Politics And The Moral Limits Of Friendship

To unmask them, to knock them off the pedestal they have hoisted themselves on, to hold them up to scorn is a campaign no one should remain indifferent to. For at any price, we must keep those who have too clear a conscience from living and dying in peace. -- E. M. Cioran, "Thinking Against Oneself", in The Temptation to Exist

One of the more painful effects of the presidential Election of 2016 is that I was impelled by considerations of personal integrity to terminate about a dozen friendships, about half on Facebook and about half in real-life. In each such case, the reason for the break was that the people whose friendships I chose to end were people who were determined to vote, either directly or by default, for Donald J. Trump for President. This, for reasons of conscience, I could not abide. The following is why.

I start out from the principle that not friendship, not marriage, not even parent-child (considered from the standpoint of relationship and not just physical consanguinity), not even one’s relationship with one’s God – no relationship is literally unconditional. In order for a relationship to exist, there must be a certain level of agreement on certain essential issues. The point is not that nothing is negotiable, far from it. But some things are not. Which issues are negotiable and which are not may not be apparent immediately. In fact, in my experience of the election just past, the ending of these friendships was an experience of self-discovery:   the ending of the friendship made it evident to me what my real priorities are, and where the bright line is actually to be drawn that distinguishes that which I considered essential from that which I considered negotiable. At least, such was the case with me. From a purely personal standpoint, in fact, the most important consequence of the Election of 2016 is that it clarified for me in the starkest possible terms what the most important and essential beliefs of my life were and are.

"Liberty Leading the People" -- Eugene Delacroix

Over the last 12-15 years, as I withdrew farther and farther from Christianity as my moral and intellectual compass, I found myself growing closer and closer to the principles of the European Enlightenment, especially the British and Scottish Enlightenment – and most especially the Enlightenment as it came to be expressed in the American Revolution and in the founding Documents of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If you want to know in detail what the tenets of my newfound and purely secular faith are, I suggest reading here. Perhaps most importantly, I arrived over time at the marrow-deep conviction that, while there are other principles that are important, that nothing – absolutely nothing, absolutely no competing principle, absolutely no consideration – should ever take precedence above the ones mentioned in the link, not economic growth, not balance of payments, not military preeminence … nothing. The 9/11 attacks were a massive failure of intelligence. But the Election of 2016 was an at least equally massive failure of the national conscience. The 9 /11 attacks were done to us by an outside agency. The Election of 2016 was very much something we did to ourselves.

Now, as I said earlier, many issues -- arguably, even most issues -- are negotiable:  should the US accord the People's Republic of China "most favored nation" status? should Congress reinstate Glass-Steagall? raise or lower interest rates on student loans? is internet equality a good or a bad idea? Etc., etc., etc. Note that these are all questions of policy and procedure. Honest and honorable people can honestly and honorably disagree on such "nuts and bolts" issues.

Benjamin Franklin

But the issue in the 2016 election -- uniquely so, as I read history -- was not "policy and procedure," except in the most ancillary and secondary -- dare I say, by comparison, even trivial? -- sense. What was at issue in the 2016 election, in my estimation, pertained to the most bedrock-fundamental question we as a Nation can ask ourselves:  what kind of Nation do we as Americans want to be? A nation where everyone is free to speak and to write, in particular, to write in such a way as to free the press / media to hold government accountable? where, e.g., information about climate change is freely available? where the Justice Department can hold local police departments responsible for alleged violations of individuals' civil rights? where a strict separation is maintained between Church and State by the separation of secular education from religious doctrine?

People who voted for Trump did not merely -- note: "merely" really is the right word -- vote for a different policy on tariffs, a different set of financial regulations, looser environmental restrictions, etc. People who voted for Trump basically voted for the United States to no longer be the United States. They voted against the entire Enlightenment project, against the Constitution, against the Bill of Rights (except as it pertains to them and their favored group, of course) ... in short, people who voted for Donald Trump for President voted in opposition to the most essential, fundamental principles this Nation is founded upon -- the principles that Donald Trump has explicitly described himself as opposing. That said, I enthusiastically affirm the right of people to vote for Donald Trump. I also enthusiastically affirm the right of people to eat McD's grease-burgers, decline to exercise, and to smoke until their lungs contain carbon deposits large enough to be mined for coal. I have a correlative right to warn them that, by making such choices, they are killing themselves and at least run the risk of killing my country. And, on a personal level, run the risk of terminating our friendship. As they say, "Elections have consequences".

"King Lear, Act I, Sc. 1" -- Edwin Austin Abbey

So ... why cannot I be friends with Trump supporters?  In the most explicit terms possible, you may as well ask why I could not be friends with someone who sincerely advocates repealing the 13th Amendment and reinstating slavery, or repealing the 19th Amendment and revoking women's right to vote, or subjecting mosque communities to continual warrantless surveillance, or making Christianity the official religion of the Nation, etc.., etc. Before you plead "Conscience!" to justify supporting Trump, I would ask you to consider how you accommodate your own, personal conscience to the issues I enumerate here.

For you see, I have a conscience, too.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"Estrangement" ... Pixabay ... no artist cited ... Public domain
"Cordelia's Farewell ... Edwin Austin Abbey ... Public domain
Donald Trump ... Gage Skidmore ... CC by SA 3.0
"Liberty Leading the People" ... Eugene Delacroix ... Public domain
Benjamin Franklin, 1767 ... David Martin ... Public domain

 

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