President Trump ran for office significantly on an anti-corruption platform — "Drain the swamp!" — and yet he himself is significantly corrupt.
His supporters do not seem to mind. Or perhaps it is better to say they do not seem to notice. This is a puzzling thing for the rest of us, but The Atlantic's Peter Beinart in a fascinating recent piece proposed the confusion stems from differing conceptions of corruption.
Beinart cites Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor who will soon publish a book on the workings of fascism. "Corruption, to the fascist politician," Stanley writes, "is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician's denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order."
Thus, for Trump supporters, Beinart argues, Hillary Clinton is corrupt, not so much because of her specific actions but because of how her policies and the very idea of a woman as president damage traditional order. Trump, meanwhile, is not corrupt — regardless of what he and his campaign and administration may or may not have done in unfair or even illegal self-service — because he upholds "America's traditional identity."
The link to fascism may be instructive, but for me, the medieval sense of honor, order, and punishment are what come to mind. I should note I'm no expert in the medieval era, but I know something of this subject because these ideas were deeply influential for a theologian named Anselm, who a millennium ago developed a theory of Christ's atonement that remains important today and was part of the subject of my master's thesis at seminary.
Honor in medieval Europe was not merely about respect and reputation, as we understand it today, but about the order of society (at the human level) and the order of the universe (at the divine level). R.W. Southern, a medieval scholar at Oxford who wrote three biographies of Anselm, explains it thus:
In the language of feudal tenure a man's honor was his estate. The central feature of this estate was his landed property. But it also embraced his due place in the hierarchy of authority, his family background, and his personal honor. The fundamental crime against anyone was to attempt to diminish this complex of rights and status. The seriousness of the crime was quite independent of the rebel's immediate intentions or power to give effect to his intentions: It was his disloyalty, the loosening of the social bond, which made the outlaw. Conversely, it was the maintenance of the king's 'honor' which preserved his kingdom, of the baron's 'honor' which preserved his barony, and so on down the scale. 'Honor' was essentially a social bond which held all ranks of society in their due place. [Anselm: A Portrait in Landscape]
This way of thinking about honor meant medieval legal codes frequently assigned punishment based on the rank of offender and offended. The penalty for killing the king's deer, for instance, could range from a fine to death depending on the status of the accused. In this mindset, if a king and a peasant committed the same crime against the same person, it would be corrupt to give them the same punishment. To do so would undermine the honor of society — honor ostensibly ordained by God.
For most Westerners today, this is a very foreign way of thinking about justice. As children of the Enlightenment, we find it perfectly obvious that the punishment for a given crime must stay the same regardless of social status. To determine punishment by one's degree of honor is self-evidently corrupt.
But not everyone agrees. Though I wager you'd be hard pressed to find someone in America today who would offer a complete articulation of the medieval perspective on order and claim it as their own, this viewpoint has not been so thoroughly eradicated as we might think. Trump and his supporters are among its carriers, and his presidency has exacerbated their symptoms.
For Trump, society has a definite hierarchy that must be preserved. As president and a wealthy, white businessman, his own rank is the highest. Trump is our world's analogue to the king, and he has plenty of slithering court evangelicals feeding him assurances that his position is God-ordained. His children are, in his phrase, "high quality" too. The exact details of the rest of the hierarchy are debatable, but being female, poor, non-white, disabled, a Democrat, an immigrant, physically unattractive, a member of the media, or a Trump critic of any variety clearly lowers your marks.
So, to illustrate, Trump is very angry about NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem. He associates the anthem with himself as head of state and believes the players (in his mind, low honor people) have offended his high honor. He is also very angry about the murder of white Americans (high honor) by non-white immigrants (low honor). Trump believes his own enemies, like Clinton, deserve very large punishments; their honor is clearly at peasant levels. Anyone associated with or flattering of Trump, however, shares in his honor and therefore could not possibly deserve much punishment because any offenses they committed were against victims of lower status.
In this scheme, Trump and his compatriots always act to uphold the order of our society simply by virtue of who they are; therefore they cannot be corrupt. Trump's various low-honor enemies are inherently corrupt, inherently a threat to order, irrespective of the severity of their behavior. They should be punished accordingly.
We moderns have a habit of using "medieval" in a negative sense, which is only sometimes fair. Medieval sanitation, for instance, was horrific. Yet medieval people were not stupider than we are. They developed valuable new ideas and could boast of beauty and craftsmanship we have lost today.
But when it comes to justice, whatever logic the medieval idea of honor may have once held, I feel comfortable arguing it was rightfully superseded. The aim, though very imperfectly executed, to build "a government of laws and not of men" is one of our country's greatest virtues. It is a virtue the president's medieval sense of honor will not let him understand.