Moral Outrage


It’s about five months into the fake presidency of Donald Trump and we are all looking for a new topic.  Anything will do—a new flavour of Ben and Jerry’s, a cyclone in the East Indies,  Prince George’s new playschool.    The problem is, he’s the only show in town—for news (always Breaking), comedy, political analysis—and of course, things that touch us more directly–like death and taxes.

The spasmodic lurching from faux pas to lie, insult, glaring contradiction, historical wowser,  and back to lie, has made it impossible to muster real shock or outrage at anything emerging from his sphinctoral lips, and given the notoriously spotty attention band of Americans (who also tend to forget when voting day is until the Wednesday morning following), real interest.  Americans like outcomes and results, not puzzles. America hates surprises. (That’s why, unlike Britain, we wrote our Constitution down on paper, without anticipating that some 240 years later it would be surprisingly unequipped to deal with an electoral crisis.) They are getting used to the old man’s excesses and they are bored with the complexities of Trumpgate.

I was reminded of this recently when trying to discuss Watergate with some millennials who know the events of 1972-1973 only as twentieth century history.  The vocabulary of those days—cover-up, obstruction of justice, stonewalling, special prosecutor, Saturday Night Massacre, executive privilege, enemies-list, abuse of power, articles of impeachment—has all been taken out of the trunk and dusted off for recycling.  But clearly the terms have lost their valence, their power to shock or even to rile.  Donald Trump is such a thoroughly bad person that he has made moral outrage impossible.  Nixon had to be caught in a lie.  Trump’s pimple-faced, self-contradicting, sixth-grade-caliber lying is so constant that even his critics are saying he can’t be held morally accountable for what he says.  Did he obstruct justice?  What’s justice? Whose justice? Did he intend to commit a crime?  Depends on how you define crime—and intention. Big words.  Grown-up words. Probably not words he knows. The defense of his badness veers dangerously close to an insanity plea or diminished responsibility claim in a meticulously investigated murder trial.

Our national loss of moral certainty isn’t the effect of what Trump is doing now.  He is the effect of our lack of moral certainty: Our age created him as completely as the fourth century BCE created Alexander the Great, the 18th century a Hanoverian George and a Washington, and the 1920’s Adolph Hitler.

The media, of course, makes noise about the restrictions placed on the press –fewer briefings, confrontation between the White House and reporters, propagandistic chitlings instead of information–which is nothing less than a war against the freedom of information.  But Donald Trump, who is not very smart, is smart enough to know that his average follower doesn’t care about the First Amendment.  The campaign against liberal media, the “lame-stream,” “libtard” media, has been going on since Nixon’s day, but with greater fury and defensiveness since the nasty 90’s and the death of civil discourse in the internet age.  Trump and his advisers have apparently abandoned the old distinction between true and false to raise the “Pontius Pilate question” that postmodern man is always fingering:  What is truth? (John 18.38). Is it what the New York Times says, or Breitbart, or Fox?  Or maybe it isn’t anywhere, really, or maybe in cable-land it’s as big as your menu: Find your hole, pull up a stool, and shut out the other squirrels.  And if all truth is local, and facts are negotiable, if not downright suspicious, if that’s the case, then a tubby Press Secretary who talks mud and proclaims “The president has been very clear about this” or “The President’s statement (tweet/remark/clarification) speaks for itself” can be trusted on the basis of repeated assertion.

Which brings me to the topic of moral outrage.  Aristotle, whom I’m fond of quoting, wrote in so many words in the Ethics that to be angry at the right man for the right reason at the right  time is a part of what it means to be virtuous.  He was saying that there should be no civic appetite for indulging immorality or vice.  Indulgence is encouragement, approval–consent, and there have to be consequences for bad actions like willful deception and vicious behaviour, especially when the agent is “a leader of men” [sic]  because the leader, as a “great man”, affects the lives of others either directly or by emulation. He can pass unjust laws, oppress the poor, and exploit the weak.  A great man is responsible for the moral condition of his followers, and truth and honesty is the bond between them.

Donald Trump is not a “great man” by anyone’s standards but in the Greek scheme of things history (in one of its more unfortunate vomitous heaves) has thrust greatness upon him.  The shoes are too big, the crown too heavy, and the burden of office, especially military office, more than he can handle.  But his absurdity in the role doesn’t mean he should not be judged by how he fills it.  Even if the civil body politic bears the responsibility for thrusting an undeserving pillock into the office, the outrage has to be directed at the dealer, not at the gulls.  

American political discourse is full of slogans that are not only ridiculous but completely erroneous.  One of them is that we must respect the “office” of the presidency even if the occupant of the office is a total reprobate and fool.  

The framers of the Constitution did set a fairly high standard for removal from office through the impeachment process (Article 2, section 4), but the very fact that it’s there at all suggests that the founders contemplated the election of scoundrels to office was within the realm of possibility. At the Philadelphia Convention, Benjamin Franklin noted that, historically, the removal of obnoxious chief executives had been accomplished by assassination. Franklin suggested that a proceduralized mechanism for removal—impeachment—would be preferable.  But no one recommended a presidency construed as the “power” of the throne, a bifurcation of the man (or woman) and the office.  That sort of metaphysical thinking is left over from the days of monarchy, the divine right of kings, and the infallibility of popes.

In the American system, it is totally gratuitous.  The American presidency is an elective office, not a hereditary status.  It expresses the fickle and fallible will of the people at a point in history.  We choose citizens  to fill it.  There is no vacant chair, no sede vacantes when a president dies.  No unclaimed scepter, no interregnum.  There is no point in respecting the “office of president” if the holder of the office doesn’t merit respect, and those who fail have not disgraced the office but themselves in it.  In short, being elected president doesn’t entitle anyone to more than a chance to prove himself fit for the office through the judicious and respectable use of power granted to him.   It does not invest him with good judgment, grant him the benefit of a doubt, or enlarge his intelligence.

It is clear after five months that Donald Trump deserves only contempt, not just for his ideas, which are irrational, cruel, and wrong, for the most part, but also for the sort of man he is.  To invoke the fact that people voted for him, or that, after all, he is the president, is not enough to make him deserving.  He cannot demand that his election victory, which is still a matter of surprise to him, is an entitlement not to be criticized, second-guessed, and ridiculed.

And this is why Congress must be worried.  Our European and Asian cousins aren’t persuaded that a clear line can be drawn between Trump and American values.  His greed, petulance, and ignorance are simply a compilation of things that many people in other parts of the world have thought America was becoming (or has been) for a very long time.  Donald Trump is the confirmation of their opinion.  They see a worrying amateur with a short attention span and an impetuous nature, a man who thinks no more is expected of him in negotiating the byways of foreign policy than a contestant at the Miss Universe pageant answering a question about world peace, and no more is needed in building an administration than surrounding himself with family, cronies, billionaires (the successful), and generals (tough guys, decision-making “experts”) and being willing to play a chief executive who fires people who dissatisfy him.  The President rewards people who share his dwarfish sense of reality and complexity and, unlike most previous presidents, he is jealous of everyone because he is personally but contemptuously aware that most people are smarter than he is.

And this is also why a country that expresses outrage all the time–in a traffic jam along the highway, in a long line at the DMV, over an increase in property tax or a school bond levy, or a decrease in Medicare payouts, over their neighbor’s pet crapping in their flower bed, even at the least suggestion someone will take away a firearm—these same Americans who are angry much of the time about little things need to save some of that rage for what really matters.  

And what should that be?  Why should Trump-Americans be outraged?  Because they are being lied to.  Their chosen President of the United States does not care about them.  He does not want them in his golf club.  They cannot afford a weekend at his resorts.  He does not care about their health and wellbeing, or their children’s education, or the family’s debt or mortgage or foreclosure, or the disappearance of jobs from the mines. As a post-moral man, he will say what he needs to say to push his incoherent agenda and hold on to power. To take credit and shower blame.  He will live on to lie another day. And nothing will change until the gulls no longer swoop to feed out of his hand.


U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTX1OV08


I am fighting back the feeling, but it comes to the surface every now and again.  The feeling that Donald Trump, like any good tragic character, deserves pity.  

Remember your freshman humanities course where you read at least one Greek play—it doesn’t matter which one—Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex—and maybe a Shakespeare tragedy—Lear comes to mind.

Vain old men, some soldiers, some kings, or both, who come to defeat at the hands of an unforgiving Fate.  Agamemnon: leader of the Achaeans (Greeks) in the war against Troy, complacent, egotistical and shallow, killed by a wife who has simmered since his departure for Troy. (He did, after all, kill their younger daughter as a sacrifice to the gods to obtain favorable winds for the journey.)  Oedipus, a tortured soul  with a secret who can’t figure out why the gods don’t love him–finally blind, crippled, supported by his daughters. An outcast from the city he saved. And Lear a swellheaded father who can’t figure out why his daughters don’t love him enough and wants to be respected for his fortune and lands.  So much daughter-love, so much vanity.  Isn’t Trump like one of those or all of them?

When we see these old men on stage they are hardly heroic at all.  They are fools waiting for their comeuppance—to be taught a lesson.    The aftermath of their folly in plays like the Antigone or the Eumenides is horrific, but not really moralistic.  The Greeks were not interested in moral lessons in the way Dickens or the Victorians were—bad buggers turned into good and wiser buggers through a trick of fate.  And that’s the problem for us post-twentieth century types, now looking back at the long history of characters in drama and fiction.  Isn’t there some way to connect the chronological dots between an Agamemnon, a Lear, a Scrooge and a Trump?  The answer is, No.

True, a tragic hero, Greek-style, has a tragic flaw, but the difference between him and your daddy’s tragic flaw is that your daddy is nobody so the larger consequences are relatively small.  No cities will burn, no empires tumble and no governments fall because your daddy is imperfect.  But the Greek hero is to be pitied because (according to Aristotle) he has magnitude–greatness.  Heroes are greater than other men but not greater than their sins. Not greater than Fate. They suffer and are miserable despite having virtue.  Accordingly we have no choice but to feel sorry for them.

* *

I am not going to say what you think I am going to say.  I am not going to say that Donald Trump is a tragic hero, a man more sinned against than sinning.

