The Commanding Heights of America’s Ethical Code

Note: This essay was originally published on January 24, 2018, at (

Almost 100 years ago Vladimir Lenin sought to placate his Bolshevik supporters who were upset that some capitalistic elements were being allowed into the fledgling Soviet command economy. He assured them that the state would retain control of its key sectors–the “commanding heights” of the economy.

Our presidents have always occupied a special place on the “commanding heights” of America’s moral-ethical code, specifically, our code of behavior of how we treat each other as citizens and as human beings. In addition to being the Commander-In-Chief of America’s armed forces, we expect our president also to be the CINC of American Civicism and Civility, embodying such traits as patriotism, honesty, integrity, moral courage, courtesy, and respect for the dignity of all people.

By way of contrast, we might consider the apparent ethical code of that formidable and dreaded leader of the Mongols, Genghis Khan, who in the 12th and 13th centuries, conquered so much of Eurasia. The Secret History of the Mongols gives us an indication of his ethical code: “Man’s highest joy is in victory: to conquer one’s enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.”

Offended by breaches of the unwritten American ethical code for presidents, we were disappointed when President Richard Nixon obstructed justice, spoke like a common thug on the tape recordings, and clearly held himself above the law. As well with President Bill Clinton, we did not like his un-presidential quibbling with words, saying in his interrogation: “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Over the past generation, a decline in the American moral-ethical code has become apparent, suggested by the decline of our moral-ethical vocabulary. Even our use of the words “ethics” and “morality” has seemed to decline in the public square. In their place we tend now to use the more general, multi-meaning word “culture.” For example, when Peggy Noonan, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, asserted the need for more “gentlemen” in American society, she did not use either word. Rather she spoke of how “[o]ur culture has been so confused for so long on so many essentials ….”

The divisive Sixties had the effect of fuzzying our once more uniform American moral-ethical code and legitimatizing other codes. Over the past generation clearly two other factors have been at work undermining even more so the American ethical code. The first is the decline in moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church, for millennia a source of ethics, from the abortion debate and also from its sex abuse scandal. The second is the ubiquitous penetration of the Wild-West, anything-goes digital world, devoid of any ethical code, into our daily lives. This stunned me ten years ago when I entered my first online chat group and one writer called a female politician a “c—t.” I immediately looked over my shoulder, hoping in vain that some moral or legal authority might intervene.

Considering the state of the commanding heights of the American economy, we may thank President Donald Trump and the Republican tax cut for having a positive influence on the economy. At 4.1% the unemployment rate is the lowest figure in a decade, and the stock market has risen some 25% since his election. However, American civilization is more than just political economy, and it needs more that a good CEO of the economy to persist and to progress.

In this regard, we may criticize Trump for his poor example at the heights of America’s ethical code, such as his petulance, vindictiveness, self-centeredness, boastfulness, his dishonor toward John McCain’s time as a POW, and his objectifying of women. And make no mistake of the importance of this to the American civilization. The words and actions of the leader of America, of any country, sends cues—good or bad—to its citizens, cues which are repeated by its citizens.

Meryl Streep was correct then in her dramatic speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards. In a clear reference to Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter, she went on to say: “And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, spoke to one of the purposes of government in his message to Congress in the opening months of Civil War, July 4, 1861: “On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men … to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Having completed one year in office, Trump’s moral-ethical code is fairly clear. Perhaps he has elevated me economically, but ethically he has diminished me, and I truly regret that I cannot hold him up as a role model to my grandchildren.

In the absence of a true Commander in Chief of Civicism and Civility, it is then especially imperative that other governmental, civic, religious, and community leaders and parents step up to the challenge and occupy the commanding heights of America’s ethical code.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, and is a monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.

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9 Responses to The Commanding Heights of America’s Ethical Code

  1. Fred,
    Your article about President Trump’s ethics is over the top. To compare a 12 year old secret tape, Nixon’s swearing, an opinion about McCain and a “tongue in cheek” joke about a pundit as proof of his unethical behavior is not reality. (bad taste maybe) McCain leaves a disfigured wife for a model and millionaire, JFK having affairs in WH, LBJ’s constantly using the “N” word…list goes on forever. (Yes men with imperfections all). Yet as Lincoln once said of Grant, “I can’t fire him this man fights!” I strongly suggest getting over your dislike for our President’s personality and support him. Why? Because he will do more good for all Americans, including, Blacks, Latino, Whites and every other color and ethnic minority.
    “This man fights!”

  2. Fred Zilian says:

    Thanks for your forceful reply. I am heartened by his State of the Union which rekindles my hope he shall indeed grow into the position of President. I know he is a fighter and I know he comes with great business savvy and influence; however, a president needs more than that: a thick skin (like Lincoln), a respect for all (like Reagan), a defender of basic human rights (all recent presidents), an ability to touch the heart (most presidents). I am certainly happy about my investment portfolio, but can he help to lead us out of this culture of violence we find ourselves in? And I do get quite upset when I must shield my grandchild from his example. One can be a fighter without being poorly mannered.
    Nice reference to Lincoln and Grant. I am now reading “Grant,” the latest from Ron Chernow–really excellent biography. I recommend it to you.

