Trump, Dirty Hands & Bad Character

Back in the early 1970s, political philosopher Michael Walzer argued that Americans not only tolerate but actually want their presidents to “dirty their hands” during times of national emergency if doing so is necessary to protect the nation.

Walzer’s position has been debated ever since he formulated it, especially when George W. Bush endorsed torture as an acceptable means of interrogation. The contested issue is just how dirty a president’s hands can get before his or her actions cross even a minimally acceptable moral line. What, in other words, are the limits on condoning morally questionable actions in order to effect a good end?

This remains an open question, with people of good will and sound reason offering a variety of responses. But the basic presupposition of the discussion is that even though dire threats to the nation may force a president into morally dubious decisions, she or he is basically a person of sound moral character. This means that your typical president will dirty her or his hands (1) only with great reluctance and even repugnance, (2) only in the case of an urgent ticking-bomb kind of emergency, (3) only when there are no other options, and (4) only after firmly resolving to go so far and no further.

The messy world in which we live may sometimes force a good man or woman to stretch the moral boundaries in order to forestall tragedy.

But this scenario is quite unlike one in which a president is blighted by an essentially unvirtuous character. In this kind of situation, the president isn’t simply someone who must be ready, if if unwilling, to dirty his or her hands. Instead, he or she is someone whose hands are already so dirtied by a corroded character that the crossing of moral lines is the rule rather than the exception.

This, I’m afraid, is the case with President Trump. Despite all the chances in the world to rise to the occasion, he has proven himself time and again, both before and after taking office, to be a man incapable of basic decency. His actions, his words, and the course of his adult life reveal him to be essentially untruthful, racist, ill-tempered, willfully ignorant, vindictive, and narcissistic.

His moral character is blighted.

Those voters and politicians who turn a blind eye to his bad character by insisting that God can write straight with crooked lines, or by appealing to a perversion of the dirty hands argument - “sure, he’s something of a lowlife, but that’s what it takes to drain the swamp!” - demonstrate that their own moral lines in the sand are somewhere south of basic human decency.

Dirty hands in a president is a sometimes tragic necessity that morally wounds but need not fatally damage an essentially good character. But someone with a bad character brings something far filthier to the office: a begrimed soul. This kind of a chief executive is toxic to the moral and spiritual well-being of a nation.

Those who support such a man, especially long after it’s clear to any rational and decent person that he’s morally unworthy of the office, especially if they call themselves religious in any recognizable sense of the word, need to worry about their souls as well. They’re not making America great again. They’re making themselves small.

Fr. Kerry’s video essays may be found on his Youtube channel, Holy Spirit Moments.

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