Oedipus was a legendary ruler before Sophocles got onto his story, famous for his wisdom and justice and the prosperity of Thebes.  He had been a good king.  As every sophomore knows, what happened to him through no fault of his own shouldn’t happen to a dog.  (And by the way you very mal-educated English teachers who think the play is a mystery and that he has some hidden sin, No.  That isn’t the point of the drama.)  Agamemnon was a representative of kingly authority.”  As commander-in-chief, he brought feuding Greek princes together in the first successful military coalition in history and personally led them in battle. His chief fault was conceit, the belief he could do no wrong.  He survives glorious battle to be defeated at the hands of a jealous wife. He was flawed, not consummately incompetent and ineffective.  Lear (Leir) is a legendary king of the Britons mentioned in a twelfth century chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  His feat seems to have been to unite the warring Britannic tribes and then lose it all in a game of chance when he asks for professions of loyalty (fealty–love is Shakespeare’s affectation) from his three daughters. In the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Lear dies because tragic heroes have to.  In the prototype, he recovers his kingdom with Cordelia’s help (and that of the French king) and reigns for three years. In all three plays, notably, the daughters fare morally better than their fathers.  And, Trigger Warning, at no point ahead in this little screed will I attempt an analogy between Antigone and Ivanka Trump.

The stories of great men and women memorialized in myth and drama (and religion) are not the stories of great men gone wrong but men who like Achilles (his real flaw was wrath, not just the heel) who fall short.  Superficially they have some of the American president’s worst traits:  arrogance, petulance, the need for adulation–but they have these traits because their leadership has been tested and they excel in heroism and virtue.  They can unite tribes and conquer riddle-posing sphinxes, rule nations and win wars.   If only they could escape their own stories, they would be gods.  But unlike gods, they die. Watching rulers being taught lessons in humility is one of the reasons Greeks liked seeing these plays.

In describing what a tragic hero is, Aristotle says “A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.”  The Greeks called it anagnorisis, the moment in a play where the hero knows he is failing, where he moves from ignorance to knowledge with catastrophic effect.  He is not Superman—in fact Superman cannot be a hero under the Greek rubrics because he violates the requirement that a hero, in his human nature, can be morally neither better nor worse than ordinary people.  This more than anything allows the audience to identify with them.

And this is also where pity comes in, which is crucial to the idea of tragedy:  If the hero is perfect, or invincible, or made of steel, we will not care about his fate.  Movie superheroes excite us, but at the level of tragedy we do not really care about them—superiority defines them, and human life is not lived at the level of superiority.  

If the hero is too imperfect, or actually evil, then the audience will feel he gets what he deserves.  We can feel sympathy, sort of,  for anyone in that position, but not really think that their life or downfall  is tragic.  Tragedy is almost getting to the top of Everest, almost getting a patent for a cancer cure in a race with another team, losing the love of your life to another for no obvious reason.  It roils us a bit to think that to be a tragic hero you have to be certain kind of person—essentially good, basically human, fully rational in your decision-making ability, aware of risk, and preferably royal.  But the Greeks felt that royalty, or true aristocratic leadership, put a mortal in direct competition with the gods and marked him out by fate.  He would be tested.  He would almost win, but because of one small deficiency, the dreaded hamartia,  he would fail.  The word came from archery and meant a missing of the mark.  It meant not missing the target but missing the mark—the bull’s eye. You cannot feel sorry for a man who is utterly unable to pull a bowstring and come near the goal.  You can only feel sorry for than man who means well, does well, and fails.  No wonder Christian theology commandeered this word to mean “sin.”  That is what entitled the observer to feel pity for the fallen hero.  That is what brought tears to the eye.  The failure of the accomplished and mainly virtuous man.

The Greek and renaissance audience did not have (or need) media to explain and analyze the behavior of the characters to them.  The people, limited though they were with regard to the written word, knew the stories.  And what good was the written word anyway?  Stories are oral. So is drama. So was the Mass. There is a certain comfort in things always coming out the same way, even if that way is catastrophic.  It teaches lessons, it tells us a thing or two about human nature and the way the world works.  It may not make us virtuous but it makes us humble.   And if a dramatist went too far astray by explaining, for example, why Agamemnon deserved to die, or how Lear lived happily ever after, the audience would be outraged.  That wasn’t the point.  The point was that we could see ourselves dimly reflected in the character, her nature, and his fate, even though his station, achievement—his glory—was greater than ours by far. You may well expect success, but learn to expect the unexpected.


I cannot see myself even dimly reflected in the character of Donald Trump.  I suspect most of us cant.  He is the antitype of what we think a good, truthful, and honourable man is supposed to be.  He has no skills in leadership. No consistency in policy. No charity is speech, and no vision of his country or its destiny apart from empty clichés strung together like so make shells on a string cord.  He has never won a war or secured a peace.  He has no knowledge of the world. He has never served his country as a soldier or as a volunteer, worked for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or any other kind of rights.  He is not interested in poetry, philosophy, literature, or history.  He probably cannot quote a line from Shakespeare and may well have never seen a Greek play.  If he has attended an opera, it would have been unwillingly, as a fund raiser.  He does not seem to be accomplished in music or in the arts, besides the chintz he buys for his hotels and resorts. He is, apparently, completely unread in the sciences.  He is not handsome or courtly or gracious, and he has no gift for eloquence or speech, no interest in piety, reverence, or virtue.  In short he is not a man of whom the gods would be jealous.  They would not notice him at all. Arrogant yes: but so trivial as to pose no threat and evoke no attention–phthonos they called it, divine envy.

That’s important because in the analysis of tragedy emulation is what makes empathy and catharsis possible.  Feeling sorry for a poor bastard who doesn’t know any better is not what the Greeks meant by pathos and empathy (εμπάθειαa, suffering with a victim).  And as we know, Mr Trump is not affected by the charge of hubris; he revels in it and explains it away—always—as the jealousy of hoi polloi who envy him and wish they were like him.  

Donald Trump is nothing like me and nothing like the vast majority of people in the democratic nations of the world.  He is a glitch, snag, bug, gremlin and fly in the ointment of democratic and social progress.  And because there is nothing there worth emulating there is nothing there worth pitying.  

We need to remember this as we listen to the analysts searching for his defining moment, his transformative burst into being a “real president”–journalistic whims based on their preoccupations with adolescent fantasies like Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast.

But such a transformation, knowing what we know, would be even stranger than science fiction and the most saccharine melodrama.  The word I used above, anagnorisis, means that a true tragic hero will recognize when it is too late because he will recognize something about himself and his inability to change the situation.  That can never happen here. A character, even a real live human character, is the sum total of what experience makes him.  It is type, not anti-type, and even in anti-type there in no there in Trump.  We cannot pity him because we cannot emulate him.  But we can feel very happy that we cannot.

Are new Prezident

Essay Two

Are New Prezident Donald Trump

Full Gospel Christian School, Plano Grade 8

Larry Lawlor, Jr.

Are  new prezident is named Donald Trump.  prezident Trump was born in New York America and he is an old man of 70. Are new prezident is a very rich man.  They say he is worth trilyuns of dollars in real estate alone. Well my father is also in real estate he sells houses and sez he doesn’t have jack which means he isn’t selling any houses in Plano.  

My mother works two jobs as a recepsinist and as a subsidute teacher here at Full Gospel.  When I ask them why we don’t have jack my dad sez ask the muslan  He means the fake prezident who ruled over us for eight years while Christians suffered gratefully sez Mrs. Grundy our teacher.

The teacher sez we shuld organize this essay careful and think before we rite. Okay so how do I feel about the new prezident, just great. He looks fat on TV but my dad sez it isn’t beer if a man is rich he is a little fat.  Well we don’t have jack but my dad weighs about 340 so I am not so sure. My dad was a Plano High School football player Mvp and fought muslans in Irack Won in those pitchers he looks poor. prezident Trump sez we should never have been in Irack  Too but wants us to bomb other places like I-Ran and North Career. The sooner the better sez my dad he sez it all the time.

My dad sez he is sick of people treeting our prezident like chicken shit especially the news. He can’t sit through news anymore he just goes in the kitchen and drinks beer and sez I wish your mother would get her ass home because I done want pizza again.  Mrs Grundy sez the same thing not about my mom but about the news treating out prezident like shit. Sorry teacher like crap.

Yesterdy we read a gospel story about Jesus feeding 5000 people with 2 fishs and a loafs of bread.  Mrs Grundy said to us What is the problem and we all laugh and say isn’t no way to feed that many people with 2 fish.  Thats right she sez and she sez well just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean ther wasn’t 5000 people does it and we all said No Mrs Grundy, and we laft.  You done need to see everthing to believe it she sez and did you see when you was born no or when the world was made but here you are and here it is, So we all say Yes  Mrs Grundy we are and I laft till I peed my pants.  So she sez the Bible sez that onst Jesus appeared to 500 people when he died.  No one sez different or he didn’t or that there was just 5 people do they? Maybe Juice and sexshual pervurts.  It means that when the prezident sees milyunss there really are milyuns not just five she sez because he is the prezident and he has the ability to see things normal people don’t see just like God.  My dad just sez theres no lying muslan to hurt us anymore and that we’re safe and what prezident trump says Goes.  Dad never tells is where it goes, but he talks that way.

My daddy never gets sick but my mama had to sign up for Medicade because there are six of us and no medizin.  Now that Trump is prezident we can have our doctors and medizin comes free free dad says. Three of us are here at Full Gospel my little sister in sekund grade and my little bruther in grade four.  We bring lunch which is usilly  baloney with spread and hard egg plus peenuts and candybar.  Mrs Grundy sez this is much better than letting tacksplayers pay for us and we don’t need there money but that now a good christian woman named Betsy like the womin who  sowed our first flag will take care of us. Me and my friends will get tickets or somethings which is better than cash and best of all we will still have bible reading and gospel singing. Sometimes Mrs Grundy gets mad like when this one girl Doris said her mom thinks we are killing urselves by burning crap for fuel and that the ice is melting at the north pole.  Teacher told her to stand outside for an hour and then she sez Doris do you still think the ice is melting and Doris sez No maam. So she sez good because there aint nothing about no ice melting anywhere in the Bible is there. Bible done talk about ice melting.  We know how the world will end it will end when it explodes in fire and then you will see Jesus and you need to be ready for that. So Doris sat down and looked sad. I laft so hard I peed my pants.

