Is Moral Clarity Possible in Donald Trump’s America?
Kelly Denton-Borhaug* – TomDispatch
On Truth-telling, Confession and First-Class Lies
Recent episodes of purposeful and accidental truth-telling brought to my mind the latest verbal lapse by George W. Bush, the president who hustled this country into war in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. He clearly hadn’t planned to make a public confession about his own warmongering in Iraq when he gave a speech in Texas this spring. Still, asked to decry Russian president Vladimir Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, Bush inadvertently and all too truthfully placed his own presidential war-making in exactly the same boat. The words spilled out of his mouth as he described “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine.”
Initially, he seemed shocked that he had blurted that out and tried to back off his slip by shrugging and muttering, “Iraq, too,” as if it were a joke. Some in his audience even laughed. But his initial attempt to sideline his comment only deepened the hole he was in. Then he tried another ploy. He suggested that his slip could be forgiven or excused because of his age, 75, and that his invasion and the destruction of Iraq could now be forgiven because of his cognitive decline. All in all, it was a first-class mess.
An Earlier Pathetic Attempt at Comedy
I remember another of Bush’s attempted jokes that got an immediate laugh from his audience, but soon fell seriously flat. It was in 2004. The Iraq War was underway and the president was at the yearly dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, a black-tie event attended by both journalists and politicians.
After various comedy sketches, then-President Bush rose to present a short meant-to-be humorous slideshow featuring himself supposedly looking for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Remember that, in the lead-up to war there, Americans were hammered with fearful and deceptive political messaging, emphasizing that only an invasion could stop that country’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, from having WMD. (None were ever found, of course.) At that dinner, Bush showed photos of himself supposedly searching for those devastating weapons in the Oval Office beneath a cushion on the couch and under the desk. “No weapons under there! Maybe they’re here!” said the smiling president repeatedly in a sing-song voice, as if engaged in a child’s game. Horrifyingly enough, many in that audience of journalists did indeed laugh.
I was offended then, just as I was by Bush’s recent slip and his sorry attempts to minimize and excuse his responsibility for the blood on his hands, the massive death toll from his invasion, and so much additional destruction and suffering. According to The Costs of War project, more than 207,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in that nightmare, while the number who died from the indirect violence of that war was far higher, given the damage done to the Iraqi health care system and the rest of that devastated country’s infrastructure. More than 20 years later, people are still dying needlessly. And I also mourn the more than 7,000 U.S. servicemembers who died in the post-9/11 war zones Bush created, as well as the many more who were wounded.
I can’t help but wonder if George Bush doesn’t feel at least a little of this himself. Otherwise, why would he have made such a slip? Or maybe it wasn’t a slip at all, but an inadvertent confession.
That his telling gaffe about Iraq and Ukraine received so little attention certainly reveals something about our media’s ongoing uneasiness with Bush’s wars and perhaps the conflicted feelings of our citizenry as well when it comes to what they did (and didn’t do) during the Iraq War. How many who were initially enthusiastic about the Afghan and Iraq wars would now, like their former president, admit we were wrong? How many people who supported those conflicts have taken what happened to heart and are thinking more deeply about an American propensity for war and the war culture that goes with it? Like George W. Bush, too few, I’m afraid.
This past July 24th, the New York Times featured “I was wrong” op-ed pieces by a number of its columnists. The editors defined “being wrong” as “incorrect predictions and bad advice,” as well as “being off the mark.” Of course, one of the definitions of the Greek word for “sin” (amartia) in the New Testament is “missing the mark.” Fascinating.
I would have taken the editors’ definitions further though. Saying “I was wrong” means more than “rethinking our positions on all kinds of issues,” as the Times suggested. Often, the problem isn’t simply that people lack the best, most up-to-date information or data. Only by digging into ethics and social psychology will we better understand why people deceive not just others but even themselves with lies, slippery rationalizations, or comedic attempts at distraction to cover up deeper dynamics that have to do with privilege and power, or what religious traditions sometimes call “worshipping false idols.”
Moral psychologist Albert Bandera has explored some of the diverse mechanisms people rely on to morally disengage and excuse inhumane conduct. They shift their rhetoric and thinking to redefine and even rename what they are doing, “sanitizing” language (and their acts) in the process. In this way, they often shift responsibility onto someone else, minimize any damaging consequences for themselves, and dehumanize the victims of the violence they’ve let loose.
But there are other examples of moral disengagement that are even harder to understand. In such cases, people make decisions and act in ways that even undercut their own self-interest and values. For me, one of the saddest recent examples is Stephen Ayres, a witness at the House select committee’s January 6th hearings this summer. He had been part of the Trumpist mob that stormed the Capitol. A family man who, until then, owned a house and had a job with a cabinet company, Ayres came across in those hearings as a lost soul who couldn’t fully comprehend how he had willingly injured himself and his family by idolizing Donald Trump and his election lies.
His arrest for participating in the insurrection resulted in the loss of almost everything he had. With his wife sitting behind him, he testified about having to sell his house, losing his job, and struggling to come to terms with his actions. “I wish I had done my own research,” he said, trying to explain how he could have been so easily deceived by Trumpist lies regarding the 2020 presidential election.
Clearly, the social media bubble he slipped into that captivated and compelled him to head for Washington had given his life new meaning and an otherwise missing sense of excitement. He hadn’t planned to enter the Capitol building that day but was swept away by the moment. “Basically, we were just following what [Trump] said,” Ayres testified. In handing over his critical thinking to right-wing social media and a president intent on hanging onto power at any cost, he unwittingly also handed over his capacity for moral deliberation and, in the end, his very life.
