Using family contacts to advance your business seems normal to Trump voters but enrages others, says Joyce McMillan
Earlier this week, in the House of Commons, there was a bit of a row over the UK government’s sudden move to suspend the programme under which David Cameron’s government had undertaken to accept just 3,000 child refugees from Syria. It was a strikingly mean-minded decision, by any measure; even before it, the numbers being accepted for resettlement in Britain represented a pretty shameful drop in Syria’s vast ocean of need.
Yet when various oppositions speakers rose to condemn the government’s action, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd seemed annoyed; they should not, she said, be taking such a “high moral tone”. It’s an odd thing to say, on a subject with such clear moral implications.
Yet perhaps Ms Rudd’s words are not so strange, in the context of the new transatlantic right-wing order into which we are now being swept; for in this new world, it seems, anyone who takes a moral or ethical view on anything is ripe for dismissal as either a hopeless idealist, or a hypocrite, or both. Theresa May’s rush to Washington to flatter Donald Trump was a wise piece of policy, we’re told, and not to be questioned; Mr Speaker Bercow, by contrast, should “consider his position” after daring to say that that a US President openly hostile to the idea of an independent judiciary, and elected on a clearly racist and sexist platform, should not be invited to address both houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall.
And this ethos of mocking hostility to what were once publicly accepted moral codes clearly accounts in great measure for Donald Trump’s election itself. His voters were not deterred by any of his obvious moral failures, from his deliberate ethnic hate-mongering, to his boasting about how he sexually harasses women; when it emerged that he may not have paid any tax for decades, his fans roared their approval of his own view that “that doesn’t make me a criminal, that makes me smart”.
And this week, the tale of the Trump presidency’s willingness to break the boring old rules of civic decency took another powerful turn, with the emergence of both the President’s wife, Melania, and his daughter, Ivanka, as businesswomen shamelessly intent on using their closeness to the President to enhance their commercial opportunities. Ivanka was already under criticism for using the first family media appearance after her father’s election as a chance to advertise an item from her jewellery range; and now, her father and his White House press representative have both been sounding off about her loss of a contract with the retail chain Nordstrom.
Meanwhile, Melania has filed a libel suit against the Daily Mail - which briefly alleged that she had once worked as an escort - in which her lawyers argue that the damage done to her reputation is ruining her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, during her years as First Lady, to develop and promote her brand of luxury goods. This is certainly a far cry from the usual talk about charitable work that accompanies the arrival of a new First Lady. To Trump’s supporters, though, it is all evidently just fine. If the business of America is business, then using your family contacts to advance your business is just natural human behaviour, even when your husband or parent has just become President of the United States.
And it’s easy enough to see, of course, where this popular revolt against boss-class morality and moralism is coming from. A generation of centre-left politicians who talked about social justice while schmoozing billionaires and amassing vast private fortunes, and who proclaimed high moral reasons for launching brutal and illegal foreign wars, have done more damage than can easily be calculated to the whole language of morality in politics.
Yet let’s not deny what is happening, when people begin to accept the “swamp” of influence-peddling, self-enrichment and casual nepotism that Donald Trump said he would drain, but has in fact, so far, only deepened. What is happening is the beginning of the decline of a great republic towards the status of a shabby pseudo-republic, a place with some of the outward trappings of dignified government, but with none of the deep republican virtues of fairness, restraint, civilised debate and genuine equality before the law that should accompany the outward show. That America is far from being the most corrupt country on earth is obvious; it is undoubtedly, for example, less corrupt than Romania, where in recent days hundreds of thousands of brave citizens have been demonstrating against attempts to undermine the country’s anti-corruption drive.
Yet to listen to civic activists from countries which have endured generations of routine corruption, and are now fighting back, is to hear the genuine voice of morality in politics; not some self-indulgent exercise of personal views about right and wrong, but a profound practical understanding that if societies are not fair, if they make no attempt at providing equal rights and opportunities, if they do not have institutions that try to abide by and enforce the rule of law, then in the longer term they only stoke up anger and unrest, underuse the talent of their people, provoke the enmity of their neighbours, and undermine their own economic and social development.
In politics, in other words, a sense of ethical grounding is not a luxury, but an essential for long-term success. So when American voters tell themselves that Trump’s rule-breaking doesn’t matter, or is a sign of vigour and authenticity, they tear up the ethical and constitutional ground on which the American dream of equality and opportunity is founded. When Amber Rudd says a “high moral tone” has no place in a discussion of child refugees, she ignores the natural response of almost all humanity to the sight of a child in need. And the fact that this short-sighted cynicism, and its accompanying distorted view of human nature, now passes for political wisdom among many in British public life, should give us all pause; if only because it is a creed associated not with future-building but with profound social decline, and not with hope, but with a despair as brutal as it is mocking, and ultimately destructive.