Daddy says now he can keep his guns which he means that the black muslan prezzident was going to take away so we are happy. Me and my brothers all has one gun except Jake who is four and just has an air rifle but daddy has 62 guns because when they come for us we’re ready. Mrs Grundy sez theer are difernt ways to be ready but the best reason is to meet the Lord. But daddy sez tell that teacher she sure as hell better have a gun before that big day and he sez our prezident is catching milyuns of muslans before they can kill us so we also need to burn there churches and make them go home. I guess they are catching them in steel traps. I ask him why are they coming to Plano and he said for our freedom and medizin.

In my school we don’t need to learn about other places outside America except Isreal where the Lord will come in the last daze. Juice live their now and we hate Juice but they are important because that’s where the armed-guarden will start so I askt daddy will you fight in that war but he just went for another beer.

It is hard to rite an essay but the thing is I am very happy that we have a real prezident who will give me school tickets and can feed so many people and also medizin for free.  Daddy sez everybody will have a job now and we won’t have to wear seat belts no more and not pee in the stream we can pee anywhere we damn well please even on the sidewalk in front of the Juice church in town. The paper factory here in Plano is already going to dump its wash into the red river even though a few years ago some people at the River of Glory Mobile Park got sick.

My mama got home real late last night and daddy sez theer was a time he could of beat her for that but now the police will come but he said that’s changing.  And this is why I love our new prezident.

The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

From 2011, but not worth pitching out in the DeVos era

The New Oxonian

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made…

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Donald Trump and the End of Virtue



The election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in November 2016 has evoked a flurry of commentary in print media and over the internet.  Much of this commentary, especially on the progressive side, has centered on whether Mr Trump is “temperamentally suited”—fit–to be president.  This question touches on a variety of subordinate issues—his decision-making ability (prudence), trustworthiness, veracity and sense of fair play as well as his sense of proportion and ability to avoid harm to others. Beneath layers of satire and apologetics the question of temperament still nags citizens of the United States as well as observers in other countries.

The question of temperament belongs properly to two important discussions with a long history in philosophy and theology.  Primarily it concerns the question of “human nature,” a question which is now of interest not just to philosophers but to social science, psychology, and cognitive studies.  At the same time, the subject of temperament raises a particular question about character and propensities to do harm, or produce benefit, to oneself and others.  The latter topic is situated historically in discussions of virtue, a word which has a long lease in philosophical discourse but today seems almost absent in political discussion and social commentary.

The following essay attempts to deal with the matter of virtue in a way that respects formative ideas in ancient philosophy, in religion, and in contemporary ethical theory.  Because so much attention is paid to Mr Trump’s colorful rhetoric and so much time is spent defending and critiquing particular pronouncements, the focus here in not on a specific range of “sayings” or actions but on the way in which his characteristic and habitual performance illuminates the current discussion of virtue theory.

The argument here is straightforward.  It is that with Trump we reach a point in modern political life where virtue is not only absent but actively resisted and considered a political liability.  This situation mirrors a society in which the understanding of virtue has become associated with impractical, religious, or metaphysical concerns, and to the extent it is discussed at all is considered a situational rather than a habitual matter, in which action is assessed largely in terms of effects beneficial (or harmful) on an agent or on a class of people affected by his actions.

The title of this essay is intentionally ambiguous.  In ethics it has been common since the time of the classical writers to talk about ends as “outcomes” related to the intention and performance of an action, its τέλος (goal or purpose) to use Aristotle’s language.  But it also means in everyday English the final point or terminus of a process, something which for better or worse is finished.  In fact the original Greek word is the root of the word toll, a price to be paid at the end of a road. It is the contention here that with Trump we reach a kind of end-point in a particular  version of government, statecraft, and politics and that the events of his rise to power illustrate a formal division between politics as a virtuous profession (the ancient ideal), in which a contract is struck between the leader and the people on the basis of goals and aspirations for the good life, and politics as a strictly mundane business concerned chiefly with the amassing of wealth and power. The final embrace of oligarchic and plutocratic (power- and wealth- driven) forms of governance is, in practical terms, the end of virtue, since those forms of governments are formed with different ends (purposes) in view. (Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, p. 514)

The reader is forewarned that the discussion of Mr Trump as a test case in ethics is offered only after a rather long discussion of the idea of virtue in philosophy and religion. I hope that forbearance will reward the argument: It seems to me that this discussion is crucial if we are to anchor comments about the 45th president of the United States in specific traditions rather than in disaggregated commentary on his mystifying habits and unexplainable behavior.  Philosophy, especially ethics, has already begun the deconstruction of Trump as sui generis occurrence  but it is better, I would argue, to see him not as an anomaly but as a case the long history of discussions of leadership and virtue.

The Classical Background

Anyone who has read a little of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics knows that it’s basically about two things: happiness (which we all desire) and virtue (which we pursue more or less successfully)–a sort of “proficiency in goodness,” which the Greeks described as excellence or arête.  We still see this usage in words like “virtuoso,” a master performer—a flutist or singer.  A virtuoso is someone who does something well. ( James Stedman,  “Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues,” Practical Philosophy 10:1, 2010)

But when we take discussion to a slightly higher level and ask, What is virtue in general?, or more specifically, What does it mean to call a person virtuous? the question becomes slippery, because not everyone can be an accomplished artist, scientist, or athlete and many people are not especially good at anything.

For Aristotle this created a puzzle:  Are there individual or particular “excellences” that point us in the right direction or touch on what it means to be virtuous in a more comprehensive way–since it would seem that no single excellence, or even some combination of them, would constitute happiness for everyone.  A virtuous person, to bring the language into our time, would be someone who excels at being human. And being human for Aristotle depends on using what we uniquely have to the best degree possible.

And what is this unique thing?  He arrives at the answer through differentiation.  Aristotle says that we possess a lot in common with plants and animals:  we need nutrition, so we have (like plants) a “nutritive spirit”; we feel and have instinct–motion and emotion–which gives us (with animals) a “sensitive” soul.  But above all we have reason, which no other creature has.  So reason, he says, is our defining difference; and to act in accordance with reason is what constitutes excellence for us.  Consequently, no one who acts against reason—that is, irrationally or unreasonably, can be said to be virtuous.  In another passage, he will say that only someone who exercises virtue in accordance with reason can be “humanly” happy–happy above a vegetative, transitory, or sensate state which satisfies the needs of the soul at those levels, but not at the rational level.

Aristotle’s definition of moral virtue is not very different from the way in which we describe actions today as being “reasonable” or “rational”— things that are done in moderation, within a range of choices, avoiding extremes of excess or deficiency: With sufficient habit and practice (as with any other kind of virtuosity) we develop a disposition to behave in the right manner, pursue what is temperate, and avoid the vices.   The analogy to musical performance is the most tempting: through practice the musician knows how to fine-tune her violin, and the tuned instrument is necessary before it functions in the desired way.  In the pursuit of virtue, the fine tuning of the soul disposes us to act in certain ways that would not be possible without consistent application of particular knowledge and skills, activated by the desire for excellence.

While reason and instruction play a role in this process, a virtuous person will assimilate the essentials of virtuous action in such a way that it becomes “habitual,” that is, embedded in character and routine.  For centuries schools all over Europe considered a student’s habituation in virtue (moral education) at least as important as the book learning that taught him skills in mathematics, rhetoric, the sciences and languages—and in fact it was the connection between being educated in these subjects and their ability to influence character that made schools incubators of moral purpose, not just knowledge-dispensaries.

 Taxonomy of Virtue

At its core virtue is a matter of having the appropriate attitude toward pain and pleasure. For example, a coward will suffer undue fear in the face of danger, whereas a rash person will not suffer sufficient fear. In the area of “honor and dishonor” a virtuous person prefers honour by being properly ambitious, but one who chooses winning at any cost—for example, through deceit, insult, bribery, or injury to another–is acting dishonorably.

Aristotle holds that this same graph applies to every virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of “too much” and “too little.” He is careful to add, however, that the mean (the via media) must be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a 36-37). “The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another.”   Aristotle breaks decisively with Plato on this point:  Virtue is a hexis (“state”), a tendency or “disposition” induced by our habits to “have appropriate feelings” (1105b25–6). Defective states of character are hexeis as well: they are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings.  For Plato, virtue was a kind of knowledge, and vice a lack of knowledge.  But for Aristotle virtue can only be achieved through habitual action.

In the Ethics (VII.1–10) Aristotle investigates “character traits.”  These characteristics are not as blameworthy as the vices but not as praiseworthy as the virtues.  The Greek terms are akrasia (“incontinence”– literally: “lack of mastery”) and enkrateia (“continence” or “mastery”). An akratic person goes against reason as a result of some pathos (“emotion,” “feeling”). Like the akratic, an enkratic person experiences a feeling that is contrary to reason; but unlike the akratic, he acts in accordance with reason. His defect in virtue consists in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice. The akratic person has a further flaw: he habitually gives in to feeling rather than reason more often than the average person.

All in all Aristotle gives us a description rather than a rule book for virtue.  At around the same time in history, the Chinese teacher Confucius (孔丘, Kǒng Qiū, 6th century BCE) and his disciples, like Mencius (Mengzi: 孟子, 4th-3rd BCE ),  were speculating on similar questions—whether, for example, we are born good or evil, and what it means to speak of “human nature.”  But it is chiefly from Aristotle and his elaborators in the Christian West and Islamic Near East, especially ibn Rushd, that we get a systematic discussion of virtue as action habitually performed in accordance with reason, avoiding extremes, and pursuing the middle way.  A man or woman without self-control, who habitually tends towards excess, and expresses in his actions the deficiency of character that comes from not cultivating virtue is akratic–morally deficient and chaotic, as Richard Kraut suggests:

It is important to bear in mind that when Aristotle talks about impetuosity and weakness, he is discussing chronic conditions. The impetuous person is someone who acts emotionally and fails to deliberate not just once or twice but with some frequency; he makes this error more than most people do. Because of this pattern in his actions, we would be justified in saying of the impetuous person that had his passions not prevented him from doing so, he would have deliberated and chosen an action different from the one he did perform. (Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2016 Edition], Edward N. Zalta, ed.)

