Can we redeem "civic virtue" in the age of Donald Trump? John Adams might have understood what just happened

Americans keep looking for simplistic answers in an imaginary past — but the founders may have useful advice

Published January 2, 2017 1:00PM (EST)

John Adams; Donald Trump; Paris Hilton   (Wikimedia/Getty/Mandel Ngan/Michael Dodge)
John Adams; Donald Trump; Paris Hilton (Wikimedia/Getty/Mandel Ngan/Michael Dodge)

Americans have an unusual capacity to swallow fairy tales about themselves. Even if it was discovered that Norman Rockwell was actually a child molester, the sentiment-infused, backward-directed vision of the hearth would smother all the newsworthy hypocrisies each generation must survive as it presses on in search of new ways to define community. This is why such terms as “family values” and “Mom’s apple pie” resonate, and why we insist we are a nation founded on a generous spirit and powered by a people’s “simple virtues.”

Every Christmas season the two Hallmark Channels release or replay a familiar holiday script. It goes as follows: An ambitious woman, living in the Big City and working her way up the corporate ladder or writing for a hot fashion magazine, is suddenly forced to discover that her life is empty and meaningless. She is sent to a small town, or somewhere pastoral, to swallow up local businesses or something equally predatory, and reconnects with the decent aspirations she once had but lost to selfish pursuit.  

Or, in an alternate version, said female is accidentally killed in a job-related accident, turned into an angel, and told she must help someone in order to save her soul. Naturally, it’s a down-to-earth widower with a precocious child and they require her aid.  Suddenly a light goes on, enabling her to see what was missing from her rat-race existence: the joy of domestic bliss. The supernatural experience ends up having been a test: Like Ebenezer Scrooge, she hasn’t really died, and so receives her second chance. With a permanent smile fixed on her face, she runs to the altar and settles into a life of suburban contentment.

It’s awfully hokey, but it works on the millions of middle-class Americans who wish to resist the purposeless feeling that daily striving delivers, when life is lived in the essential terms of feeding and clothing and borrowing for education, with today’s unfortunate twist of measuring happiness through the purchase of entertainment products. It’s not only wages that are stuck, frozen, immobile. There is a moral vacuum that fantasy fills – yet another psychological factor in the “Hail Mary” pass voters threw when they pulled the proverbial lever on Nov. 8, and got the vulgarian who represents nothing good. It was more than the angry white guy wanting his. Although there is a definite gender analysis coming.   

Not only is the Hallmark story taken from Charles Dickens, it shares his rather conventional portrait of the family as woman’s ideal domain. It is 2017, and Hallmark’s vaunted middle America has preserved in cookie dough the 1950s mom who adoringly practices every Christmas ritual. Is family the one haven in a heartless world? But how could anyone longing to smell that goodness in the oven vote for Donald Trump? 

We recently watched the excellent documentary "Minimalism," which is either the obverse of Hallmark’s conservative messaging or runs parallel to it. Giving up the Big City fast track and returning to a small town, while owning no more clothing than fits in a single suitcase, is the solution being proposed for Ivy League professionals and Wall Street gamblers who have suffered from burnout. Like childhood fantasies about Christmas and families bonded by love instead of consumerism, minimalism reflects an anti-materialistic desire to downsize: You of any age can thrive in a tiny home and turn in your car for a skateboard.  

Simple virtues. Altruism. That America. What could be more ironic than to encounter these visions at the close of this most ironic year of 2016? It’s been building up for years, and now the contrasts in America are so glaring as to be blinding. The real swamp to be drained is the serially disgusting cultural tangle of self-indulgence called “Reality TV,” that which produced the phony celebrity who insulted his way to the presidency. The pampered rich who have a perverse need for others to glare at them found a new vehicle a few years back with this cheap (and cheaply produced) eye-trash. We are reminded of Paris Hilton’s ridiculous show "The Simple Life," an updated version of "Green Acres," a long-ago hit starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose recent death has summoned eulogies about her life as a symbol of decadent Hollywood.  

Can anyone imagine Donald or Melania or their offspring giving up the gilded Fifth Avenue penthouse for a life of minimalism? Where are American values headed when the Hallmark retro-fantasy and the artful attempt at minimalism coexist in real time with the wretched excess of the Trumps and their ilk? This nation is the butt of a joke, but no one is laughing.

Neither Hallmark platitudes of generosity nor monkish anti-materialism make sense except in the way  hippie communes made sense in 1969, as a protest against social injustice. This is the so-called season of giving, at a dire moment of taking without regret. As Trump fills his cabinet with out-of-touch CEOs who don’t believe in climate change, the minimum wage, fair housing, public education, equal opportunity or that proverbial level playing field, we recognize that stock clichés about American values and virtues are passé. In Trump’s world, Scrooge keeps his money and souls go unsaved.

So how did the Norman Rockwell fantasy align with unabashed greed and narcissism? Rationalization is a strange thing. Trump enthusiasts claimed they loved his “raw honesty,” his unscripted style of speaking. To them, undomesticated crassness meant that he wasn’t one of the intelligentsia or the political elite. His anti-state posturing built on Tea Party resentment, but went back much further in the historical imagination. Andrew Jackson’s campaign in 1824 sold voters on a rude, blustering, ill-educated militarist as the virtuous outsider, a regular guy who would get rid of the parasites and flatterers who flocked to the Washington of the overeducated John Quincy Adams.

