A crisis of moral clarity: There’s no contest between Trump and Biden — why are Americans confused?

In response to Israel’s war against Hamas, President Joe Biden and the now criminally indicted leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump have demonstrated very different models of leadership. The stark differences between the two leaders are another example of how America’s democracy crisis is not “just” a political problem: It is a moral and cultural sickness that is far greater than any one political leader, political party, or political movement.

President Biden has given a series of speeches and interviews where he condemned Hamas’ barbarism, reinforced America’s commitment to Israel, emphasized the need to find a long-term solution to peace in the region, attempted to calm worries that the war could spiral into a larger regional conflict, cautioned against the temptations of antisemitism and hatred in their various forms, and spoke directly about the need to protect the human rights of the people of Gaza, the majority of whom have no connection to Hamas. President Biden traveled to Israel on Wednesday to signal America’s support for the war against Hamas. While there, he also announced humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza.  

Ultimately, whatever one may think about America’s foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East and Israel, Biden’s leadership style and demeanor in this time of crisis are most certainly “presidential.” By comparison, how have Donald Trump and the other leading Republican fascists and members of the right-wing movement behaved in response to the horrible events of October 7? Their reactions and behavior have, for the most part, been partisan, tribal, petty, egomaniacal, narcissistic, conspiratorial, dishonest, irresponsible, hateful, willfully ignorant, and more generally contrary to the principles of responsible governance. 

In a time not too long ago, America’s mainstream political leaders, on both sides of the partisan divide, followed an informal rule that politics and partisanship stopped at the ocean. In the Age of Trump and ascendant neofascism, that rule has been jettisoned by the right wing because getting political power at any cost with the goal of ending America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy is more important than standing in unity in a time of crisis.

On the same weekend that Israel was attacked by Hamas, Donald Trump wallowed in his malignant narcissism and megalomania. He attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly not taking his advice while president, praised Hamas as “very smart,” and suggested that the group would not have dared to attack Israel if Trump were still president. Trump even managed to connect the Big Lie about the 2020 election and how it was “stolen” from him and his MAGA movement to the crisis. Taking their cues from Trump, leading Republicans, and other right-wing propagandists and influential, used the October 7 terrorist attacks as an opportunity to tell lies like the Democrats “hate” Israel and support Hamas via Iran. In an especially loathsome example of this behavior, Sen. Tim Scott went so far as to accuse President Biden of “having blood on his hands,” because he is somehow responsible for Hamas’ terror attack on Israel. Not to be outdone in the amount of vitriol he can spout, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday that Palestinians “are all antisemitic” to argue against allowing refugees from Gaza into the United States.

Donald Trump and the other Republican fascists and members of the white right are also using October 7 as a chance to amplify their white supremacist paranoia and conspiracy theories about “invaders” and “terrorists” (in this iteration “Hamas”) who have supposedly infiltrated the Southern Border and are operating in secret terrorist cells, waiting for their moment to attack (White) America. Of course, this is a lie. Nonetheless, a large percentage, if not majority, of Trump and Republican voters (and right-wing independents) believe such fictions, which are reflections of the larger white supremacist great replacement conspiracy theory.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post editorial board summarized the contrasting leadership styles and behavior of President Biden and Donald Trump in the following way:

At a time when the United States, and the world, desperately need decency and moral clarity, President Biden has provided both. His words regarding the wanton atrocities Hamas has committed against hundreds of Israeli civilians, as well as many Americans and citizens of other countries, in the past week have been unequivocal. In remarks to a gathering of American Jewish leaders Wednesday, he described the mass murder as “sheer evil” and likened it to “the worst atrocities of ISIS.”

In condemning the terrorism, and offering support to Israel’s military response, the president also reminded the new emergency war government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of its responsibilities under “the law of war.” These measured statements put the United States in just the right place: supportive of Israel but positioned, if need be, to influence and temper its response.

Mr. Biden has so far met the elementary test of political leadership amid crisis, as those who placed their trust in him at the ballot box three years ago hoped he could.

In a recent interview with Salon, David Rothkopf was much more pointed and direct:

They’re just not comparable. Joe Biden is a good man, a dedicated and effective public servant who’s trying to do a good job, who believes in our institutions, who believes in our values, who believes in alliances, who believes people are fundamentally good, and who is the kind of person that Donald Trump thinks is a sucker. Donald Trump is a bad man; he is all about himself. He doesn’t care. He has no moral code whatsoever. He doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He doesn’t believe in the Constitution. He doesn’t believe in American values…. How can those Republicans and others on the right say that they stand with Israel while they support Donald Trump who is an antisemite.

Via email, Rick Wilson, who is cofounder of the pro-democracy group The Lincoln Project said this about the profound differences between Trump and Biden as reinforced by their reactions to the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas:

President Biden has demonstrated great moral leadership and resolve in supporting Israel in the fight against terrorism and hatred. He understands that freedom and individual rights must be supported through strength, deterrence, international alliances, and, when necessary, force. Stopping authoritarianism abroad helps to prevent it from gaining ground here in the United States.