Virtue in Religion and Theology

Christian theology, especially Catholic theology in the thirteenth century, drew heavily on Aristotle’s Ethics in its development of moral theory.  The Ethics was one of the few works of Aristotle considered safe for debate and elaboration in the European Middle Ages since his Metaphysics, not rediscovered until the twelfth century, was thought to be erroneous  on the topic of a created universe.  In his Rhetoric Aristotle suggests that “the forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom.” (1366b1) Yet the menu of virtues we inherit from the ancient world comes not from this extended list but from Plato’s Republic (IV, 426-435).  They were expanded by writers such as Cicero in the Latin West, and later by Ss. Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.

Prudence (φρόνησις), Justice (δικαιοσύνη), Temperance (σωφροσύνη), and Courage (ἀνδρεία), the so-called cardinal virtues, were supplemented by three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, taken from Paul’s  first letter to the Corinthian Christians  (1 Cor. 13.13).

Catholicism’s non-biblical, Aristotelian emphasis on virtue was one of the casualties of the protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, with its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith and its motivationally crippling insistence, in Calvinism anyway, on the bondage of the will.  The Catholic Church continued to hold that grace, while undeserved, could still be earned (actual grace, gratia gratis data) through the pursuit of good habits and actions, while a supernatural grace (sanctifying grace, gratia gratum faciens), was imparted by God directly, as part of Christ’s design for the Church, through its sacraments.  Aquinas in fact calls sanctifying grace “habitual” and “actual grace “punctual,” meaning individual and occasional actions that help to sustain a state of the soul which is “pleasing to God.” The ability to act virtuously comes through grace, but not without effort.  Aristotle might well have substituted the phrase “through reason” but the end was roughly the same: to encourage an adherent to act in conformity with the well-being of the soul.

Protestantism did not reject the idea of virtue but saw it as an effect or expression of a covenant between Christ and the believer: grace could not be earned through virtuous action but only through faith.  In his theoretical study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism the sociologist and historian of religion Max Weber saw this, .important distinction as a dividing line between Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Certain branches of Protestantism, especially Calvinism and various forms of Pietism (for example, the Anabaptists) had supported worldly activities dedicated to economic gain, seeing them as endowed with moral and spiritual significance.  The protestant belief in salvation through grace, combined with its characteristic belief in election (that God had predestined some to heaven, others to damnation) had profound psychological effects on masses of people: starkly said it meant that believers needed to appear to enjoy the visible signs of God’s approval and grace in their everyday life—“everyone from the cobbler to the wealthy merchant ”—so that hard work, gain,  and a healthy sense of self-sufficiency became pillars of the protestant ethic.  An old joke runs, the Quakers came to Philadelphia to do good, and they did very well indeed. Weber explains,

According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to accumulate money.

The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard- earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Donations to an individual’s church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

In Reformation Europe but especially in Protestant America, this “work ethic” led to a suspicion of Catholic-style charity and the Roman Catholic catechesis about the corporal works of mercy.   Even now, a persistent suspicion of social welfare remains vestigially present in periodic Congressional proposals to cut “entitlement programs” like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and government subsidized health insurance.  Benjamin Franklin, who had plenty to say on the topic of thrift and money wrote “God helps those who help themselves.”  But the policy was already present even in the New England Divinity’s emphasis on “self-reliance.”  Whereas Catholicism could teach that the poor and suffering were as they were through original sin and its effects on the “propensities” of the soul, through no fault of their own, Calvinism taught a different doctrine, focusing on conspicuous rewards to the elect and conspicuous disfavor for the wicked as a result of God’s predestining judgement.  In the most extreme form of predestinationist social theory, it was possible to argue that the saved had no social or moral responsibility towards the reprobate.


It is oversimplification to say that the political tensions that define the modern political situation in America in the second decade of the twentieth century can be traced to early twentieth century diagnoses of protestant and Catholic approaches to social action.  Weber himself might have acknowledged that the real reason to see a disparate Catholic and Protestant emphasis in the analysis of social groups is that religion, rather than philosophy, reached people in greater numbers–where they lived, worked, and prayed.  Universities from the time of Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages to the time of Kant in the eighteenth developed theological and philosophical approaches to moral theory.  But these teachings affected very few outside the lecture halls of Europe and fledgling New England.  The priest or pastor in his pulpit reached hundreds of souls each week, in every city, parish, and village church. Theology shaped European civilization in direct ways:  battles were fought, wars were won and lost, immigration burgeoned, borders shifted and cultural attitudes were shaped by competing religious ideologies. (Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, New Haven: Yale, 1981)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholic social teaching, a derivative of earlier, scholastic forms of moral theology, had arisen to address the demands of the industrial era.  Workers in Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and immigrant groups in America labored under such extreme hardship that in 1891 Pope Leo XIII was compelled to write what is now considered a foundational document in the history of progressive Catholic social teaching.   After the Communist Manifesto (1848), Rerum Novarum is the most significant plea for the rights of workers in its day, a time when industry and factories were overwhelmingly dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and capital gain at the expense of the working poor.  Leo wrote,

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman  accept  harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he has been made the victim of force and injustice. ( Rerum novarum, 45)

Leo’s dedication to the virtue of “mercy” (a biblical term understood to be latent in the classical idea of Justice) would be reiterated and expanded by later popes, notably Pius XI, John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Their common theme is that the virtues of love, mercy and justice (which the Thomistic Church regarded as rational and rooted in human nature) (Summa Th.  58.3) make certain demands on all people irrespective of creed or culture:  human dignity, the common good, social justice, care for the poor and the vulnerable (the homeless, the trafficked, the refugee), and responsibility towards the planet.  Every pope since the time of Leo has had something to say on these topics, most recently Pope Francis in his 2016 encyclical Laudate Si.


Protestant theology, especially in America, and especially in cities with their burgeoning immigrant populations, developed a strong tradition of social teaching to parallel the Catholic strand.  The social gospel movement, closely identified with the teaching of Walter Rauschenbusch, shared with protestant theology an emphasis on biblical tradition, but revolutionized preaching with a new interpretation of the text that eschewed the literal in favour of “ethical” interpretation, thus he rejected the idea that mainline protestant and Catholic theology held inviolable that the death of Jesus was a substitutionary atonement for the individual sins of humankind:

Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.

And again,

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies [his] faith.

Rauschenbusch construed evil as corporate,  identifying six “social sins” that affect American society directly:  religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (“the social group gone mad”) and mob action, militarism, and class contempt– “every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil.”  Jesus, in Rauschenbusch’s social theology, is the exemplar of how these sins affect personal life but can be overcome.  While evil has a suprapersonal origin–in militarism, individualism, capitalism and nationalism–it has a remedy in “institutional embodiments of good”– pacifism, collectivism, socialism and internationalism. If there is a crimson thread working its way through this taxonomy of virtue and evil, it is the belief that the spirit of humanity has been enslaved by greed and the dehumanizing power of the state to encourage selfishness.

Whereas both Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant theology maintained an emphasis on the individual’s responsibility before a righteous but merciful God, the social teaching of Catholicism and the social Gospel of the liberal preachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century assumed the state’s direct complicity in enabling and perpetuating conditions that conduce to sin.

Taken to the limit, this thinking might lead to an abdication of personal moral responsibility and “free will.”  In the teaching of popes from Leo XIII to Francis it is greed and uncharitableness that thwart the “kingdom of God”; yet socialism and collectivism are not seen to be the cure (private property is seen as part of God’s plan) and so the Church maintained a healthy skepticism towards revolutionary activity–precipitated on behalf of the people by “charismatic  leaders” (Weber), only to replace one form of tyranny with the ruling “party.”  For the Catholics, an evil society is the sum total of the selfishness and sin of individuals, each of whom exercises free choice at a personal level.

For the social gospeliers the chain of causality runs from soulless institutions sustained by the need to satisfy our material needs to individuals who become spiritually empty and finally unresponsive to any form of satisfaction other than what money can buy.  In short, in a society like that envisaged by Leo XIII and Rauschenbusch, the practice of virtue has become unrewarding and almost irrelevant since it does not pay the material dividends demanded by people who have been brutalized by the desire for material gain.

The Centrality of Justice

Through Rauschenbusch (who was closely in touch with German thinking on the subject) the theme of social responsibility directly affected the activities of Reinhold Niebuhr, first-wave feminism, the civil rights movement associated with Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the anti-War and pacifist movements of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  The practical theology of churches and seminaries across America, blended at times with new voices and themes in Christian and Jewish thought.  Secularism and various strands of humanist thought were outgrowths of the social gospel in the Unitarian, Congregational, American Baptist, German-American Freethought, and Ethical Culture Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With these themes, a critique of biblical tropes and images, patriarchy, and social oppression emerged: Catholic liberation theology, death of God theology, feminist, post-feminist and Post-Christian theology and ethics, and dozens of smaller trajectories flowed from these new models of ethical reflection.

While it is impossible to generalize about movements that gradually developed different agendas, it is safe to say that a lively concern for justice was the bedrock of the protest and liberation movements.  Metaphysical ideas of sin and evil were replaced by a view largely compatible with that of Rerum Novarum and the social gospel, though Rauschenbusch, unfettered by the constraints of scholastic logic and hierarchical thinking (Leo, for example, defended Roman primacy and private property as much as he scolded the ruling classes) took the message much further.

The endurance of evil was regarded as the effect of what ancient theologians had seen as a flaw in human nature—original sin in the Catholic tradition; bondage of the will in Protestantism—instantiating itself in political life and institutions, inimical to virtue, fatal to charity and reason.  Sin was, in theological terms, a deficiency which, left unchecked, made the soul unworthy of salvation.  This focus on justice as the μητέρα του αρετή–mother of virtues–was so much taken for granted in modern theology that by the twentieth century everything from Nazi-style Christian socialism to atheistic Marxist-Leninist ideology, especially Stalinism and Maoism, could be evaluated as enculturated “sins” against justice, with the state, in the person of desouled, morally destitute and unvirtuous leaders, playing the role formerly ascribed to Satan.   At the fringes of liberal theology, Evangelical Christians and some traditional Catholic groups not only opposed the thinking behind the virtue-based social justice movements but challenged the whole theological program which, it seemed to them, was not biblically-based but grounded in revolutionary and socialist doctrine.