  3. Fred,
    Once again you have very strong opinions about President Trumps demeanor and behavior in office. Most of what you have related is false. Lincoln did have a thick skin but President Trump has equally think skin. No President in our history has been subjected to a “Maelstrom” of fake news…false verbal attacks and outright lies. President Trump has a long history of defender of human rights in the workplace. His constant placement of women in leadership positions in his various companies, his generous gifts to Haiti, his constant employment of thousands of people of every color and creed, his ability to understand the root causes of urban dysfunction, his awards from NAACP, American Freedom Award (at the same time as Rosa Parks), and so many personal gifts to people in need without any fanfare…these are the facts! His ability to touch hearts? How can’t you see his literally hugging many injured soldiers at various hospitals and say he doesn’t touch hearts?
    President Trump is in many ways Grant, Lincoln, Reagan and Washington all rolled into one.
    He is the transformational leader our Nation has needed for 80 years.
    Does he sometimes uses direct (upsetting) communications in office? Yes…but remember he is not from the polished political class who can lie to you with gibe words and phrases.
    I am teaching my Grand children to understand what our new and great President is doing for our country. They like him.
    History is filled with Great Leaders who have had bold ways of communicating their hopes, and needs in crisis situations. Lincoln’s declaring the Emancipation Declaration was considered crude and over the top during his Presidency, Eisenhower sending troops to the south to enforce Civil Rights, Washington attacking the British during our revolution, Caesar demanding his authority from the Senate, Churchill sounding the early warnings about Hitler…all of these were verbally considered crude and over the top during their times.
    I suggest your prejudices about his personality are preventing you from seeing our Presidents’ true worth.
    Unfortunately we have a generation of children who don’t know how to handle any type of adversity or be able to deal with a variety of people who don’t hold their views. Our Education system is guilty of producing these “snowflakes” who need days off because they can’t handle micro aggressive words? Universities have become havens of sissies who hand out trophies to all participants in all events. Net result, children grow up with false values and the inability to work in the real world…We give degrees in “Gender Studies”, “Hip-Hop and Rap Studies”, “Community Organizing”, “Community Sociology”, “Black Studies”, “Hispanic Studies”, “Communication” ? All of these degrees add to the growing populations of untrained young adults. (They end up in parents basement watching TV and playing with their Xboxes) Our public education system has forgotten how to teach the basics, Math, Reading, and Writing. Instead our schools are filled with unqualified Community College Graduates teaching social justice, welfare entitlements, sociology, psychology, and a variety of political correct courses which don’t help them with their basic education skills.(Kids leave school thinking their country America) is a racist, unjust, selfish, place. Teachers actually embrace the idea of victimology for all minorities and welfare students?

  4. Fred Zilian says:

    Dan, Thank you for your long, deliberate, and sincere comment. I appreciate the time you devoted to it. I continue to be amazed at how we can both be talking about the same man. Fred

    • Fred,
      I appreciate your scholarship with reference to all the well written articles in your blog. My problem is your refusal to examine all the evidence with regard to both Donald Trump and President Obama. The differences are striking! Trump follows “The rule of Law” and stresses the need to alleviate American greatness while Obama spent 8 years preaching a false narrative about our history much like the Communist Howard Zinn. Of course being the first Black President Obama got a pass on his personal history of radical mentors, his disdain and hate of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, his racist comments at every opportunity like “The Beer Summit” where he stated the Cambridge Police, “Acted stupidly!” When actually it was his Harvard friend
      Professor Gates who acted stupidly, inviting the terrorist group BLM to the White House, stating Treyon martin could be his son, backing a “Witch Hunt” with his AG Holder after Michael Brown a teenage criminal attacked a police officer the list goes on and on…Every issue confronting Obama was viewed through his prism of a “Community Organizer” (code for Progressive Leftwing Socialist if not Communist with racial overtones).
      He was elected because Obama was as VP Biden said, “A Clean looking Black fellow!” Obama came to the office with a surge of good-will and “Rock Star Status” because of his centrist speeches and inclusive rhetoric. The “darling” of the left leaning Media never covered his “Community Organizing, his 20 years in front of Rev Wright’s Black Liberation theology, his Communist family both Mother and Father. His Grandparents Communist affiliations and attitudes.
      The Europeans only had to look at Adolph Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” to understand his agenda.
      Yet the Germans media and other Europeans never truly research who Hitler was..!” A great book of the time, “As Europe Slept” describes Germany’s advancement of National Socialism by Hitler.
      Similarly, the World Press and American media ignored (and continues to ignore*) Obama’s writings and past behavior and political views. All they had to do was look at his family through is book, “Dreams of my Father” which was his Mein Kampf. In the book he glorifies his father as a anti-Colonialist African, who was a Harvard scholar*, Communist, and anti-White (racist views…) His mentors included a variety of Communists, and strategists from the Saul Alinsky school. (‘Rules for Radicals”)
      Had any white politician ran for President with that type of baggage he would have been laughed at!
      But the possibility of the “First Black President” over rode all vetting and logical understand of who Obama really was and is…Yet on every college campus he is venerated as being a hero to all the minorities in the World. College Professors are afraid to do the honest research and publish Obama distain if not hate for America’s “Rule of Law” and his past history of anti-Americanism.
      All because of political correctness and the fear of being called a “Racist!” Sad and Pathetic that even on the college campuses today freedom of speech and study is all monitored by the left.

