Trump, Vows, & Treason
Alexi Sargeant has a very strong First Things piece on why Trump’s character — specifically, his disregard for vows — ought to be a deal-breaker for Christians. He begins by quoting the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen on the sacredness of vows. Said Sheen, in part, “It is too terrible to contemplate what would happen to the world if our pledged words were no longer bonds.” Excerpt from Sargeant’s commentary:
Trump’s policies, such as they are, usually come down to America breaking its promises. In the debate, he doubled-down on his previous pledge to back out of defending our NATO allies (who came to our defense after 9/11). Later in the debate he casually said we can’t defend Japan, another nation with whom we have a mutual defense treaty. This promised perfidy is of a piece with his rhetoric about tearing up deals and starting trade wars. He then brushed off the idea that stop-and-frisk policing was unconstitutional—not by taking the chance to give us any sense of how he understands the Constitution, but with flat denials. It seems that, like America’s treaties, the Constitution is just another document waiting to be renegotiated.
Donald Trump’s appeal is bound up in his transgressive persona. He does what is Just Not Done. But conservatives who spin this as simply “shaking up the corrupt norms of a stale political class” are being naïve or willfully obtuse. Trump does not care from where a norm comes. His consistent approach—as a businessman, as a showman, as a Democrat, and now as a Republican—is to violate whatever norm is in place, as a demonstration of his own power.
What were most disturbing in his first debate performance were the times he chose to acknowledge his past dishonors brazenly, to frame them as matters of pride. This was how he reacted when confronted about his refusal to release his tax returns (“that makes me smart”), his bilking of contractors (“I was unsatisfied with his work”), and his tax-dodging (“it would have been squandered”).
Donald Trump seems to think that backing out of agreements is laudable, as long it helps him get ahead. But any churl can break a vow. What takes character, in politics, business, or marriage, is to make a vow and keep it, come what may.
Read the whole thing. He’s right, you know. One of the themes in Dante’s Commedia is the terrible political consequences that result when people break their vows. Dante the poet was exiled through the constant strife in Florence, and throughout Italy. In his fictional person, a pilgrim through the afterlife, Dante learns that so much of the violence and discord that has torn Italian society apart has to do with the inability of people to trust others to be true to their word. In the Inferno, the lowest level of Hell is reserved for Traitors, the worst of whom — those whose treason had wide social consequences — are immobilized in a lake of ice for eternity. In Dante, punishments fit the crime. For Traitors, who lived with no ultimate loyalties except to themselves, because that preserved the absolute freedom of their will, the just punishment was to be frozen in place forever.
Why are Traitors the worst of all sinners, in Dante’s scheme? For one thing, they make social and communal life impossible. If you cannot count on people to honor their vows, you never know what is real, and who is trustworthy. For another, as the pilgrim Dante learns in Paradiso, free will is God’s greatest gift to a man. To make a vow is to make a gift of God’s gift — that is, to pledge one’s sacred liberty, to a cause, person, or institution, out of love. If vows are tossed aside lightly, love is cheapened, and the order of the entire universe is weakened. By breaking vows, we weaken the power of love and goodness in the world. This is how our free will, the gift most precious to God, the gift that tells us the most about His nature, becomes a source of disharmony and debilitation within ourselves and the community.
As Sargeant says, the foulness of Trump’s character came out when he expressed pride in violating his obligations, praising his own intelligence and cunning in screwing over others. Do you really think that if it came down to it, Donald Trump could be trusted to protect and defend the honor and good faith of the United States of America? Do you think he could even be loyal to America’s best interests if they conflicted with the best interests of his businesses?
How could anybody, Republican or Democrat, or the leaders of any nation, believe a thing this man promises? He revels in being a traitor to his vows and promises. And let’s say that as president, he came to think of himself as the nation’s CEO, and approached diplomacy with these gutter ethics — and succeeded. What kind of lesson would that teach? It would corrupt the public’s morals even worse than they already are.
Look, many of us believe, with very good reason, that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy. Trump is in another league entirely on this front. If the presidential contenders had Dungeons & Dragons alignments, Hillary would be lawful evil, and Trump would be at best neutral evil, at worst, chaotic evil. No good will come out of this election for faithful orthodox Christians. But there are meaningful gradations of evil, and Alexi Sargeant’s meditation on the sacredness of vows for the sake of maintaining social order illuminates an important difference between these two dreadful, dreadful candidates.
UPDATE: Let me clarify something. I fully believe that the US should renegotiate the NATO alliance treaty, and possibly even that NATO should break up. I accept that any treaty is up for renegotiation; that’s normal. What I object to is the idea that the U.S. president could unilaterally decide to abrogate a treaty, especially one as fundamental to stable world order as the NATO treaty. If we are to leave NATO, then that should be done as the result of an orderly process, not because the commander-in-chief has decided that it’s no longer in our national interest to defend NATO allies, sending a signal to Russia that it’s okay to retake the Baltics. To be sure, I think it was extremely unwise to extend NATO to the point of including the Baltics (which undeniably have been the victim of Russian imperialism). But the world has to be able to count on the US making good on its treaty obligations as long as they stand … just as the world economic system has to be able to count on the US’s willingness to pay its sovereign debt (another thing Trump said offhandedly that we may default on).