From Justice to Virtue Ethics

In his discussion of virtue, Aquinas in the Summa asks the question whether justice is a “general virtue.”  He refers to Aristotle (Ethics 5.1) for his answer:  “The Philosopher says that ‘justice is every virtue’.”

Justice, as stated above (Article 2) directs man in his relations with other men. Now this may happen in two ways: first as regards his relation with individuals, secondly as regards his relations with others in general, in so far as a man who serves a community, serves all those who are included in that community…. It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue direct man in relation to himself, or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. (2:2.58.5)

Aquinas sees the essentially relational aspect of justice emphasized by Aristotle in his view of “man” as a political animal, that is, as a creature in society:

A human virtue is one “which renders a human act and man himself good” [Ethic. ii, 6], and this can be applied to justice. For a man’s act is made good through attaining the rule of reason, which is the rule whereby human acts are regulated. Hence, since justice regulates human operations, it is evident that it renders man’s operations good, and, as Tully declares (De Officiis i, 7), good men are so called chiefly from their justice, wherefore, as he says again (De Officiis i, 7) “the luster of virtue appears above all in justice.

The rediscovery of the core principle of justice (which for Aristotle means balance and harmony in the soul, as well as more specifically interpersonal expressions of justice in society) is the basis for most modern discourse about virtue, especially in the study of so-called virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is usually considered to be one of the types of so-called normative ethics, along with rule ethics (deontology) and consequentialism.  Its modern prominence is traced to a 1958 essay by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (“Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33: 1–19).  “Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental.”  In this respect, virtue ethics still takes seriously the tradition of practical wisdom or phronesis, which emphasizes themes that have always been central to the study of virtue:  motives and moral character, moral education, “moral wisdom” or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of the emotions in our moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sorts of persons we should be and how we should live.

It is key to the modern discussion that individual acts of goodness do not satisfy the conditions that a consistent theory of virtue requires:  The occasional good deed, done in order to repay a debt, for example, or refraining from doing harm for fear of reprisal or punishment, or being generous in order to garner praise (to “look good”),  do not add up to virtuous action or to a virtuous state of  being.  This is why virtue ethicists tend to take seriously the question of motive, disposition and character when discussing ethical conduct.  As Rosalind Hursthouse says,

The concept of a virtue is the concept of something that makes its possessor good: a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent or admirable person who acts and feels as she should. These are commonly accepted truisms. But it is equally common, in relation to particular (putative) examples of virtues to give these truisms up. We may say of someone that he is generous or honest ‘to a fault’. It is commonly asserted that someone’s compassion might lead them to act wrongly, to tell a lie they should not have told, for example, in their desire to prevent someone else’s hurt feelings. It is also said that courage, in a desperado, enables him to do far more wicked things than he would have been able to do if he were timid. So it would appear that generosity, honesty, compassion and courage despite being virtues, are sometimes faults.

Intent, disposition, and character are all that distinguish a brave outlaw from a brave soldier: the desire to do good apart from all other considerations.

Another aspect of modern virtue ethics is its emphasis on the complex nature of deficiency or what Aristotle called vice—a  fault, flaw, or moral weakness (ἁμαρτία).  This begins with the idea that while there are comparatively few words in any language for “good” action, the number of words describing wrong action or vice are considerably greater. As Glen Pettigrove has suggested:  “We think of acts as being just, generous, merciful, truthful or courageous, but we associate virtue with “avoiding courses of action that would be irresponsible, feckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncooperative, harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary, indiscreet, tactless, arrogant, unsympathetic, cold, incautious, unenterprising, pusillanimous, feeble, presumptuous, rude, hypocritical, self-indulgent, materialistic, grasping, short-sighted, vindictive, calculating, ungrateful, grudging, brutal, profligate, disloyal, and on and on.”

As in Aristotle’s time, the idea of virtue is programmatically concerned with habit and character: with acting in a good way not because one is bound to do so, or because one would be penalized for not acting in a good way but because one is “a certain kind of person”.

The ethicist Gopal Sreenivasan says that an honest person’s reasons and choices with respect to honest and dishonest actions reflect her views about honesty, truth, and deception— “Valuing honesty as she does, she chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed through deception rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.”  (Sreenivasan, Gopal, Mind, 111 [January]: 47–68) This means that in the field of honest action, a person cannot be judged honest on the basis of one or even a complex of honest acts, but only by the total disposition to act honestly and the agent’s reasons (motives) for acting as she does.

Donald J. Trump as a Test Case in Virtue Ethics

The current discussion of the 45th president of the United States is heavily focused on the question of character.

In dealing with Mr. Trump, the words that have become familiar are lying, deceit, self-interest, arrogance, bullying, cowardice, ignorance, and injustice.  This partial list is enough to show the principle that from a comparatively narrow range of virtue-terms, a much broader range of vices or deficiencies can be educed.   Of course sociologists, psychologists, and linguists have their own methods for exploring the behavioral aspects of Mr Trump’s performance.  There is a growing sense that the President’s  actions are “abnormal”  and out of the range of simple political analysis. In an article for New York Magazine (10 February 2017) the journalist Andrew Sullivan writes, “There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health.  I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him?”

But if in fact Mr Trump’s behaviour is explained as a psychological condition involving delusion, then an analysis based on virtue ethics would be moot since the discussion of virtue is closely connected to the idea of rational choice. A liar is someone who knows the truth, accepts reality as it is, and for various purposes chooses to distort it.  A deluded person simply does not know the truth and what he says is not false representation but wrong representation.  Because Mr Trump’s rhetoric suggests a desire to misrepresent and alter facts, his language and actions will be regarded as deliberate and rational rather than as signs of an underlying pathology.

A virtue ethical- analysis of these activities is thus defensible for the following reasons:

A.  Typicality. Virtue analysis requires more than a snapshot of action. It demands  patterns established over time; the longer the period of time the more informative the analysis is likely to be.  A typically virtuous woman or man may respond atypically given the presence of overwhelming coercion or mental and physical-emotive states that affect decisions and outcomes.  As in the case of mental imbalance, in such exigencies the element of free choice is impaired.  The “Sophie’s Choice”-dilemma is often used in philosophy classes to illustrate this problem, whereby a mother is compelled by Nazi guards to choose one of her children to live, the other to be exterminated (William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, NY: Vintage International Edition, 1992).  Impairment of free choice is tantamount to impairment of mental processes with respect to virtuous action. In ordinary life however, we assume that certain basic conditions will obtain “in most cases,” so that the conduct of the agent can be regarded as habitual.

The virtue-ethics analysis also requires the agent to be of a certain age and level of maturity so that choices can be rationally and consciously made.  Virtue ethicists normally pay attention for example to whether a decision to act in a certain way is being made by an adolescent or an adult, on the premise that children and adolescents are at an exploratory level and as such inclined to “mess things up” (Hursthouse) as to get things right. Aristotle makes the same distinction in talking about the relationship between age and reason, marking off the ages of 7 through puberty as subrational.  A child cannot be morally responsible because a child is not rational and depends on adults for guidance (III.12.1119b13-15).


In the case of Donald Trump, his actions can be judged over a decades-long period, have been consistent in nature, observed and evaluated, and thus can be used to assess that behaviour on the spectrum of deficiency-moderation-excess.  When for example the president demeans his critics with names like “Pocahontas,” or “Crooked Hillary,” when he deliberately misstates statistics concerning crime rates, election fraud, threats from foreign nations, crowd size, or or the veracity of news coverage, these actions express tendencies which exhibit not merely a desire to misstate facts but habituation to dishonesty and a contempt for moderation.  In Aristotelian terms, Trump is an example of the akratic man who, through constant disregard for moderation, exhibits an emotional rather than a rational approach to decision-making . Moreover, as Amelie Rorty says,  akrasis is not merely a lack of judgement by an agent but a lack of mastery which is embedded in character—technically the vice of incontinence.

B.  Affect. From the time of Aristotle the question of the sociality of virtue has been significant.  This means that an agent acting in isolation (if that condition can be imagined; perhaps Hayy ibn Yaqẓān on his desert island) rather than interactively with other persons or groups, is not a good exemplar for virtue.  Indeed in some ethical systems the absence of affect would be enough to disqualify such an agent from any role in an ethical analysis.  While self-harm is always possible, suicide being the most extravagant example, it stretches the valence of the concept to call such behaviour unvirtuous.

By the same token, men and women since ancient times who are placed in positions of great responsibility—Pericles in Athens, Caesar in Gaul, Lincoln in a divided America—are in a special position with respect to virtue because their actions and choices cannot be merely private and self-referring.   A leader’s actions will affect the lives of others; those actions will say something both about the character of the leader and the character of the state.  Indeed, Plato’s discussion of virtue hinges on the idea that the state (the good city) will exhibit the virtues:  “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b); and in his declaration that we are fundamentally political animals (ζον πολιτικόν) as well as rational actors (λόγον χον)  Aristotle sees a syzygy, a yoking together, of the individually virtuous person and the harmonious state rather than a cause-effect  relationship.

The relationship between acting rationally for the common good so as to create good in the city has been fundamental not just to political theory but also to public discourse:  the art of expression (rhetoric) and of persuasion (argument, oratory, and exhortation) traditionally have  been seen as the way in which the leader “activates” his own virtue on behalf of the common good, an outward expression of his nature.  This means that appeals to passion, fear, hatred, and self-interest–which depend on exciting the crowd and encouraging emotive states or irrational behavior –are contrary to the  larger good, and hence unvirtuous.

C.  Fear-Baiting the Populace

It is a matter of record going back over decades that Mr Trump relies on appeal to passion and emotion, and especially to fear, in his public utterances.  The most famous instance was his tenacious campaign between 2009 and 2012 to encourage American citizens to believe the then-president of the United States was constitutionally unqualified to hold the office because he was born in Kenya. (D. Remnick, “Trump, Birtherism, and Race-Baiting,”  April 27, 2011.)  A related effort sought to convince Americans that Barack Obama was a Muslim (despite there being no religious test for the presidency), and his more aggressive policies toward the Muslim world since taking office, especially his executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim nations from entering the United States on the basis of the alleged danger they posed to the nation.

