A Politics of Decency

The greatest pleasure of my career as a law professor has been engaging with students and colleagues of diverse ideologies and backgrounds. I don’t just tolerate those who hold opposing policy preferences and core beliefs, I love them, and I have been deeply affected by conversation, laughter, and serious argument with so many. I hold no grudges and demand no deference, but I also pay the respect to those whom I teach and teach alongside not to pretend that I have no commitments or opinions. We are stronger not in spite but because of such frankness when it is accompanied by good will. I write now because this central experience in my life and the very promise of an enlightened Republic are, I fear, in grave danger. But we can do this together.

Donald Trump is immoral and indecent, and both his authoritarian tendencies and his narcissism threaten our values and institutions. I have been greatly heartened at various points along this darkest timeline by the many decent conservatives who have stood up and said no.

Take Evan McMullin, with whom I respectfully but adamantly disagree on issues ranging from the causes and significance of the national debt, health care reform, and guns. Evan, though, has been the leader we now need through his articulation of something more basic than these issues, something that should unite us all against Donald Trump. On Twitter, he has called out Trump’s conflicts of interest, his seeming alliance with authoritarians, and his lack of concern for the most vulnerable. His solution:

Now we have the opportunity, in fact the need, to claim the common ground that I know is there. That common ground is liberty & equality.

I agree. I propose thinking about our common ground in terms of the most essential way it rejects Trumpism and that encompasses a general commitment to liberty and equality: basic decency.

A politics of decency:

  • rejects authoritarianism, even as it embraces meaningful disagreement concerning the metes and bounds of federalism and regulation;
  • abhors sexual assault and misogyny, even as it recognizes differences in how best to combat these problems;
  • will not stand for profiteering from public office, even as it contains a wide range of views on campaign finance and on the subtler questions of proper and improper influence;
  • repudiates scapegoating the poor and vulnerable, even as its participants differ on the proper way to fund our civilization and the relative burdens that should be assessed;
  • condemns lying to the people, even as it does not purport to deliver judgment on the trustworthiness of various conventional politicians and whether various instances of spin go too far;
  • refuses to tolerate white nationalism and religious and sexual bigotry, the discarded ideologies that animated the most shameful and violent episodes of our past, even as the debate will continue over, for example, how best to overcome the badges of slavery and to be color-blind without also being blind to the lingering effects of racial castes;
  • and stands against government officials who bully individual citizens, even as it encourages serious debate among its participants concerning the merits of their ideas.

Donald Trump is indecent. And if he cannot learn to stay within the guardrails of what decency requires, he must either be voted out in disgrace at the first available opportunity or impeached and removed should his transgressions go that far. We will not accept a lower bar for the conduct of Trump simply because the whole world’s expectations are already so low.

Instead, we will stand together, conservatives, liberals, and whoever, to demand that our local politicians and, especially, House representatives, hold Donald Trump strictly accountable to the demands of decency. We will attend our representatives’ town halls, participate in marches for unity, resist assaults on our core values, and help one another in the best traditions of our nation. And we will continue to do this even when some among us engage in anarchy or otherwise attempt to hijack our efforts to advance particular causes. We will condemn these distractions but not ourselves become distracted from doing what is necessary to preserve the soul of this nation.

I hope you will demand that we reject the emerging global axis of authoritarianism and that we not throw away so cheaply that which has taken 240 years of struggle to build. In basic decency to one another is the path to preserving that degree of liberty and equality we have inherited. And in that same decency, we will find the common ground on which to debate vigorously but with love how best to realize liberty and equality in the future.