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Our Battered Democracy Has Passed a Strange Kind of Stress Test

The November 3 U.S. presidential election did not bring the resounding repudiation of Donald Trump that many expected and hoped for. Because the incumbent somehow managed to win the votes of over 73 million citizens, about 47.2% of votes cast, any conclusions about the meaning of Joe Biden’s 306-232 electoral vote (and 3.8% popular vote) margin of victory must be tempered by a certain amount of uncertainty and imprecision. We are left with a mixed message to interpret, and the meaning of the election results will likely remain contested.

But even given the complexity of whatever message voters were sending, the election ultimately amounted to a referendum on Trump and his performance as chief executive these past four years. I would propose that, even if most voters would not have reached for phrases like “ethical failings” to explain their electoral choices, the lens of morality played a major role in the 2020 election. Those who supported Trump evidently found a way to pardon or look beyond his ethical shortcomings, if they detected them at all. Voters who opted to evict Trump from the White House clearly found something objectionable in the president’s behavior, even if they would not have framed it in terms of ethics.

If ethical concerns motivated your vote, it is easy enough to identify any number of ethics violations by the Trump administration that may have been uppermost in your mind. Their flouting of governmental ethics codes which prohibit conflicts of interest, self-dealing, cronyism, nepotism, and a wide range of abuses of power hardly requires sophisticated investigative journalism to uncover. The Mueller Report and the damning testimony of the impeachment hearings contain devastating revelations about promoting foreign interference in U.S. elections and intimidating whistleblowers and potential witnesses to crimes. Open violations of the constitution’s emoluments clause, involving federal employees in election campaigning in disregard of the Hatch Act, politicizing the Justice Department to benefit and even pardon close associates of the president, and weaponizing its prosecutorial power to punish perceived enemies—all are obvious violations of ethics standards. Trump and his operatives have normalized strong-arm tactics and retaliation against opponents, practiced flagrant disregard of prudent limits on executive authority, and prioritized personal benefit over even the appearance of impartiality.

Ethicists judge organizations (including private corporations, NGOs and governments themselves) by a standard set of normative criteria, including accountability, transparency, integrity and compliance with the rule of law. The Trump administration has shown little interest in playing by long-established rules or abiding by constitutional norms. Few were surprised when John Bolton (the former National Security Advisor who wrote the tell-all book The Room Where It Happened) described their modus operandi as “obstruction of justice as a way of life.” The firing earlier this year in rapid order of five inspectors general, who serve as compliance watchdogs over federal agencies, was just one of many egregious episodes of flagrant disregard for ethical standards and a sharp hostility to oversight. In short, since Trump’s arrival in Washington, he has worn us out with a “new normal” that is immoral.

But for most voters, the decision to reject Trump was based not on legal technicalities or abstract norms but on his administration’s violation of obvious standards of behavior. Decent people that they are, Americans have a low tolerance for unethical behavior, in both style and substance. My own partial list of ethical judgments that may be nearly instinctive includes these five items:

  1. It is unethical to lie, and Trump has routinely practiced mendacity at levels never before seen in presidential history. Even without the Washington Post’s dutiful counting of a staggering avalanche of tens of thousands of Trumpian falsehoods, citizens are quite able to detect when a pathological liar occupies the people’s house.
  2. It is unethical to subject the people to gross incompetence that costs them dearly in treasure and life itself. Beginning with the selection of cabinet officers (Betsy DeVos or Ben Carson, anyone?) with paltry knowledge or experience in their assigned fields, the Trump administration routinely, grossly failed to comprehend and handle policy issues vital to national life. The pervasive lack of professionalism and the subsequent hollowing out of the ranks of talented career officials in many departments of our government will be a disastrous legacy of this administration. The mismanagement of the Covid pandemic is just the latest and most deadly instance of bungling and incompetence.

Downplaying the severity of the virus and failing to provide vital national coordination to meet the threat has cost countless lives. Politicizing the response to the pandemic (such as by stigmatizing the wearing of masks and failing to mandate mitigation measures) has contributed to thousands of preventable deaths. Every Trump rally stoked resistance and infected many. Walking away from science, whether in managing a pandemic or refusing to address climate change, is murderous behavior on a large scale.

  1. It is unethical to adopt a communication style that is riddled with coarseness and indecency, the normalization of rudeness, and pathological lying. Trump has mocked the disabled and insulted our nation’s veterans, corroding public discourse through a barrage of exaggerations and inflammatory rhetoric. He has conducted a war against the free press, vilifying trustworthy media as purveyors of “fake news.” Even ardent supporters complain about his infantile use of his favored medium of communication, Twitter. Since I last shared with the CTEWC readership my negative assessment of how Trump employs tweets to heap scorn on his opponents and spread disinformation, he has continued to use his Twitter account for perverse purposes, from firing employees to routinely insulting a wide range of people, especially women and people of color.
  2. The substance of Trump’s policies is frequently unethical. His migration policies tinged with racism and Islamophobia, the wanton detention of children on the border who are separated from their parents and locked in cages, his erratic conduct of diplomacy and reckless trade wars, withdrawal from vital international agreements and his undermining of vital alliances, the rollback of regulations to protect the environment… the list of unethical policy measures could be multiplied. Even Americans who might find merit in some of these initiatives easily see their origin in irrational impulses and false ideologically charged narratives rather than the pursuit of sound policy goals. We know unethical behavior when we see it.
  3. Even apart from the substance of public policy, it is blatantly unethical to adopt a style of governance that emphasizes chaos and disruption. Government exists to help citizens live a better life—to establish the order and predictability they need to prosper. By shattering longstanding norms of decency and kindling the politics of racialized antagonism, white grievance and efforts to squeeze maximum personal benefit from political polarization, Trump has projected his own narcissistic disorder upon the entire nation. His playbook includes stoking resentments, indulging in coded language and issuing dog whistles to promote fear and division. Wedge politics has never had a more expert practitioner. The governing style of this administration–erratic, petty, belligerent, divisive, impulsive, vulgar, given to agitated theatrics, aggressive posturing and boastful rants—is unethical in itself. The shedding of presidential decorum has left millions of voters anxious about the corrosion of our previously hallowed institutions and yearning for a return to standards of decency and civility in the comportment of our leaders.

Many questions remain regarding where the departure of Trump leaves our nation. How deep a wound will Trump leave on our collective morality? Will he and his enablers continue to exert outsize influence on our national life? Or will these sycophantic opportunists rediscover their conscience and display a measure of regret and even repentance? To what extent will Trump’s prolonged charade of denying his electoral loss and refusing to concede further corrode our democracy, damage the prospects for a smooth transition to the Biden administration, and encourage autocrats around the world? How many more deaths to coronavirus will be attributed to the sulking of a lame duck who remains in denial about so many vital things, as a wave of death continues to wash over the nation?

Even if not a definitive repudiation of Trump and his ethical failings, the election indicates that our battered democracy has passed a strange kind of stress test. America has chosen to turn the reins of power over to a man in possession of a functioning conscience. Joseph Biden is far from a perfect leader, but he displays the requisite principled empathy and moral seriousness to revive America’s democratic norms and to restore some semblance of ethical comportment to the executive branch. There are huge messes to be cleaned up but also ample bases for optimism.


Works Cited

John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020).

Thomas Massaro, “Recovering from the Twitter Presidency: What Will Come Next?” CTEWC North American Forum, January 1, 2020,

John Walcott, “Trump’s War on Watchdogs,” Time Magazine, June 1-8, 2020, p. 8.