For the last two years, a hearty debate has taken center stage among conservatives: Does character matter? That debate was prompted, of course, by the rise of Donald Trump; the debate has not abated. This week, the debate began anew thanks to President Trump’s decision to go mano-a-mano with a Gold Star widow who questioned his sincerity in a condolence call. Trump responded to her complaints by denying her account of the event.
Does this sort of thing matter? In one sense, it certainly doesn’t: Trump may not be politically damaged by this sort of behavior. After all, political damage results from hopes disappointed, and few Americans hoped that Trump was above this sort of thing — at least, not after he attacked John McCain’s war heroism in 2015 (“I like people that weren’t captured”) and after he attacked a Gold Star family that was politicking at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 (“If you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say . . . Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me”). So we shouldn’t be surprised at Trump’s latest salvo against a Gold Star wife who seems to have interpreted his words in the worst possible light.
But in another sense, Trump’s politicization of sacred space in our culture is a serious problem. It’s serious because no culture can exist without certain cultural capital — trust — and that trust exists only when there are certain spaces in which we can assume agreement without having to ask. Thomas Sowell writes that cohesive groups rich in cultural capital have certain advantages in business and life: “Attitudes exist in societies that can be beneficial or harmful.” Like-minded groups can easily minimize transaction costs, thereby lowering cost in economic terms; in social terms, these groups are less likely to facilitate conflict between individuals. When we share cultural totems and taboos, we are all better off.
One of those obvious cultural taboos was politicization of Gold Star families. We can all acknowledge that Gold Star families undergo the ultimate sacrifice when they lose a loved one in the line of duty. As stated by White House chief of staff General John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father whose son died in Afghanistan: “They are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required.” Our country may be torn apart by a range of issues, but on this we all agree. That’s why President George W. Bush didn’t respond with disrespect to the garbled rage of Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan; instead of opposing her, he stated:
Part of my duty as the president is to meet those who have lost a loved one. I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly about her position. She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America.
To do what Bush did takes character. To take the heat from Cindy Sheehan — a woman who said openly that Bush went to war for oil, and that her son had died to make Bush’s “friends rich” — takes enormous will. Cindy Sheehan did political damage to President Bush. But Bush understood that it was more important that the country maintain the sanctity of Gold Star families than that he defend himself from Sheehan.
Just because responding to political attacks generally is useful doesn’t mean responding to all such attacks is useful.
For Trump, such concerns take a back seat to his instinctive need to punch back. And many conservatives are fine with that: Their chief criticism of Bush, at least partially warranted, is that Bush was too reticent to respond to attacks. But just because responding to political attacks generally is useful doesn’t mean responding to all such attacks is useful.
The same is true with regard to our partisan bickering over sexual harassment and assault. The hallmark of any civilized society is its protection of innocents, particularly women and children. Yet depending on the political orientation of the attacker, the various political sides have chosen to ignore or defend such activity. If the name of the villain is Bill Clinton or Teddy Kennedy or Bob Menendez, the Left suggests that ignorance is bliss; if the name of the villain is Donald Trump, the right decides to look the other way. The only thing that’s lost: the social fabric, which allowed us to believe that our neighbors felt the same way we did about acts of sexual exploitation.
As we grow more partisan, and as that partisanship grows more heated, our cultural capital will continue to decline. The only thing that will replace it is dislike of the other side — what will unify us with our neighbors isn’t principle, but reactionary opposition. That’s a recipe for disaster, since opposition alone doesn’t provide a moral guidepost. No society can be built on anger.
But the greatest society in history can be torn down by it.