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Does the President Have Moral Authority?

by | Aug 14, 2017

On Saturday in Charlottesville, VA, violent clashes broke out at a white supremacist rally between supporters and protesters. The incident ultimately turned deadly when one of the white supremacists got in his vehicle and drove through a group of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring others.

Given the context of the event, it appears the action was deliberate and would constitute an act of terrorism–the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.

Politicians and public figures from across the political spectrum condemned the attack and white supremacist ideology more broadly.

President Donald Trump also spoke out on the violence, both on Twitter and at a previously scheduled public appearance. At his event, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Later on Twitter, Trump followed up by saying, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

Trump’s remarks were widely criticized for their general nature and their failure to condemn a specific group or ideology.

As a corrective, several people urged President Trump to use the (alleged) “moral authority” of the presidency to denounce the attack more forcefully.

For instance, Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, told ABC that Trump’s relative silence on the attack was “surrendering the moral authority of the office of the president of the United States.”

Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former communications director known for lasting only ten days on the job and swearing profusely in a New Yorker interview, shared similar concerns with ABC. “Whether it’s domestic or international terrorism, with the moral authority of the presidency, you have to call that stuff out,” Scaramucci said.

Finally, another take along these lines came from the usually reliable Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who wrote the following on Twitter:

.@POTUS, America’s children are watching. Denounce white nationalists & their evil ideology. They are enemies of liberty & our Constitution.

All of these views take for granted that the president of the United States has a unique level of credibility for addressing these issues. And, in the Amash version, American children are apparently looking to the president for moral guidance.

How does any of this make sense? Does any serious person believe the US electoral system is a good mechanism for selecting the most moral or incorruptible person?

Of course not.

Politics is a famously amoral business, and the US presidential election is no exception. At any given time, the president is just the person who was able to convince the most people that they were the least bad option for the job. Presumably, they accomplished this feat by smearing their opponents (for good or bad reasons), catering to well-financed special interests, and making promises that they had no intention of keeping. Needless to say, this type of competition is unlikely to yield an exceptionally virtuous person as the winner.

But the problems with the “moral authority” theory don’t end there. If by luck, the winning candidate was not a morally dubious character to start with, most would quickly become so as they began fulfilling the job description of the US president.

At present, that job description is generally thought to include prosecuting multiple wars from Somalia to Afghanistan, where civilian casualties are commonplace and our allies routinely commit their own atrocities like raping children. It also includes threatening additional countries with regime change, assassinating people based on suspicion, and locking people in a cage for consuming particular plants deemed to be off-limits.

I’d prefer the president’s job description didn’t include any of these things. But given the recent track record, this is certainly how the presidents themselves and the US political class view the proper role of the US commander-in-chief.

None of these actions is very moral. Indeed, if private individuals carried them out, they’d be guilty of crimes ranging in severity from terrorism to kidnapping.

And yet, the person who callously makes these deadly decisions all the time and who likely obtained power in the first place using less-than-pristine methods, this person is supposed to be a moral authority for the rest of us.

If anyone actually believes this, I think we’re in trouble.

That said, I still want the president to condemn violence like what happened in Charlottesville. It’s not because he has any moral authority; it’s because he has power, including the power to make things worse.

Eric Schuler

Eric Schuler

Eric Schuler is a contributor to The Libertarian Institute, with a focus on economics and US foreign policy. Follow his work here and on Twitter.

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