Liz Cheney’s Struggle for Moral Clarity
In recent weeks, Liz Cheney, vice-chairperson of the January 6th committee, was questioned about a past moral choice of hers by Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview — specifically, how years ago she threw her lesbian sister and family under the bus for political purposes. It was a time when Cheney was struggling to get elected in conservative Wyoming. That meant coming out as anti-LGBTQ. Now, she says, “I was wrong” to have condemned her sister then.
Listening to her, I wanted to hear more about such moral grappling and how, in these years, her convictions had or hadn’t changed when it came to people, religion, family, political life, power, and the role her father played as George W. Bush’s vice president in those godforsaken wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, Stahl didn’t push her further.
I disagree with Liz Cheney on almost every policy position she’s taken in these years. Nonetheless, I find myself grateful for her rejection of Donald Trump’s mad election claims and her determined, even steely, leadership of the January 6th committee hearings. Cheney eventually discovered her moral bearings on her sister’s sexual orientation and family life. Now, I wonder if that past moral struggle influenced her decision to throw political expediency to the wind regarding her own House seat in a Wyoming primary that she might lose on August 16th. After all, by resisting the Trumpian tide, she’s become one of the few Republicans willing to do some serious truth-telling.
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Today, Cheney finds herself in another league from most of her party’s leaders and power players. In the state where I live, Pennsylvania, Republicans are coalescing behind the candidacy of Doug Mastriano for governor. Candidate Mastriano not only wants to arm school employees, but according to my local newspaper, he even organized buses for January 6th, now “rubs shoulders with QAnon conspiracy theorists,” and until recently had an active social media account at Gab, a site well-known for its white supremacist and anti-semitic rhetoric.
Mastriano continues to spread Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, is a Christian nationalist, and believes in an abortion ban without exceptions, and the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, Republicans like Andy Reilly, a member of the state GOP national committee, rationalize their support for Mastriano by saying things like, “When you play team sports, you learn what being part of a team means… Our team voted for him in the primary.”
Lying to Others and Oneself
What enables such self-deception? According to journalist Mark Leibovich, author of Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, what “made Trump possible” even after the January 6th insurrection was “rationalization followed by capitulation and then full surrender.” Reviewing Leibovich’s book, Geoffrey Kabaservice added this: “The routine was always numbingly the same, and so was the sad truth at the heart of it. They all knew better.” In other words, “knowing better” doesn’t assure anyone of doing the right thing. Instead, too many Americans were swayed by “greed, ambition, opportunism, fear, and fascination of Trump as a pure and feral rascal.”
Tim Miller, author of Why We Did It: Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, adds “hubris, ambition, idiocy, desperation, and self-deception” to the mix of reasons why so many politicians do what they do. “How do people justify going along?” he asks. But he, too, played that game once upon a time. A Republican gay man with a husband, he rationalized helping the GOP pass anti-LGBTQ legislation by “compartmentalizing” his personal life from his professional one. As he now says, “Being around power, being addicted to power,” along with the insatiable compulsion to “be in the room where it happens,” is a recipe that leads people to act self-deceptively, while deceiving others.
It’s like placing scales over your own eyes and those of others, to blind as many people as possible, yourself included, to the immorality of your acts. And some lie even more to themselves, claiming that they can resist the worst tendencies of destructive power-mongering. They say, “We need to have good people in the room” to stop the worst from happening, even as they capitulate to power players and justify what should never be justified.
Many of us are waiting to hear an “I was wrong” from so many politicians (though I can’t imagine Donald Trump ever succumbing to honesty), including most of the Republican leadership. Just for starters, I’d like to hear “I was wrong” regarding Muslim bans, the demonization of immigrants, the refusal to seriously address gun violence, the denial of women’s human rights, the gerrymandering and weakening of voting rights, religious nativism, and sidling up to white supremacy, not to speak of the supposed “steal” of the 2020 election. But given the likelihood that people in power will lie to themselves and others, I’m not holding my breath.
Telling the Truth about U.S. Military Spending
What I’m also waiting for is an “I was wrong” from both Democratic and Republican politicians in Washington who, year after year, support ever more outlandish military budgets, despite so many other existential crises in our country and on the planet, despite the death-dealing costs of war to the servicemembers Americans claim to highly esteem, and despite the fact that our violence abroad simply hasn’t worked.
Remember that the United States spends more than half of its entire discretionary federal budget on militarization and war, a tally greater than the military budgets of the next nine highest-spending countries combined. Tragically, it doesn’t appear that this will change any time soon.
According to an analysis by the anti-corruption group Public Citizen , in 2022, the congressional armed services committees only added to the already gigantic military budget the Biden administration requested for 2023. The House added another $37.5 billion, while the Senate added $45 billion. Our leaders refuse to learn from the last decades of unremitting war. Instead, power and privilege continue to hold sway.
As the same report explained, after military-industrial-complex corporations donated $10 million to congressional armed services committee members, “the Department of Defense received a potential $45 billion spending increase.” This was in addition to the president’s $813 billion recommendation. The report concluded, “The defense contractors will have clinched a return on its $10 million investment of nearly 450,000%.”
It’s discouraging to see how deception and rationalization so regularly undermine truth and moral courage. It’s also sobering to witness individuals who willingly lie to themselves and, in doing so, subvert their own and others’ wellbeing. But I’m also encouraged by times when, as with Liz Cheney on that committee, some of us demonstrate what it means to dig deeply for moral clarity against the prevailing headwinds of moral disengagement, disinformation, power, and privilege.
The fact is that truth-telling and confession, while difficult, are good for the soul. I wish for more and hope it will be enough. God knows, all of us and this beleaguered planet truly need it.
*Kelly Denton-Borhaug, a TomDispatch regular, has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Cultur