Analysis

Trump completes the American right's drift into consequentialism

This is what happens when the ends justify the means — no matter what

"I like him. He likes me," President Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a recent campaign rally. "We would go back and forth, and then we fell in love."

It was an odd comment, even grading on a Trumpian curve. You love him? That Kim Jong Un, the one with the death camps and the brainwashing and the megalomania? I am as enthusiastic about diplomatic engagement with North Korea as anyone can be — this is one point on which I've been happy to praise Trump's direction in the last six months — but diplomacy is perfectly possible without jovial announcements of deep camaraderie with a murderous dictator.

CBS journalist Leslie Stahl raised that very issue in her 60 Minutes interview with the president Sunday. "Sure. I know all these things. I mean, I'm not a baby. I know these things," Trump replied. And as for his relationship with Kim, he added, "let it be whatever it is to get the job done."

Let it be whatever it is to get the job done. This is consequentialism, the ethical system that says what matters is not so much what you do but what consequences your actions produce. In shorthand, the ends justify the means. And while consequentialism is a complex theory with many thought-provoking variants (the trolley problem might momentarily seem solvable with utilitarianism in mind!), it has not traditionally been welcomed on the American right.

The majority voice in the pre-Trump Republican Party — and especially the Values Voters wing that now embraces this president so heartily — for the last half a century rejected consequentialism in very explicit terms. When former President Bill Clinton was embroiled in sexual scandal, for example, a statement from conservative intellectual leaders firmly rejected "the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy."

There are more important considerations, they argued, than getting the political ends you want. The means matter; character matters. There is a fundamental moral structure to the universe, and a moral person, party, or country will adhere to it even if the consequences are unpleasant.

In consequentialist frameworks, the moral value of anything we do is determined by its results. By contrast, Americans on the right have long spoken a hybrid language of deontological ethics, in which we are bound by deep, immutable principles of good and evil, and virtue ethics, where we are constrained less by rules than by the character we have forged to guide us toward goodness in any situation.

You can hear these influences in the Clinton-era arguments about personal character in public figures, or in some conservative cases against the welfare state: What matters is not only the end (that people in poverty have basic needs met) but the means (that those needs be met through voluntary, not compulsory, contributions). It showed up in early editions of National Review, where libertarians like F.A. Hayek were slammed for promoting freedom on consequentialist bases instead of "the absolute transcendent values on which its strength is founded." More recently, a Heritage Foundation assessment of the "crisis of liberty in the West" roundly rejects consequentialism as unmoored from any concrete metric for "what should count as a good outcome" and deeply deleterious to human rights.

True, the commentariat and proletariat are not always of one mind, but on this point, anecdotal and statistical evidence alike point to a unity only recently disintegrated. I remember well the 1990s arguments about character; when I was too young to understand what the president had done, I was old enough to be told that having done it made him unsuited for public office. Sure, Clinton balanced the federal budget, a great Republican goal. But he didn't do it right.

Pollsters aren't exactly hitting the phones to solicit Americans' thoughts on consequentialism, but a Gallup survey on presidential moral leadership may serve as an adequate proxy. In 1996, nearly nine in 10 GOP voters said it's important "for the president to provide moral leadership." As of 2018, just two in three say the same. For a more sweeping measure, we might consider that Trump retains near-universal approval among self-described Republicans, and there is no question about the nature of his character.

Less than two decades after deploring Clinton's failings, the language evangelicals in particular use to defend their support for Trump is pure consequentialism. "He knows how to run the country more like a business," so the argument goes, "and I'm not voting for him to be my Sunday school teacher." "He's not a perfect man, and I'm not going to focus on the negative," we hear. "I'm more interested in what he can do."

Translated: The policy ends I want justify the means, even if the means involve total disregard for the moral principles and habits of virtue I ostensibly hold dear.

It would be unfair, however, to blame the American right's newfound consequentialism entirely on Trump. He is as much beneficiary as cause. Well before Trump was taken seriously as a political force, the rise of the post-9/11 security state, helmed by then-President George W. Bush's administration, was a large-scale exercise in panicked consequentialism.

The mass surveillance authorized by laws like the Patriot Act and implemented by the NSA, the invasive security theater of the TSA, the indefinite detention and torture of suspects — all these civil liberties violations and more were justified by their supposed end, which was increased security: Surrender your privacy if you don't want to die.

Whether the right's rhetoric of principle and virtue was more than talk before this slouch toward consequentialism is, of course, debatable. But what is clear is any remnants of that ethical posture are just that: anachronistic verbal scraps of another time.

After 2001 and 2016, the GOP has decided the ends absolutely justify the means. It should thus be no surprise when the means turn abhorrent.

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