Note on a Letter

In 2017 I wrote a letter to the editor of First Things responding to an article which had offered a Machiavellian defense of the then president of the US. My letter was as follows:

Carson Holloway’s Machiavellian defense of Donald Trump (“Donald Trump, Principe,” August/September) has the same strengths and weaknesses that Machiavellianism has always had. One such weakness is that Machiavelli’s redefinition of virtue led him to overlook the insight of classical political philosophy that rulers cannot rule their cities well unless they rule their own souls with moral virtue, classically understood. A vicious man in the classical sense, a man dominated by disordered passion, cannot recognize his own true good, and even when he partially recognizes it, he is unable to achieve it. A wrathful man, for example, cannot understand that it is better for him to suffer injustice than to inflict it. And even if a drunkard does in some way realize that it would be for his good to remain sober, his disordered passion for drink overrides the insight of his reason. When such a man comes to rule a city or a nation, the same problems replicate on a grander scale.
Donald Trump would like to make America “great again,” but he does not understand where true greatness might be found—in succoring the poor immigrant, for instance. And even where he does in some limited sense see what would be good for America, his uncontrolled passion cripples him. Once, Trump seemed to understand that an interminable war in Afghanistan is undesirable, but when his generals showed him pictures of Afghan girls in miniskirts, disordered passion overpowered his reason. And so the war continues.
No one who lacks true moral virtue can be trusted, least of all a politician.

I think the general point of my letter has held up well: a politician who is enslaved to his own passions is not trustworthy. At the time, however, one of my readers (a man whom I greatly respect) objected to the passage about Afghanistan. He pointed out that the photo of Afghan girls shown to Trump was part of an argument about the malleability of Afghan culture, and that it was calumny to imply that Trump was motivated by disordered lust. I responded to my reader that, on reflection, the implication of my letter did seem to go beyond the evidence. I do think the Afghanistan decision went against Trump’s better judgement, but the implication that it was motivated by lust was unwarranted. I also said that I supposed I will post something on my blog retracting the implication. I ought to have done so at the time. But, on the principle that late is better than never, I retract the implication now.

40 thoughts on “Note on a Letter

  1. We know Trump is often ruled by his passions, but not always. He is neither the madman nor the devil that not a few otherwise reasonable people seem to think he is. Regardless of the motives attributed to his pro-life stand, his conduct in office was entirely consistent with sincerity. One baby saved from slaughter made his administration immeasurably superior to the alternative. We can live with that passion. Our wise priest observed during election season that one who does not recognize the monstrous evil of abortion, cannot be trusted to recognize any evil. The converse of this offers reason for hope in cases such as this. I politely submit that this most lukewarm of retractions lacks the apology warranted by evident calumny. “A politician who is enslaved to his own passions is not trustworthy.” The ironic dimension here is unbecoming.

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  2. However much one might give value to Trump´s pro-life commitments (I think personally that they are superficial, though one might value them from the point of view of some sort of pro-life realpolitik) one is 1. inexorably forced by multiple evidences to affirm his bad moral character and 2. likewise forced to connect the dots that trace in him the lineaments of the fascist leader, be it a kind of zombie fascism. Some have tried to maintain a kind of aesthetic repugnance to the style of Trump while defending his right-wingery. Others while involving moral categories in their criticisms of Trump still do not want to call the fascism by its name. Why? Some of my priest friends have rebuked me for judgementalism in assessing Trump´s moral character. You can talk about his actions, they tell me, but you can´t judge his soul.. But I am convinced that it is a cop-out. When the evidences of a bad character reach a certain critical mass it is irresponsible not to talk about a bad character. His soul I leave to God and his mercy. But I connect the dots because not doing so is irresponsible. Trump went as far as an American President could go in bringing fascism to America. He is soulmate and admirer of Vladimir Putin. And there is a whole class of theocratic-minded and fascism friendly folk who were, until yesterday, admirers of both men and for similar reasons. It must be said.

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  3. Trump’s collision with Washington DC politics, an enterprise of which he does not own a share, and its hyper-scrutiny, publication and judgment of his personal life, certainly enlarged the scope and reach of his introspective faculties. And the many faithful whose prayers and beliefs he welcomed and shared have sewn seeds of improvement in many “a bad character.” I.e., he is neither a madman nor the devil. I suggest only giving him the benefit of the doubt, and that his pro-life stand per se should earn our vote opposite a Biden or Clinton. If you will forgive me, you would surely have written off my prospects for improvement. There may be more things in heaven and earth, dear Carl, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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    • I will never deny the efficacy of prayer. What I am saying is more like this. If you have a person who has lived a number of years in the middle of public attention by expressly promoting himself as a neo-fascist icon, and if you see a moral character before you which shows every kind of rhyming with such a self-promotion, then you should take the man seriously.

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      • Fr. Kuss: If you haven’t already, see Pater Edmund’s “Praise God,” June 24. Which democrat would have made Trump’s nominations? Not Biden, and certainly not Obama, not one. The most innocent lives will be spared, likely very many lives, the most brutish violence of all. Regardless of motive, praise God, and thank you Donald Trump. (Recall “A house divided against itself…”)

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  4. Pingback: TVESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  5. If you want the PROMOTION of morality, regardless of the personal morality of the promoter, is there any real choice when one the considers the present and to former presidents? The former affable and publicly outgoing president engaged in spying on opponents, promotion of abortion at all stages while professing his ignorance of life, and a foreign policy that relied on simmering conflict that cost the US any real chance at any resolution. His successor, while rude and outspoken delivered the best he was able despite continuous attacks later to proven based on falsehood. The present occupant is simply incognizant tool of unidentified puppet masters. When one sees clerical comment on matters of which they hold little competence and even less moral authority, both Church and state are diminished. There is something to be said for that period in history when sometimes the best judgement was studied silence on matters profane.