Trump on the other hand, is a transactional actor only concerned about how he can exploit this movement for his own personal benefit. He cares nothing about human rights and renewing democracy.

There is a feedback loop between the public and their leaders in a democratic society. Leaders take cues and directives from the public because they need their support to remain in power. Those same leaders also shape and influence the beliefs and values of their supporters and the public more generally. As such, what does the irresponsible, hateful, and morally compromised behavior of Donald Trump and other leading members of the right wing in response to the Israel – Hamas war further “reveal” about their supporters?

In the most basic sense, they have normalized deviance and embraced antisocial and other anti-democratic values and beliefs as a function of what psychologists have described as “malignant normality”. A series of recent public opinion polls offer support for this conclusion.

A 2018 Gallup poll shows that in the Age of Trump, Republicans now believe that presidential moral leadership is increasingly unimportant: “Republicans are much less likely now than they were during the Bill Clinton years to say it is very important for the president to provide moral leadership for the U.S. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to believe moral leadership is important now, with Donald Trump in office, than they were under Clinton.

Gallup continues:

By 59% to 40%, Americans believe Trump provides weak rather than strong moral leadership. Republicans and Democrats diverge greatly on this question, with 77% of Republicans believing Trump provides strong moral leadership and 91% of Democrats saying he provides weak leadership. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats believe his moral leadership is “very weak.” Independents are much more negative than positive about Trump’s leadership on morals.

A August 2023 Harris X poll for the Deseret News asked, “which of the presidential candidates for 2024 would do a good job providing moral leadership as president?”

Here are some of the key findings:

Roughly two-fifths of voters said former President Donald Trump would do a good job while nearly half said he was doing a poor job and 11% said they didn’t know.

Out of GOP voters, 7 in 10 approved of his moral leadership, while only 14% of Democrats said the same. Meanwhile, roughly 36% of independent voters said he did a good job….

Chris Karpowitz, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, also said the results of the poll showcase “partisan cheerleading.”

The survey coincided with news of Trump’s third indictment, to which he pleaded not guilty on Thursday. The court documents allege that the former president “was determined to remain in power” after losing the 2020 presidential election to President Joe Biden, and he “repeated and widely disseminated” false claims about the election’s legitimacy, as Deseret News reported.

“These numbers are particularly striking, given that Donald Trump has now been indicted three times and was recently found liable for sexual abuse in a civil trial,” said Karpowitz.

A September 2023 poll, also by HarrisX for Deseret News, found that a majority of Republican registered voters believe that Donald Trump “is a person of faith” – this is a higher percentage than for Mike Pence, who is an evangelical Christian.

The Hill offers this context:

His personal history is also one that would seem, at a glance, to be potentially troubling for Christian conservatives.

Trump has been divorced twice and is in the middle of a lawsuit surrounding his alleged paying of hush money to a former adult film star to stay quiet about an alleged affair. He’s also been accused of cheating on his wife with a former Playboy model.

But Trump has consistently won the support of social conservatives, and the results of the poll could provide some insight into how people see him.

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Whatever one may think about the specific content and morality of the type of White Christianity that is practiced by Michael Pence, it is clear that he is more religious and “a person of faith” than Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly demonstrated his discomfort with, if not outright disinterest and contempt for, the religiously minded. It Trump is in any way “religious”, it is transactional as a way for him to get votes from the Christian Right.

Racism, white racial resentment, hostile sexism, and other forms of prejudice and hatred in the form of social dominance behavior and authoritarianism have also played a powerful role in why Republicans and other “conservatives” have embraced the moral corruption of Trumpism and American neofascism. This is channeled through a yearning for a return to “the good old days” and “traditional values” and “Making America Great Again”.

On this, the PRRI 2022 American values survey is particularly illuminating:

Approximately three-quarters of Americans agree that the country is heading in the wrong direction, but there is considerable division over whether the country needs to move backward — toward an idealized, homogeneous past — or forward, toward a more diverse future. Though most Americans favor moving forward, a sizable minority yearn for a country reminiscent of the 1950s, embrace the idea that God created America to be a new promised land for European Christians, view newcomers as a threat to American culture, and believe that society has become too soft and feminine. This minority is composed primarily of self-identified Republicans, white evangelical Protestants, and white Americans without a college degree.

With their embrace of Trumpism, American neofascism, and hostility to real democracy more broadly, have the MAGA people and other members of the right-wing just forgotten basic standards of human decency, morality, and good leadership? Or have they instead actively chosen Donald Trump and what he represents knowing how destructive and evil such forces are because the power is intoxicating and a way to get what they want in an America they feel increasingly hostile to and alienated from – even if that means ending democracy?

Which of the two scenarios is worse? I am not sure.

In the end, how and if American can escape the Trumpocene and this time of democracy crisis in the long-term will greatly depend on the answer to these questions.

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about President Biden’s recent leadership 

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