One big danger with modern-day presidents has been that they are too eager to improve the nation's moral health. They either hector the country to atone
for its past sins (Barack Obama). Or they aggressively push it to the promised land of moral perfection (Teddy Roosevelt who declared that he would do "battle for the Lord" to improve mankind during his term). But President Trump's antics since the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville confirm that with him we face the opposite danger: He will destroy the moral progress this country has made over the last 250 years.
Fortunately, ordinary Americans are waking up to that reality and rather than looking to the alleged conscience-in-chief to beat back the rising tide of racism and bigotry, they are taking matters in their own hands. This may well prove to be a healthy development that will strengthen national morality by decentralizing it.
America's founders were suspicious of presidents playing moral hero; James Madison even maintained that a president should have "no particle of spiritual jurisdiction." But not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that the country would one day be led by a moral moron who not only lacks moral common sense but also any feeling for this country's moral history.
The two fixed lodestars in America's moral map were set by its great struggles against slavery and Nazism. One can question the means that the nation deployed against these two evils but not that they were worth fighting. After all, they represent an affront to every sacred principle this country stands for—equality, liberty, and justice. America sacrificed over 750,000 soldiers (not counting the Confederate casualties), more than all its other conflicts combined, in the service of these two causes.
And yet Trump dumped cold water on them when he blithely elevated neo-Nazis to the same status as those protesting them, not once, but twice. Moreover, he implied that there was no big moral divide between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, on the one hand, and Robert E. Lee, on the other — never mind that Jefferson and Washington despised slavery whereas Lee, the confederate general, fought to preserve this cruel institution nearly a century later. Nor was Trump simply making a slippery slope argument when he warned that tearing down Lee's statue would inevitably visit the same fate on America's slave-owning founders. Indeed, after his original comments, he went even further, and lamented on Twitter the removal of "our beautiful statutes and monuments."
In other words, he is no longer even claiming—as some Southerners have the decency to do—that Lee's statues are warts that need to be preserved to remind us of our ugly history. No, they need to be maintained because they are "beautiful."
In light of this, more and more Americans are giving up on waiting for this president to change his tune. He is irredeemable. So they are spontaneously springing into action in ways big and small to counter the damage he is doing.
Many of the CEOs on Trump's White House business advisory panel and the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative council quit in disgust after his unhinged press conference last week, forcing him to disband the groups. His arts panel followed suit shortly after.
And Republicans, most of whom have not exactly distinguished themselves with the firmness of their backbone, lashing out too. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) launched his own twitter storm against Trump, lambasting him for coddling outfits whose ideas are responsible for the "worst crimes against humanity." Likewise, Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) along with Rep Justin Amash (Mich.) have condemned Trump in the strongest terms—although House Speaker Ryan (R-Invertebrate Land) was back to giving Trump a pass last night after his airy comments against "bigotry" and "hate" in his Afghanistan speech. Private parties are cancelling events at Trump facilities. And then there are all the cities that are rushing to tear down their Confederate monuments to register their disgust, completely backfiring on the white supremacists.
Even more noteworthy is the growing backlash not against Trump but the hate groups (and I use the term advisedly) that he is aiding and abetting. In Boston Sunday, the anti-supremacist protesters dwarfed the supremacist rally for "free speech." PayPal has invoked a clause in its contract that reserves the right to deny access to anyone who promotes "hate, violence, and racial intolerance" to cut off outfits like Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute, a white separatist think tank. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs cancelled a conference that VDARE, a nativist outfit, was planning to hold there next April.
To be sure, businesses, especially those such as PayPal that are general service providers, will have to be careful where they draw the line so that mere disagreement doesn't become grounds for exclusion. But precisely because there is a cost to businesses themselves when they shun someone, they have an inherent incentive in not going too overboard in quashing dissenters, unlike ideologically motivated Social Justice Warriors.
The best thing about the Trump presidency might be that he is mobilizing America's latent moral forces beyond the band of professional activists. If excessive presidential moralism extinguished them, Trump's massive moral abdication may reignite them.
A version of this column appeared in The Week