On the misconceptions surrounding Trump and men’s honor.
Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes a common mistake about honor. Actually, two common mistakes if you count his use of the word “honor” in the first place. So common are they, indeed, that it would hardly be worth pointing them out if they didn’t involve him in the outrageous falsehood that those Republicans who have supported the nomination or election of Donald Trump at any stage of his campaign over the past sixteen months have somehow been dishonored by so doing. Or, to use Mr. Douthat’s words: “In bending the knee to Trump last spring, they thought that they were buying party unity and a continued share of power, and paying for it with just a little of their decency, a mite of their patriotism, a soupçon of their honor.”
That “soupçon” is the first mistake. As pretty much everyone used to know, honor doesn’t come (or depart) in soupçons. It’s an all or nothing proposition—like “patriotism” or pregnancy, to both of which it was once, way back in the olden days when we had a proper honor culture, closely related. That’s why Hamlet says:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake.
One’s honor, that is, must be considered all of a piece, as much at stake over the straw as it is over any “great argument.” Once you lose it, it is gone entirely and forever, which is why it was formerly thought to be more important than mere life and death. In case Mr. Douthat hasn’t noticed, we don’t quite look at it that way anymore.
The other and more common mistake is to confuse honor with morality—or, worse, with one’s own private ideas about morality. Mr. Douthat is of course at liberty to say that, in his opinion, Mr. Trump is a very bad man, but it is not he who gets to decide if he is an honorable one. That is a matter for the honor group—in this case the Republican Party—which exists to uphold a quite different set of standards, most of them involving loyalty to the group. What’s confusing about Mr. Trump’s case, and as illustrative of the breakdown of the old honor culture as the Trump candidacy itself, is that the honor group (or at least a great many of those who still consider themselves members of it) have first been disloyal to him, not he to them.
It’s a bit unfair to blame them, however, since Mr. Trump proudly committed the cardinal sin against honor almost at the outset of his campaign by announcing that he would not agree to support any nominee of the party. In effect, he was saying that he would only join the honor group on his own terms and not permit it to exercise its time-honored right, formerly an unbreakable condition of membership, to judge him along with the other members. In claiming an exemption for himself from the obligation to submit to the judgment of his peers, Mr. Trump in effect licensed the exemption that others in the party have lately taken by denouncing him.
That Mr. Douthat doesn’t understand honor any better than Mr. Trump does only goes to show how silly it is for either man to attempt to impugn the honor of the other, let alone that of still others who, in no one knows what agonies of conscience, have decided to vote either for or against him. All have conspired together to render any residual obligations of honor in the matter a dead letter. None more so, either, than the putative honor group, which must have concluded (as pretty nearly everyone else did long before Mr. Trump came on the scene) that that antique honor culture which I outlined in my book Honor, A History, is an irrelevancy to our politics today, or else something to be remade according to individual taste—which would mean that it has only the brand name and nothing to do with honor at all.
Certainly honor is an irrelevancy in the larger and more noble sense it had in the days when it encompassed honorable gentlemen of both parties. Then, the larger honor culture—like the patriotism of which it was an expression—stood above partisanship itself and decreed that political differences could only go so far and no further. One honorable gentleman could not accuse another of lying, for instance, no matter how hot partisan fury burned or how evident that the second honorable gentleman had, in fact, lied. To do so would have been to sacrifice his own honor and, with it, the bonds of trust on which a working political culture depends. To suppose, as Mr. Douthat appears to do, that Mr. Trump is the cause and not the consequence of the shredding of those bonds of trust is to be blind to the central fact of America’s political culture over the past forty years—and to the fact that (as even Donald Trump knows) our political culture isn’t working.
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