Trump is also known to appeal to the interests of the so-called CPAC and “Second Amendment Patriots” and the hierarchy of the National Rifle Association by inducing fear that gun-control advocates are privately plotting to seize their guns, going so far as to suggest that the Paris attacks of November 2015 could have been prevented by less stringent controls on firearms in France.  And, finally, his speeches have targeted laws protecting various minorities and vulnerable groups: gay and lesbian activists, women seeking to retain reproductive freedom, and African American, Latino and Hispanic Americans.  The effect of any one of these public antipathies would not say much about the character of an agent.  Cumulatively however, a pattern emerges that suggests deficiency in what virtue-ethics would term “honor.”  Virtue defined as the impact of the public utterances of a leader, judged from the standpoint of the effects of his rhetoric on the general population, especially upon its harmony and cohesion as a people attentive to the values of a just society.

D.  Unvirtuous Behaviour and Counter-Evidentiary Thinking.

(a) Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, 2016 in one of the most acrimonious contests in American history.  Analysts were quick to point out that he did this through employing unconventional tools and that his language during the campaign, and even after he was sworn into office on January 20, 2017, was “not the kind of thing” the American people were used to hearing from politicians. This unbridled and raw directness was seen by many of his followers to be a new kind of honesty or “straight talk” that did not obey the conventions of politics (Lakoff).  His most ardent supporters were not especially bothered by rudeness,  exaggeration, and (to use the term that came to be used mockingly of his falsehoods) his “alternate facts.”

(b) Incivility and exaggeration had two purposes: to incapacitate opposing speakers and their viewpoints and to “catastrophize” or “glamourize” information irrespective of its grounding in fact and evidence.  Among these techniques, Mr Trump liberally used ad hominem attacks–insult, impugnment, and ridicule–to discredit opponents. Thus, his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton  became  “Crooked Hilary,” a key spokesman for the opposition party, Senator Elizabeth Warren,  was christened  Pocahontas; a variety of other opponents and critics were labeled, little, weak, dull,  wishy-washy and ineffective.  Outsiders likewise were labeled dangerous, criminals, rapists, murderers, terrorists,  social freeloaders and welfare thieves.  Sometimes all of these things were enveloped in the term “loser,” in distinction to Trump’s portrayal of himself as a successful businessman, a “winner” in the wealth-conscious American context.

Conversely, no attention was given to the views of his opponents or to the contribution made to business, industry, agriculture, and education by ethnic and linguistic minorities. The technique used by Trump in relation to the latter has been labeled “race baiting,” a deliberate attempt to pit social and economic groups against each other in order to promote disharmony and crisis. The political purpose, openly espoused by his advisor Steven Bannon,  to sow discord  in order to make the prospect of “strong government” and demagogic solutions more appealing.

(c)   Trump conveyed the notion in the campaign and in his sepulchral Inauguration speech that the nation too, was beginning to take on the worst traits of his individual and social enemies, especially the alleged weaknesses of the then current administration: The United States was becoming a “loser” nation. No one respected America any longer.  Its streets were rife with death and crime.  Subject to excessive oversight and restraint, police forces had lost respect.  War could not be fought and won because the country had become soft; consequently safety lay in strong-arm solutions to the puny and overcautious measures of the administration of Barack Obama. Generals could be trusted because they knew about winning; politicians only when they agreed with him;  intellectuals, especially scientists,  never.

Similarly, the news media, often suspected of left- leaning sympathies, were seen as not only unreliable but actively engaged in producing “fake news” to undermine his administration.  Trump labeled the press the “enemy of the American people” in a Twitter feed of 19 February 2017. Evidence-based thinking–the kind of thinking typical of the intelligence community– was considered weak, slow, and inferior to the successful intuitive thinking that Trump claimed to be capable of in his “very good brain”    though it later emerged that Trump had lied about his educational achievements and academic standing as an undergraduate

The fallacy-laden approach to problem-solving and problem assessment, seen primarily in gross oversimplification of complex issues and a trivializing of risks, opposition, and counter-arguments, was implicitly an appeal to wishful-thinking, which was based on a belief that his followers relied on shortcutting rather than formal reasoning in making decisions.  Mr Trump made no effort to educate himself or his constituents on the complexity of the issues he had made his agenda: before his tenure as president began he resisted intelligence briefings, sidelined key advisors, routinely shrugged off warnings and criticism, and continued to maintain that his own powers of analysis were enough to see him through even the most complex military decisions and operations.

(d)   Trump’s race-baiting was one part of a more general pattern of conspiratorial and evidence-free thinking designed to create anxiety across the country.  Thus, in his rhetorical framing, the war against “radical Islamic extremism” had failed, despite evidence it was making steady progress.  Despite the evidence of statistics, “thousands of terrorists were flooding across the borders every day.”  The country was in “terrible economic shape” the “worst economy ever” because there had been a war on wealth and small business.  Violent crime was out of control, but he would soon “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities”

Promising a restoration of obsolete or diminishing industries like mining and petroleum, Trump blamed “illegal aliens” and job-outsourcing for America’s economic woes, promised to build a wall to keep Mexican and other Latino and Hispanic workers out; to deport millions of undocumented workers; and to bring overtaxed industries back to the United States.  In exchange for returning manufacturing to America, industries would be offered tax breaks and an array of incentives–capped with deregulation of big business and corporations.  Companies that insisted on investing or relocating abroad would be punished with high tariffs on the import of their goods.  Certain countries like China would be called out as currency manipulators and their goods slapped with import duties. Banks would lend more freely.  The middle class would receive tax cuts, the economic top-tier bigger ones.  It would again be the free choice of a family or a corporation to go bankrupt, not overseers in Washington and New York limiting credit and restricting lending.

Despite the fact that economists savaged the incoherence of his proposals, Trump was unmoved by evidence, argument and history in repeating these tropes to his supporters.  Having accepted his word as president, not merely a candidate, listeners were asked to choose between the authority of the leader and well researched and documented sources that often showed his pronouncements to be exaggerated or false.  This ad auctoritatem approach created a dissonance especially among non-elite or less educated listeners, who found it difficult to accommodate ambiguity and disagreement in favor of the moral and practical simplicity of the leader’s descriptions and solutions. In addition, the president had an advantage the evidence- and research- based media did not, the ability to offer policy solutions to the problems he described.

(e)  As with the economy and society, Trump was dismissive of headways in education and science, especially with respect to the environment and school reform.  Proponents of the theory of global warming were derided as alarmists if not outright liars, though it was never clear what the advantage to scientists in creating the clamor might have been. Calling global warming a hoax, Trump promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and to renegotiate environmental treaties signed during previous administrations.  In one  famous screed, he accused China of “inventing” the science behind green house gas emissions and global warming and spreading the fear to other nations.  Trump’s non-evidentiary thinking turned towards the denial of fact and the further claim that only his facts could be relied on: the intelligentsia were in the habit of misleading ordinary people and inventing crises that simple common sense could avert.

(f)  In education, Trump favoured competition between religious schools and public schools, with vouchers being given to parents who wished to opt out of public school.  His initial solution was to appoint a dramatically unqualified woman to head the Department of Education, with the specific task of offering parents more choice in the kind of education they wanted for their children.

In matters of medical science and health, he opposed abortion rights and with the help of organized conservative religious groups championed the cause of the anti-choice cartels, mostly religiously-based and financed, and called for an end to government funding for Planned Parenthood.   Famously, he stood on the side of the conservative members of his party to defund the so-called Affordable Care Act which by the time of the campaign had provided health insurance to (2016) 30,000,000 citizens. Over 50 attempts to repeal the law had been attempted between 2010 and 2016.

(g)  Finally in the field of national security, Trump insisted on “naming” the problem “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” rather than religious extremism.  Although there had been no large scale attack on the United States since 11 September 2011, and none specifically involving recent Muslim immigrants nesting among the population, Trump convinced his supporters that the United States was being careless; that the intelligence services were not doing enough; and that the only way to deal with potential risk was to ban Muslims from entering the United States until “extreme” vetting could be carried out.  In February 2017, he issued a travel ban on Muslims from seven so-called state sponsors of terrorism, based on an outdated list from 1996, scarcely reviewed or revised since, identifying a number of countries that stood accused of terrorist or terror-related sponsorship in the Clinton administration.

The ban was reviewed and stayed in district and appellate courts and at the time of this writing is still enmeshed in judicial challenges.  The appellate courts’ fundamental objection was that Trump and his advisors had provided no evidence that citizens of the proscribed countries had any relation to terror activities inside the United States.

The terms weakness and strength are especially relevant to the catastrophizing that Trump used to persuade his supporters that “aliens” (foreign “others”) must be walled out or outlawed at the ports and airports.

Fear as Unvirtue

In classical virtue theory, fear is at the opposite end of the scale to courage, “a deficiency of bravery.”  Hence to inculcate fear in the polis is incrementally non-virtuous, even if the leader professes to be courageous himself. Anyone who reads the speeches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great at Opis, or the process against Cataline can see the significant rhetorical connection between bravery, honesty and honour and their role in developing the character of the polis.

In modern times, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama have used exhortation to encourage and inspire the polis in times of distress as have political and social leader like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.   The basic premise of their rhetoric is that to instill courage in the population is to regenerate the virtuous nature of a country.  Fear is not only a lack of courage but an incentive to do the wrong thing in time of peril.  Plato had said, “So the unwise person has a faulty conception of what is good for him. A person is courageous just in case his spirited attitudes do not change in the face of pains and pleasures but stay in agreement with what is rationally recognized as fearsome and not” (442bc).

Trump is exceptional in using fear to create insecurity along racial and personal lines;  the blanket excoriation of Islam as violent, or certain categories of foreigners as “criminals” and “rapists,” or the arbitrary demarcation of insiders and outsiders—that is, foreigners who have achieved a certain status as guests and workers and those who have no such privilege, the latter being regarded as dangerous trespassers.  The appeal itself is designed to lessen cohesion and to encourage disharmony – the key mark of an unvirtuous city.  Peace of mind and happiness (unity and harmony) according to Plato are the marks of the good polis, just as they are of the just person (Republic 369 a-b).

