Moral authority. It’s that intangible quality that, if missing in a leader, has tangible effects. The higher the position, the more discernible and consequential they can be. In the political realm, our leaders need not be, nor should they be expected to be, saints. However, they should possess a functional moral compass that enables them to aptly discern what is right and what is wrong, particularly on very serious and pressing issues.
“Because power corrupts,” noted John Adams, “society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” A deficiency in this area can cause a serious crisis in people’s confidence that a leader will carry out his or her responsibilities faithfully and for the good of all.
When a leader’s moral authority, their moral compass begins to point in the wrong direction, a breakdown or disconnection begins to occur between themselves and the people they’ve sworn to serve. Because moral authority is so intertwined with legitimacy, when a leader sows seeds of doubt concerning their moral authority, concerning their ability to understand what is and is not “right conduct, right belief and right action,” it can erode belief in their positional authority. The question soon becomes: Is he or she really capable and fit to hold their office?
It has nothing to do with ideology or political affiliation, and everything to do with basic moral fitness for public office. In our home state of Alabama, we’ve seen this play out. Once the confidence and trust in a leader’s moral authority is seriously questioned, once it becomes obvious that their moral compass is off, their ability to lead is undermined and challenged.
For the office of president of the United States, moral authority is indispensable. Regardless of party, it’s a given that during a presidency crises will arise that will cause Americans to look to the president for leadership, guidance and direction … to look to the occupier of the office for consolation and hope … to look to the leader of the free world for a path through the tough times, a path illuminated by notions that lie at the very core of who we are and what we believe as Americans — a way forward based on ideals that have given inspiration and hope, not just for generations of Americans but for peoples the world over.
That’s not what we got last week. From the highest office in the land we got moral ambiguity and a failure of leadership. We glimpsed a leader whose moral authority is suspect. Whose moral compass is faulty. After the president’s deeply troubling comments last Tuesday at a Trump Tower press conference in which he bequeathed moral equivalency to the protesters standing against the white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia — an equivocation that confounded and bewildered many — one group did indeed find comfort and solace in his words.
Former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville …” White supremacist leader Richard Spencer chimed in, stating, “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth.”
Just the day before, Duke issued a stern rebuke to Trump, telling him, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was white Americans who put you in the presidency.” Duke sickeningly linked his cause and that of his white supremacist and racist allies with that of all white Americans that voted for Trump — implying that he and his hate-filled colleagues and their ideology were a legitimate component of Trump’s base. To them, Trump’s more positive and less condemning words at the press conference were proof that he recognized them as being so.
If white supremacists and racists such as Spencer and Duke were heartened and encouraged by Trump’s words, many other Americans, particularly those in his own party, were dismayed. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele observed, “We have someone who has elevated the hate machines in this country to the level of the presidency, and has created a false equivalency between these groups and other movements.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott commented, “I’m not going to defend the indefensible. … His comments on Monday were strong. His comments on Tuesday started erasing the comments that were strong. What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happens. There’s no question about that.”
John Cornyn, the second highest ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, remarked, “I think the president had an opportunity to send a message that would unite America behind our common resolve, to heal those wounds and unite our country, and unfortunately I don’t think he did that.”
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote on Facebook, “It feels like violence is coming. … What will happen next? I doubt Donald Trump will be able to calm and comfort the nation in that moment.” One worried Kentucky state senator opined of the president’s comments, “[They were] more than a gaffe. … I’m concerned he seems to firmly believe in what he’s saying about it.” Time will tell.
This is not about political correctness but fundamental notions of right and wrong, equality and respect for others that’s deeply a part of the American creed. America is not special because of its whiteness, or its blackness, or any other color, for that matter — but because of its ideals.
We don’t need anyone to take us back to anything. But we do need cleareyed leaders to propel and lead us forward — sound in values, character and intellect.