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What is 'Honorable'?

Retired Harvard professor of political theory Harvey Mansfield recently published a commentary in Wall Street Journal (July 30) characterizing Trump as “no gentleman” but as a “demagogue who loves to be loved” and as a “vulgar man” who shows “an affinity for whatever is vulgar.” Moreover, “the voters behind him excuse Mr. Trump for his ungentlemanly behavior.”  No one who’s been reading editorials in the Wall Street Journal or political statements by Mansfield would be surprised by this attack. Both have strongly identified with establishment Republicans in their opposition to the GOP presidential candidate.

But what is striking about Mansfield’s diatribe is his opening statement, which by far is the most interesting part: “Like Machiavelli, he [Trump] makes clear that winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Mansfield compares the Donald to the Florentine political thinker and dramatist Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), a figure to whom Mansfield devoted a torturous commentary that was lavishly praised in the Weekly Standard. Like his revered professor Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who is the subject of one of my books, Mansfield considers Machiavelli “a teacher of evil.” He was a misguided humanist, who placed power and expedience above the demands of traditional morality. Machiavelli began an unfortunate process whereby politics, as a theoretical discipline, became separated from the concept of justice.

Unfortunately, Mansfield’s characterization raises more questions than it answers. What does it mean to “win dishonorably” or to lose “honorably”? Are we to assume that if faced with a choice of pulling out all stops to avert a greater evil, someone working to prevent that evil should not do what it takes to win?  There is an even more obvious critical response to Mansfield’s assertions, which he makes as an anti-Machiavellian: He no more than I would condemn politicians who behaved “dishonorably,” e.g., spying on and assassinating enemies, in order to keep a Hitler and Stalin from triumphing. There are situations in which “behaving dishonorably,” might, in fact, be the moral thing to do.

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It is also absurd to pretend that Trump has set the campaigning bar lower than where it had been in earlier presidential races. Just go back to the presidential race of 1800 and note the wild charges thrown at each other by Jefferson and Adams. Joanne B. Freeman, writing in History Now, has only skimmed the surface of this acrimonious election when she explains: “Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective. Dire predictions of warfare and national collapse. As much as this seems to describe our present-day presidential contests, it actually describes an election more than two centuries past.” One might also want to revisit the campaign speeches given in 1948 by Harry Truman against his Republican opponent, the utterly bland Thomas Dewey, to see how “ungentlemanly” presidential politics became long before Trump arrived on the scene. Truman managed to accuse Dewey, a very centrist, nondescript Republican, of being squishy soft on both fascism and communism.

Finally, let us note the unsubstantiated charges manufactured by the NDC and hurled against the even blander centrist GOP candidate Mitt Romney four years ago. From the opposition’s largely unanswered assaults it seemed that Romney delighted in throwing impoverished, underpaid workers on to the streets, to die without food or medical insurance. The rise of the free-swinging, “ungentlemanly” Trump as a populist rock star has been largely a reaction to “gentlemanly” Republican Party presidential candidates in the past. Trump is the nemesis brought forth by what was perceived as an excessively non-confrontational party of honorable losers. Mansfield is right. Trump’s follower’s delight in his aggressive, brash behavior toward a political establishment that, unlike Mansfield, they profoundly despise. Although I personally wish Trump would keep his mouth shut a bit more often, as a retired academic who had to listen to PC babble for decades, I too revel in his disrespect for authorized “niceness” with its inevitable double standard.

Since Mansfield has praised classical learning, it may be appropriate to introduce at this point Cicero’s observations about “honor (honestas)” and explain their relevance for our presidential race. In his tract De Officiis, written about 45 B.C., originally as letters to his son Marcus then studying in Athens, the great Latin orator expounds the duties of a Roman citizen and family head. Among Cicero’s enumerated duties is to act properly when charged with a collective responsibility and not to forsake those who depend on us. In Letter Nine, Cicero offers some of the causes that might lead a commander or magistrate to “forsake his duty.” Among the causes cited are “neglect, laziness, and inertia,” all of which may lead us into “deserting those whom we ought to be protecting.”  We may however also delude ourselves into believing that we “pursue justice” by desisting from action. But here too we may be dishonoring ourselves by not aiding those who expect our earnest support. Not doing one’s duty because of misplaced caution or timidity does not justify a lapse from honorable conduct.

By this standard, it is not Trump but his GOP predecessors in earlier presidential contests who waged war dishonorably. Their failure to go after their Democratic enemies with appropriate counter-fire was not a sign of honestas but (let me not mince words!) a flagrant breach of duty. The presidential campaign waged by Romney in 2012 illustrated such regrettable misconduct. Romney’s hesitation to attack Obama, after asserting himself in their first debate, on economic questions, his attempt in their second debate to parrot everything his opponent said on “women’s issues,” and his increasingly passive demeanor as Republican standard-bearer during the last month of the campaign were anything but honorable.

These observations are not intended as a testimony to Donald Trump or as an excuse for his faux pas and lack of prudence. Rather it is an attempt to show that Trump may be “ungentlemanly” but not by Ciceronian standards conspicuously dishonorable. Unlike Romney and others of his ilk, Trump stands together with his followers and happily fights their enemies, which is precisely his duty as a presidential contender with a national base. Someone who is pleased to “lose honorably” should not be in the presidential race, and his followers are fully justified in viewing him as a commander who abandoned them in battle.  This sense of betrayal among the GOP base became apparent to me as I perceived the outcome of this year’s presidential primaries. There seemed to be a yawning gulf between Trump and his record number of voters and the Republican establishment and its donor base. The voters wanted a fighter, which doesn’t mean someone who would look after selected business interests or hire certain Washington old hands if he happened to win. A fighter also doesn’t mean someone who would grin and bear it if the Dems slimed him on the way to holding on to the presidency.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.