The End of Virtue:  Donald Trump as an Ethics-Subversive Leader

Based on actions and words going back several decades, but with special reference to his political activities in the last fifteen years and recent performance, I suggest that Donald Trump can be profitably used as an adverse example in discussions of virtue theory.   This can be done specifically with respect to particular actions he has undertaken as president and as a presidential candidate and,  by analogy, with reference to the language and public actions of past American presidents.

The main features of Trump’s subversion of virtue through political practice can be summarized as follows.  Please note, this subversion is being laid out in terms of deficiency or “vice,” in keeping with the traditional language of virtue theory:

  1. Trump lacks a deep sense of justice. Trump has followed a profit-model that values wealthy and especially white Americans while marginalizing black and brown Americans, poorer Americans, sexual minorities, women, and those with physical or mental disability.  The policies he has so far put into place reinforce his commitment to privilege, whilst garnering support through appeals to lower income and low information voters, white supremacists, and a variety of populist, nativist,  “hard-right,” and fringe groups (his “base”).
  2. Trump lacks a deep concept of happiness. Trump is the first president in American history to pay no attention to human values and virtue-formation as a higher level of satisfaction than the accumulation of profit.  To be clear, past presidents have worried about the state of economy, the level of employment, downticks in trade or manufacturing and fluctuations in wages and purchasing power. In every case the appeal has been to improving the lot of the neediest. Trump however is the first president to equate human satisfaction with wealth.  In addition to constant references to his personal wealth, he has surrounded himself with plutocrats in almost every department of government, has failed to divest control of his companies, and also failed to disclosed his income tax returns.  By analogy, if one looks at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural address, we find this:

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

  1. Trump is deficient in honesty. In his actions and public utterances Trump condones the irrational, the fantastic, the exaggerated and the improbable in ways that approach adolescent thinking.  He has shown contempt for science, intellectual pursuits, traditions of religious wisdom, the arts, and literature.  His intellectual diet of fringe news, newspapers, stock market reports and conspiracy-theories (and those who share his passion for the fantastic) suggests an addiction to non-evidentiary thinking.  At a personal level this deficiency shows itself in unfairness and often contempt towards factual research, correction, and vital information.  Moreover, he often does not regard his statements as falsifiable, a feature of a cognitive disorder described by Robert Lahy as the “inability to disconfirm.”   Trump has been slanderous towards political enemies, the press, the judiciary system, the American intelligence community, and “hard evidence” concerning failed policies and executive decisions.
  2. Trump is deficient in compassion: “Mercy” in the classical system was an adjunct of justice and often was exhibited in how character displayed itself as “valour” after military victory.  Often it was seen as an undeserved act of generosity towards an opponent, or a willingness to forego certain rights that fell to a victor following a conquest, consonant with the lex talionis.  The paradigm in classical times was the “Clemency of Scipio,” an episode recounted by Livy of the Roman general Scipio Africanus who, following a victory in Spain, refused a generous ransom for a young female prisoner, returning her to her fiance Allucius.  However in its Christianized form, mercy has less to do with displays of generosity than with the belief that (on the pretext that God forgives those who forgive others: Matthew 6.12) mercy itself symbolizes our commitment to “suffering humanity,” a principle that can also be traced back to Confucius and the primum non nocere (above all,  do no harm) axiom of ancient Greece.  Trump has consistently shown a lack of charity to immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, refugees and domestic minorities.  His appeals to fear have essentially pitted group against group and majorities against minorities, creating a kind of tribalism in which those who have achieved success have no moral or fiscal responsibility for those who cannot help themselves.  Trump is the first United States President to enshrine callousness into policy though it has roots in the austere Calvinist theology of Election of the seventeenth century
  3. Trump is deficient in Bravery. In what we called above “fear-mongering” Trump has displayed a weakness that has been the subject of philosophical discussion since the time of Socrates, but flourishes especially in the language of Aristotle: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”  In his usage Aristotle sees courage or bravery not in military terms (that is, he does not identify it with military strength or power, which in itself is morally neutral) but is terms of individual willingness to show bravery in the face of “hardship, agony, despair” and adverse circumstances.  A strong military may provide security, but not courage, and a country that would use its military power or technology rashly might do so for unvirtuous reasons.   Trump’s junta-like approach to security, surrounded by generals as decision-makers, shows a deficiency of courage and a marked tendency to encourage fear in the population, confuting the defensive role of the polis with bravery.  The classical models of the dilemma between heroism and strength was epitomized in the Odyssey by the characters of Hector and Achilles:  Hector leads with a mature sense that gives his men reason to respect him, illustrating the unity of the virtues of honour and bravery. Achilles fights out of rage, because he is rash, and inspires fear (VI.21-24). Achilles is thus the paradigm of risk, impetuousness, and revenge in classical thought.
  4. Trump is deficient in moderation. Rosalind Hursthouse observes that

    A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say  “goes all the way down,” unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.

Judged strictly on the basis of habitual performance, Trump is the model of Aristotle’s akratic man, deficient in self-control, moderation, justice,  honor, courage and temperance with  an inability to control impulse–arrogant in victory, dishonorable and and petulant when thwarted or defeated.

Zhejiang, Hangzhou, 2017

The Sudan Imperative

by R.  Joseph Hoffmann



In 1993, the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – a distinction currently shared by just six other countries, including Iran and Syria.

With Sudan still in his sights, President Clinton on 20 August 1998, ordered a Cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum.  The pretext for the strikes launched by the United States military was retaliation for the truck bomb attacks on its embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya on 7 August, 1998.  Specifically, the Clinton administration alleged that the al-Shifa plant was involved with processing the deadly nerve agent VX and had ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network–believed to be behind the embassy bombings and a larger terrorist plot labeled “Bojinka.”

Also on 20 August, missiles hit al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his closest advisors had migrated. By the time Clinton ordered the attack, bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan by President Omar al-Bashir’s order: Sudan, which had previously and unsuccessfully sued for normal relations with the United States, became the only Middle Eastern country to deport him. When eventually he was discovered and killed, he had been given refuge in Pakistan for a period of at least eight years, without serious consequence to US-Pakistani relations.


Why was the United States Administration fixated on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant while the CIA was focused on possible links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that proved illusory and did not involve the production of deadly chemical weapons?  Timothy Noah writing in Slate   said, “The best guess … is set forth in an October 1998 piece by the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl suggested that a man named Mubarak Fadl Al Mahdi put the word out that Al-Shifa was mixed up with chemical weapons in order to hurt the plant’s owner, Salah Idris, who was a political enemy of Mahdi’s. Mahdi admitted to Pearl that he’d made it his business to collect information about the plant after Idris bought it. Pearl further reported that after the bombing, Mahdi issued a communiqué that said Al-Shifa had harbored ‘Iraqi scientists and technicians’ and that most pharmaceutical plants in Sudan weren’t ‘manned by foreign experts.’ (Mahdi denied having said anything about this before the bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials denied that they’d relied on anyone with a motive to hurt Idris.)”

In the fraught anti-terrorist environment of the period between August 1998 and 11 September 2001, Iraq and al- Qaeda were often linked in the intelligence imagination of the United States.  This remained true even after the attacks of 9-11, when the dubious but repeated assertion of Iraq’s involvement in making “weapons of mass destruction,” including VX and other nerve agents, served as a pretext for the invasion of that country and the overthrow of its military leader Saddam Hussein.  After 9/11, Noam Chomsky equated  the Al-Shifa bombing with the toppling of the World Trade Center towers, an act of wanton, premeditated violence against a soft target costing hundreds of lives. The comparison was lost in the emotionally volatile period after the destruction of the World Trade centre, but the irony of the events was not missed in parts of the Middle East.

Yet the failure of investigators to discover any evidence of CW production during any of the period of US involvement in Iraq through 2011 did not cause the United States government under presidents Bush or Obama to revisit the stated reason for the destruction of the al-Shifa medical facility or rethink alleged, and by all accounts strained, connections between the government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and that of  Sudan under Omar al-Bashir, both of whom opposed (and had reason to fear) the Islamic extremism represented by Osama bin Laden’s cartels.    While there is every reason to suppose bin Laden was behind the attacks on the African embassies, it is equally clear that Sudan had no role to play and remained docile in its relations to other African nations and also in relation to “rogue” countries like Libya, a traditional ally and benefactor of Sudan.  As late as November of 2001, four years after the al Shifa attack,  John Bolton, then U.S. Undersecretary of State, announced at the BTWC in Geneva that the United States was ”concerned about Sudan’s growing interest” in biological weapons, and suggested Sudan was among five nations believed to be pursuing  germ warfare.


In 1997, former US President Bill Clinton had issued an executive order that imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on Sudan and froze its assets in the US. In 2006, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, issued another executive order targeting those involved in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. The sanctions have continued unabated and were renewed for a further year in November 2015 under the Obama administration.