Jackson’s appeal was a lot like Trump’s in that he promised to voice the discontents of the deserving common (white) man. Jackson held up the simple life of the Tennessee back country as the “real” America. His political hero was Thomas Jefferson, who had long heralded the simple yeoman farmer as the ultimate source of civic virtue; yet Jefferson accepted that land-engrossing elites would continue to monopolize political offices.  

Our political mythology is stuck on the constant longing for an earlier-imagined simplicity, a return to fairness by stripping away barriers of bureaucracy. In America, the people have always demanded simple answers, as if “simple” was inherently virtuous. Those who embraced Steve Forbes’ flat-tax proposal a few election cycles ago decided it had to be better than what we had in place, because it was simple. The perverse appeal of Trump’s wall against Mexican immigration has a similar resonance: “It’s easy,” he said, giving the gullible a simple visual image of a big and powerful barrier – a one-step building project must be better than a dizzying array of incomprehensible immigration laws.

Americans need not bemoan the loss of civic virtue. The concept was flawed from the beginning. James Madison always assumed that government, if it were to solve problems, would have be guided by an intellectual elite capable of curbing the unruly excesses of those who too easily fell for a demagogue’s simple solutions. The founders were pretty unanimous that virtue derived in part from the ownership of property, from being invested in community and nation; and that only the wealthy could afford to serve in what were then poorly paid federal posts. John Adams felt that the fame attending national service would be all that could convince men in comfortable circumstances to hold office. In that sense, Adams probably would understand Trump better than the others of his generation. He wrote of men as “generally perfect slaves to the Love of Fame,” who “descend to mean tricks and artifices” in the pursuit of reputation.

These dated ideals – virtue, educated opinion, and disinterested sacrifice for the public good – are easily undermined. Educated opinion is distorted today as never before: modern media sensationalism, commercial sponsorship of every conceivable space, Internet tunnel vision, fake news. Fame has become an end in itself, counted in Twitter followers, YouTube viewers and the like. And then there’s the ongoing addiction to reality TV, where outright humiliation is tolerated so long as it insures the image-conscious of enduring popularity.  

Trump understands one thing. In business, on TV and in conducting a presidential campaign, all that matters is making the news. He was famous and infamous, but most of all he was a media tsunami. He was not to be avoided. Fame is Donald Trump’s drug of choice. Being famous gives a person an automatic market value, a faux-virtue that comes from virtual supremacy.

The American founders could never have conceived us. It’s long past time to give up the glorification of a simple, quaint, small-town mindset. Virtuous people, virtuous protests, virtuous boycotts and virtuous marches will not save democracy without a lot of help from supremely well-educated legal activists armed to the teeth with anti-corruption weapons. Old John Adams well understood that corruption comes from the top (the 1 percent) and the bottom (the unchecked passions of the easily manipulated). Back in the day, women were praised for their moral superiority gained through attention to domesticated virtues; by staying out of politics, away from the exercise of power, they remained clean.  

It is not a stretch to suggest that, with traditional impulses in play, Hillary Clinton was regarded as worse than a man in the same position, because her “crooked” ways brought back the chauvinist ideology of ages past: When a woman behaves like a man she not only loses her virtue, but as the “weaker vessel,” corrupts all that she touches. For many Trump supporters, the trait they admired most was the brutishness in his masculinity, his uninhibited delight in exacting revenge. Roguish arrogance, gut-level reactions, were the qualities expected of men in his position, qualities that somehow made him a safer choice than that “nasty woman” Hillary.

Virtue requires sacrifice, and it demands generosity, civility, concern and understanding. Civic virtue has thus been identified mainly with social institutions. Indeed, government is necessary to curb our worst behavior, ranging from financial greed to outright murder, because we can’t count on each individual to repress his selfish desires. One of the most fundamental duties of government is to protect citizens from harm, whereby the greater good must be insured without a gross violation of individual liberty.  

The balance between liberty and order can only be achieved through government. Government officials likewise must be checked and restrained by law. Trump pretended during the campaign that he would be above the law, that he would “make America great again” by sheer willpower. This is not the case. Shortly, he will be accountable for his every action -- perhaps for the first time in his life.

The presidential campaign was a sad sideshow for many reasons, beyond the unconscionable amount of money wasted on it and the endlessly shallow news coverage of personalities and non-issues. One of the less remarked-upon reasons why the misguided process proved to be so pathetic was the enduring belief that electing a president is a simple remedy to existing problems. Americans tend to imagine that an election is a kind of coronation, resulting in what our founders called an “elected monarch.” These days, voters seem to want that person to be a mirror image of themselves, which is why image is everything in American politics. Trump adherents were voting for a disruptor, someone who would clean up politics and reward forgotten and disinherited white Americans. They bought his nonsense, hook, line and sinker. Simple solutions can make voters feel good; but presidents rarely keep their promises and rapidly prove that they aren’t magicians.  

One lesson that may actually be learned from this election is that the partisan system is inherently flawed. Our two-party structure, this adversarial game of competition for the White House, has led Americans to believe that hating the other side is a virtue. Republicans wrap themselves in the flag or don their Christian halos, while Democrats see themselves as the expert class of policy wonks or gurus of cultural diversity. We ought to tone down our outfits, when we wear our party identity on our sleeves. Neither party is the fount of virtue. It’s not that politics has made us stupider, but it has made us smug. Practical virtue (if we go back to the 17th and 18th centuries) required listening, not simply asserting opinions. Admittedly, it is a lost art. But it is still worth thinking about.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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