoral” men “on principle.”
For good measure, he adds, “Pence behaves as if he shares their malleable, relativistic posture, and is willing to be less than truthful with the public to ensure victory.”
Note well, however, that all the passages Friedersdorf cites praise precisely one aspect of Trump: his policies. They don’t suggest his sins weren’t sins. They don’t sugarcoat his personality. They simply say his actions in office have done tremendous good to restore the Constitution, make Americans freer, and protect religious exercise – which is absolutely truthful.
Where’s the relativism here? How does it say “character doesn’t matter” to support Trump over an alternative with objectively worse character? (For the record, in the primary Arnn was neutral, Hewitt opposed Trump, and Pence endorsed Ted Cruz, albeit while complimenting Trump.) Why does celebrating the good automatically constitute endorsing the bad? What illicit means are being employed here?
Apparently, Friedersdorf would have conservatives eschew any participation in executive-branch politics or policymaking until a conservative nominee meets his personal approval – helping nobody. Pro-lifers in particular should recognize that false choice’s passing resemblance to one of leftists’ favorite tactics, “you’re not really pro-life unless you agree with [fill in the left-wing agenda item].”
The mission conservatives and Hillsdale College share to “preserve the blessings of civil and religious liberty” isn’t about career advancement or personal prominence. It’s not about whoever happens to temporarily occupy the White House at any given time. It’s about taking the world as we find it and doing whatever we can within it to advance individual rights and the rule of law. That certainly sounds principled to me.