      *His Father entered Harvard with a phony resume, he was a drunk, womanizer, bigamist, AND DIED while operating a motor vehicle drunk. leaving several widows and a group of children who he never provided for.

      * Obama is current refusing to leave office with his OFA (Organization for Action). Basically his old campaign apparatus with 235 field offices with over 35,000 volunteers and over 4000 paid workers to resist every piece of legislation President Trump and the Republicans propose. George Soros is backing this group with a donation of over 100 million dollars. (3 miles from the White House) These are not the actions of a retired President but a traitor or fifth column. Joe McCarthy may have been vilified by history but he did rid our country of many active Communist during a period of the Iron Curtain. (Recently release book details his successes and failures)

      Fred, have you researched OFA and compared it to past actions of Presidents leaving Office?
      OFA is just another continuation of his Globalist ideas and need for political power. Obama can’t win the right, center and now even the marginally left part of the Democratic party. Pelosi and Schumer’s’ leadership is waning. I predict the Democratic Party will split during the 2020 Presidential Election cycle. The old radical leftwing will continue to offer the welfare, socialist state and the New Democratic Party will represent the centrist like Manchin and other who want to keep American values but change the system within the guidelines of the Constitution. The Nationalist, Old White, Bible holding, gun toting values are not dying but have been reinvigorated by this obscene attack by the left. President Trump I predict is just the beginning of a major backlash

    • David Cay Johnston, “The Making of Donald Trump”* just another New York Times hack gunning for our President. The idea he worked for the NYT and won a Pulitzer Prize for literature gives you insight into his bias against our President. You are basing your complete opinion about our President on one book*? Please…also if you want balance you have to look at Obama’s history.
      Why don’t you want to address Obama as it relates to our President? The examples I have outlined speak volumes about how Mr. Trump is returning us to our American values. I can’t believe you actually used his “Quotation his about more emigrants from Northern Europe (Norway) as some how being racist? Fred you are really drinking the Kool-Aid with the “Snowflakes..”

      *Your examples of President Trumps’ on just about everything are very weak and mostly
      based on “feelings” not facts.
      *If Donald Trump did just a portion of what Johnston alleges he would be in Federal Prison for 200 years. “Loopholes” in our business law is part of the system. Yes, Mr. Trump did have a way to use those laws to his benefit just like every American during tax season. If its legal you take the deduction. Fred have you ever taken a deduction? Also why are you so concerned about Mr. Trumps taxes. He is not interested in yours? Your arguments don’t attack the facts I have presented about Obama? How can you make a judgement on Mr. Trump without researching his predecessor? We are talking about Presidents not just the ethics of one man.

  5. Fred Zilian says:

    Many thanks for your extensive comment. A few points:
    – It strikes me how you tend to want to talk about how bad Obama was. I do not want to talk about Obama; I want to talk about Trump.
    – No, I have never read a well-researched, dispassionate book about Obama and probably never will. However I have on Trump: David Cay Johnston, “The Making of Donald Trump,” based on 30 years of experience watching and researching Trump.
    – To clear the record, I voted for “change” the first time; however, I felt Romney was the better candidate the second time and I also felt Obama had made too many mistakes in foreign policy, eg, “leading from behind”; the crossed “red line” that was never acted upon.
    – Dan, you tend to label everything you do not like as “communist.” Communism is a dead model. No one is trying to resurrect Cold War era communism.
    – Obama compared to Hitler and Mein Kampf. You are kidding me, right?
    – As an optimist, I still hope Trump grows into the position. However, I want more than a CEO of the Economy. Much more. It concerns me when he seems to equate his success using the stock market. I am quite concerned about:
    — All the vacancies in his administration
    — The high turnover rate
    — His” leading” by tweet
    — His insatiable need to be in the limelight, to be “in the news” constantly.
    — His apparent mindset that longs for the good old days (1940s and 1950s). They were not that good.
    — “More immigrants from Norway” ???
    — His lack of courtesy/respect for people
    — His pandering to his base
    Lastly, could you please finally get me a copy of his income tax return. What is he hiding?
    Stay warm up there, my friend.

    • Communism and Communists still roam this earth. Except now they have modified and consolidated their ideas and dogma around GLOBALISM. OBAMA’S need for constant adulation is exponentially more then Trump.
      The “Fake News Book has zero creditability, yet you haven’t read OBAMA’S books? My comparison to Hitler’s book is relevant when looking at Obama’s record in office. How about Dr Gruber’s lies (MIT Professor) about Obamacare…Before dissing me please do the research on Obama…It may be politically incorrect for a Professor to question liberal ideology but the truth is worth the effort.
      I don’t long for the 40s, 50s,and 60’s! I long for the truth…

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