Note: This essay was originally published on January 24, 2018, at thehill.com. (http://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/370563-the-commanding-heights-of-americas-ethical-code)
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.