There is little likelihood that they will be lifted in the lifespan of a Donald Trump presidency, given his inattentiveness, his lack of perspective on the region, and his malice for Muslims in general. Trump’s tendency so far has been to personalize Islamic violence:  He has, variously, suggested imposing a ban on Muslims travelling to America, advocated ethnic and religious profiling, and registration of Muslims living in the United States. Mr. Trump calls this “hyper-vetting” but by any other name it creates a religious test for lawful immigration and a blockade against legal residency and citizenship that it clearly a violation of the United Sates Constitution.  Given Trump’s almost complete ignorance of Islam as a religion, his dismal sense of geography, history, politics, and culture, and his overreliance on military advisors, it is too much to expect that he would listen to a case for lifting sanctions when it has not been high on the agenda of any president since Clinton imposed them in 1997


Was There Ever a Case for Sanctions

According to an article in Huffington Post by Esther Sprague of a pro-sanction religious organization called “Sudan Unlimited,”entitled Understanding Sudan and US sanctions, the penalties were created to bring Sudan president Omar al Bashir’s regime to heel for its oppressive policies towards his citizens and his use of the militias to quell disturbances and maintain order:  “Bashir’s objectives are three-fold,” she writes, “to maintain control of Sudan at all costs; to steal the resources of the country for his benefit and for the benefit of his narrow base of supporters and allies; and to change the multicultural identity of Sudan into a single Arab Islamic identity. Bashir has partially accomplished his objectives since seizing power in 1989 by instituting a policy of divide and rule among Sudan’s diverse population that has allowed him to use the people of Sudan to kill and displace each other, freeing up resources for exploitation and land for occupation by Arab allies; by marginalizing and disempowering indigenous populations; and through massive corruption that has destroyed the state while enriching the foreign bank accounts of a select few.”  According to Sprague, even though she styles sanctions an “imperfect weapon,”  “financial and economic pressure are the only language Bashir is likely to understand.”  Curiously, she thinks the majority of Sudanese recognize this and despite economic grievances (felt in all quarters—from banking to corner markets and medical supplies)—she feels continued pressure is the best and only way: “In order for Bashir to maintain a grip on the country, he must keep his supporters happy or at least well compensated, which is proving harder to do as Sudan’s economy continues to constrict as a result of the implementation of sanctions, largely led by the United States. This continued pressure is welcome news for the majority of Sudanese people, who have asked for these economic measures to be taken in order to help create change that ultimately may provide more of an opportunity for the Sudanese people and future generations to enjoy justice, peace and prosperity.”  Sprague’s risible suggestion–that the cure for hardship  is a longer period of hardship–is belied by the fact, verified in a series of United Nations reports and anecdotal observations from visitors to Sudan,  that the longer the sanctions last the more tenacious the suffering faced by ordinary Sudanese becomes.

A more measured approach is taken by Ahmed Saeed in Al Jazeera. Sayeed properly notes that the sanctions were originally imposed to stop Sudan sponsoring terrorism. He cites the visit of the United Nations Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy who concluded that the measures are failing to accomplish their objectives: “The reality on the ground has proved that these measures do not have a negative impact on officials or on any elite group,” Jazairy wrote after his visit, following US extension of sanctions on 3rd November 2015.”Their full impact is on innocent citizens and on a deepening of the gap in income distribution within the Sudanese society and between provinces.”  Rabie Abd Alaatie, a member of the NCP’s leadership office, said the sanctions have also affected Sudan’s imports. “The foreign currency reserve is very scarce due to the sanctions. This affects the importation of goods, sometimes vital commodities such as wheat…The comprehensive trade embargo is the set of measures which are affecting the lives of the Sudanese citizens. They have so far not been able to serve the purpose of modifying the policies of the government of Sudan, but have for sure affected many regular people’s ability to conduct business, transfer money, and go about regular everyday life activities.”

The Evidence is Against Sanctions

It is simple logic and history, where sanctions are concerned, that misery trickles downward to ordinary people while wealth stays at the top. Leadership groups and elites, and the clients who protect them, weather the storm of economic hardship better than ordinary citizens.  Unlike warfare, where civilian populations are targets of last resort, sanctions are aimed at governments in order to cause as little collateral damage as possible.  But the idea that sanctions work, given a long enough time to bite, is folly—whether we look at the case of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, or Iran.  Governments control economies, distribute both goods and services, and control banks and trade.  The use of the phrase “well-targeted sanctions” does little to change the fact that sanctions will end up hurting economic “civilians” while financial elites and leaders will find ways (and can find ways) to avoid the most difficult aspects of embargoes and currency restrictions.

This being so, there is both a pragmatic and a humanitarian argument for ending the embargo of Sudanese goods and the currency and trade restrictions now in place against the Republic of Sudan. As Doug Bandow has written in his Forbes magazine article on the subject, the sanctions, like the dog in the Conan Doyle story, doesn’t bark.  The pragmatic reason is ineffectiveness.  The humanist reason consists in consequences to the people of the Sudan, where in some areas the poverty rate runs to 50 percent.

Moreover, if counter-terrorism is measured in statistics, then Washington can claim the sanctions have done their job and lift them: Since 9/11 the administration’s latest terrorism reports have consistently stated: “During the past year, the government of Sudan continued to support counterterrorism operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.”  And Sudan has been moving closer to America’s alliance partners in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States. In Libya, Khartoum has shifted its support from Islamist to Western-backed forces. Sudan has historically been friendly to the United States, while the United States has adopted a much more proprietary stance towards Sudan since the accession of Omar al-Bashir in 1989.

The rationale for sanctions as a penalty for the government’s ethnic wars has also largely disappeared: If Darfur to the west is still occasionally restive, a peace agreement with southern Sudanese ultimately was reached, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan, which has recently been in the news for its own civil war.  The trouble in South Sudan casts a backward light on Sudan’s attempts to quell disturbances prior to the partitioning of the country. Yet South Sudan enjoyed the immediate favour of the United States while Sudan itself was given no credit in the process and left out in the economic cold.


The separate insurgency in Sudan’s west, around Darfur, starting in 2003 led to the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. But the Darfur conflict is slowly subsiding. Moreover, as Colum Lynch has written in Foreign Policy, the sanctions proved totally worthless, and some would say counterproductive, as a mechanism to discipline the government during the worst days of the crisis in 2011.  The charges of corruption, and the indictment of Bashir by the ICC,  are very weak grounds for the continuation of sanctions, especially as the court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.  Moreover, Bashir’s popularity in the country actually swelled following the ICC judgement,  in a classic Us versus Them scenario– the result of the isolation and self-protective reflexivity that sanctions have aroused in the population.

Hurting Minorities as Well as the Majority

Sudan has been labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, yet religious discrimination and repression is far more pronounced in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which the United States counts as allies. American Christians are among the loudest advocates of a continued sanctions regime in Sudan whilst Sudanese Christians are almost unanimous in their dislike of them:  Says Rev. Filotheos Farag of Khartoum’s El Shahidein Coptic Church, “we want to cancel all the sanctions.” Uninformed about the comparatively small Coptic, orthodox, protestant,  Roman Catholic-Christian presences in the country (about 3,000,000, now mainly in South Sudan) the Christians on the other side of the world are largely of an evangelical-missionary type and unaware of the complexity of the religious dynamics in the country. While all non-elite Sudanese are disadvantaged by the embargo, the small Christian community is affected disproportionately and Sudanese Christians complain that they are among those most hurt by sanctions. This is because many churches depend on donations which cannot be transferred easily in hard currency: supplies are hard to buy, replacement costs, furnishing and basic necessities for churches are difficult to locate and to purchase.

A consistent message from Christian  clerics like Hafiz Fassha, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum North, is that the pain is felt among “marginal populations, especially in medical services and education.”  He prays for the lifting of controls, which “are like putting oil on a fire.”  Isaiah Kanani of the Presbyterian Nile Theological College reported that “sanctions are affecting everyone in the community in every corner of the country.” Unfortunately, “the grassroots feel it very harshly.” He points to lost jobs and people relocating for work. Moreover, while people believe the government is not responsible for these problems, their “eyes fix on the government to find a solution.”  And to the north in Port Sudan, Father Antonio Manganhe Meej observed that “Poor people feel it more…While the U.S. might believe it is punishing the government…it is only punishing the people.”  Meej concluded glumly that when parents aren’t able to pay their school fees “it is becoming impossible to run our schools.”

Lifting Sanctions is a Moral Imperative for the United States Government

U.S. sanctions have lost any purpose they once may have had. And it is not clear that the sequence of events leading to Sudan’s being classified with Iran, Syria and North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” was justified when the tag was first applied in 1993.

Three times in the past two decades Sudan has appeased the United States and gotten nothing in return but a prolongation of economic hardship.

When the CIA demanded the expulsion of Osama bin Laden after the embassy bombings in East Africa,   Sudan complied.  The United States countered that what it had really wanted was his extradition.  When the United States demanded stricter anti-terrorist measures within the borders of Sudan, Sudan increased surveillance and counter-terrorism operations to become, virtually,  the only terror-free zone in the immediate region—which includes Somalia,  Eritrea, Kenya, and Djibouti.  When the United States complained about excessively harsh and in some cases lethal measures against ethnic minorities in Darfur and minority religious and ethnic groups in the South, Sudan negotiated to partition the south and accept its existence as a separate state, South Sudan. Since these measures were taken, Darfur has become less restive and South Sudan has emerged as Africa’s newest country, though one beset by the same turbulence that characterized it before the partitioning.  The government in Khartoum, as most observers now recognize   is hardly responsible for the tribalist, ethnic and religious fractures in that society.

The United States since the Indian Wars has developed an ugly reputation for breaking treaties and backtracking on contacts and promises. But Sudan is a particularly ugly case of American deal-breaking. Ugly because it is difficult to know what now the country must do in order to appease Washington and restore economic ties.  A million voices are saying that the world has changed since sanctions were first imposed. Washington’s policy toward Sudan should change as well. As  Doug Bandow has argued in a variety of op-ed and analytical essays, “Politics today in Sudan is authoritarian, but that has never bothered Washington”—in Egypt, in Pakistan, and perhaps above all in Saudi Arabia—ironically a nation that has never been indicted as a state sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, it has gone to war in chaotic countries like Afghanistan and (now, due to its interventions) Iraq and Syria without being able to impose or solicit the kind of cohesion and relative tranquility that Sudan currently enjoys–without its assistance.

There will be a further consequence to United States’ indifference and callousness in Sudan:  Among the more perverse effects of sanctions has been to encourage Khartoum to look for friends elsewhere. State Minister Yahia Hussein Babiker has said that we are “starting to get most of our heavy equipment through China.” Chinese guests, businessmen, dealers, and workers are a common sight in Khartoum and hotel restaurants offering Chinese dishes (like the “Panda Restaurant” ) are expanding in all parts of the capital.  China is in Africa to stay—just as, sitting in my University study in Hangzhou, Africa, in the form of exchange students and guests, is in China.

The United States should not expect Sudan to hold its breath as the sanctions-regime unravels pointlessly and as Sudan becomes yet another in China’s long and growing list of bilateral trading partners and new best friends.  An enlightened Washington would have seen it coming.  But the real-world Washington is a very poor beacon of commonsense and a poor guardian of its own economic self-interest.