In politics, the road to defeat is forever paved with good intentions. Ask my fellow presidential campaign staff losers about our efforts and I suspect you will hear us comfort ourselves with the notion that “at least we stayed true to our values.” That we campaigned with the “best intentions.”
This idea was met with mockery by Trump supporters and advisors. Instead the value that drove the Trump phenomenon was a promise to win above all things. To defeat all enemies, be they Democrats, ISIS, illegal immigrants, or anyone investigating the campaign’s ties to Russia. “At least he fights” was the refrain from his fans anytime someone would try to convince them that he was not pure, not conservative, not trustworthy. Scoreboard taunts largely replaced ideological arguments. Belittling overtook debating.
It’s hard to argue with the results.
So the question that I’ve been puzzling over for the past six months has been: When it comes to being President of the United States do your intentions or your values matter, or is that a myth we tell ourselves to feel good? Could a leader succeed absent these qualities? Might they even benefit from being unshackled by its limitations?
The two presidencies of my adult life occurred in a country that was marked by its deep divisions. Yet all but their most ardent opponents would concede that George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both basically pure of heart in advancing the policies they believed were best for the country. Few would object to the notion that within their own ideological framework, they endeavored to uphold the Western values that we thought defined our country: advancing democratic norms, respecting fundamental human rights, welcoming those from around the world who yearn for freedom.
But what did that get them?
Bush’s domestic “compassionate conservatism” turned off swaths of his base, resulting in a tea party backlash that reshaped the party against his image. His international “freedom agenda” was by his own admission mismanaged from the start, resulting in the Democrats gaining power, in Trump campaigning as an anti-Iraq War 9/11 truther, and in a populace left largely hostile to the idea that America can be a force for good in the Middle East.
Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president who had thought deeply about his own mixed racial background, written a book about bridging the cultural divide, and run a campaign animated by a paean to American unity, ended up presiding over a backlash in racial progress not seen in a half century. His big-government domestic agenda was overwhelmingly rebuffed in his first midterm election. He left office this year as the head of a party that had been hollowed out, with its fewest elected officials at the state level since 1920. He was succeeded by the one human on earth who most encapsulates everything he despises.
Hard to not look at our recent history and wonder, what was that you were saying about best intentions?
Trump to the contrary has shown strikingly little interest in promoting the foundational American values, particularly when speaking off the cuff. The one thing we can be certain about with regard to his intentions is that he wants his brand to be seen as successful - to the extent that it requires the American people to succeed in order to achieve that I’m sure it would please him but it’s clearly secondary. There are more than a few indications that he and his family see the presidency as a way to enrich them and solidify their corporate brand.
But are these selfish considerations necessarily a bad thing in a President? Was the moral preening of pundits and politicians mostly bullshit?
Every historical text, moral framework, and personal instinct take me back to the soothing answer that leadership devoid of values cannot succeed. (Though if the election of the Apprentice host to the presidency doesn’t make you reflect on your core beliefs about our political system, you may be irretrievably hard-headed.)
There are some early signs this is the case. A big part of Trump’s failure to negotiate Obamacare repeal and replace to date has been the fact that he clearly doesn’t understand what the legislation even does. He’s repeatedly undermined his own negotiating position with false promises. Plus his lack of ideological framework has resulted in the embrace of a bill that populist conservative writers have said in the end may be a net negative for many Trump voters who heavily rely on government services for health care.
You could argue that his more selfish intentions—chafing at the oversight from a strong FBI director—led to the past week’s scandal du jour, a trend that if it continues will force his administration to combat one investigation after another rather than advance a legislative agenda.
On the world stage it is even more stark. This Administration believes that decoupling of security from values can lead to the “wins” that the United States has been missing in foreign policy of late. Secretary of State Tillerson said that these pesky values “create obstacles to our ability to advance our interests.”
The Russkies concur.
Last week, after the President inexplicably invited Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov into the Oval Office for a chummy photo op with Russian state media, Lavrov praised this approach, saying that the dialogue is “free of the ideology” that hampered past bilateral relations.
Hungary’s nationalist strongman Viktor Orban made the subtext text in this regard, saying that through Trump’s election: “We have received permission from the highest position in the world” to advance a nationalist agenda. In a separate interview, he said his ability to argue for ethnic homogeneity has grown stronger. From the Philippines to Egypt more evidence of this trend is mounting.
Interests vs. values is the crux upon which the Trump’s Administration case lies and how in the end this real life political science experiment will be judged.
At its most basic, the question will be whether this approach can tangibly advance the interests of his electorate in ways that improve their lives.
Politically the stakes are much more profound.
We will find out whether America is a land of 300+ million individuals looking merely for a President to advance their narrow interests. One where winning in foreign policy is defined by oil taken, short-term economic successes, the mother of all bombs dropped.
Or whether a period of valueless leadership creates a backlash, a yearning to return to a country that claimed to stand for more than its own interests, a place that was a beacon of hope to all who desired it. One that while flawed aims to be pure of intention.
Donald Trump’s premise is that those intentions were often phony, and even when they weren't, got us nowhere. That by relieving ourselves of that moral burden, the government can actually serve its people better.
We’ll see if he’s right.