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    • As I seid at the outset, I am not claiming to be an authority on realpolitik. If someone argues that voting for Trump was in their judgement prudentially better for let us say the protection of the unborn, I am not scorning his opinion. Still Trump has stood up and presented himself as the icon of rightwing politics. And by rightwing I here mean racist and fascist. And he has shown a moral character to match. He has done so quite openly and blatantly. People who I admire greatly such as Dietrich von Hildebrand and Titus Brandsma stood up against Hitler in the thirties because Hitler was spouting racist ideology. Mainly, only in words, but you see where the thing led. Here we can learn from Putin. For many years there was a fairly numerous group among rightwing Catholics who were praising Putin as a Crusader against Radical Moslems and as a gagger of lgbt folk and these people were inevitably Trump supporters and Trump allies in all matters having to do with racism, immigration, Islamophobia, misogyny, etc.. Putin is an analogue of Trump. If you say American Presidents involved us in lousy wars and Trump did something different, I agree but only partially. America´s wars have been largely motivated by crummy materialistic motives. We need to be realistic and put behind us all chauvinism and jingoism and especially as Churchmen. So Trump perhaps did not start new wars, but he defended the crummiest of motives. “We should take the oil!” He incremented the Instiutiional homicide that drone warfare realizes. He practiced total war against ISIS making no distinction between civilians and combatants. He assassinated an important general in Iran. What should we have done if Iran assassinated let us say Colin Powell” You might try the argument that at least Trump did not start any wars with dangerous adversaries such as North Korea, China and Russia, but that I think is due to the basic cowardice of the bully Trump. You could argue that Trump´s foreign policy was typical of U.S. presidents and in some senses it was. Far too typical. He was different only inasmuch as he spoke of base motives brazenly. I am not advocating a return to hypocrisy. As regards abortion, I have grave doubts that supporting Trumpism politically wins territory for the unborn. Institutional racism is the mother of institutional abortion. If you doubt this I suggest you study the history of Eugenics. Institutional racism is the context of Institutional abortion. The way forward does not consist of hypocrisy but of truth.

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      • I respectfully suggest that you read too much into Trump. He is not Margaret Sanger, nor a madman or devil; he is a man like you and like me, with an ego that tends to place excessive trust in his reflexes. His pro-life commitment stands alone and above the dark ranks of democrats.

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        • I think there is something evil in his approach to racism. He cultivates racist people, racist demagoguery, he promotes the idea that there is nothing wrong with being racist. Racists fllock to him and see him as their champion, the man they have been waiting for. One area that he surprisingly has not issued many discriminating pronouncements is the area of lgbt rights. There he has just gone along with the flow. But interestingly enough Catholics who make homophobia their cause number one, who despise Pope Francis for having said tolerant thing in their regard (following the Catechism of the Catholic Church, by the way) almost inevitably are Trump fans because they groove on his hate even if it is not directed in the direction of their own little pet peeve.

          People who have worked with Trump have unanimously experienced his demanding sycophantic and blind allegiance. William Barr showed sycophantic allegiance until he couldn´t take it any more in the question of the election. I admire Pence in a way. I think he helped keep our country from disaster under Trump by carefully playing the sycophant. You couldn’t do anything else! Then he calmly did his patriotic duty. And I admire Mitch McConnell for being a straight shooter about January 6. And I admire Mitt Romey for making a Thomas More-like stand against Trump´s corruption. But I also admire people like Sanders and (gasp!) AOC for their strong moral stance against Trumpism. At one of Sanders rallies someone hoisted a Nazi flag. (He is Jewish). He responded to the incident with such great class. A class that has to be admired. If you have been listening to right-wing media I suggest that you try listening to people like Sanders and AOC sometimes. From certain Catholics you ONLY hear that these people are “pro-abortion” and one does not take into account that these people really are in the line of Catholic Social Teaching in many areas.

          When Gore Vidal insinuated that Bill Buckley was a fascist in 1968, Buckley responded call me a Nazi again and I will hit you in your face. When protesters came to Trump rallies Trump threatened them with being roughed up by his minions. That is the difference. Buckley knew he was not a Nazi. Trump wants people to be happy that they have got the fascist in him that they were looking for in their hearts. Trump has sown division in the country almost as if that was his task in life. See the election, see January 6.

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          • “…I suggest that you try listening to people like Sanders and AOC sometimes. From certain Catholics you ONLY hear that these people are “pro-abortion” and one does not take into account that these people really are in the line of Catholic Social Teaching in many areas.” But “…one who does not recognize the monstrous evil of abortion cannot be trusted to recognize any evil.” I.e., the metaphysical underpinnings of Sanders’ or AOC’s “Catholic” stand are irremediably disordered, So long as they nod approval at the dismemberment of babies by the millions, can they be credited with genuine compassion for the socially disadvantaged?

            You divine Trump’s possession by the fraternal twin evils of fascism and racism. If your intuition is correct, then his consistently pro-life conduct places him fundamentally at odds with himself, and we know that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And then you need only wait patiently for his inevitable collapse.

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          • Massachusetts abortion guarantor Mitt Romney does not stand beside Thomas More. And no other criterion is so telling.

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        • Colin Powell was a cool guy admired by his collaborators in the military. But so was General Soleimani. In Iran he was regarded as a hero. Just as many people admired Powell in the U.S. Life is full of things like that. Colin Powell was an architect of cruel wars, just as Soleimani was. If you let Powell be born in Iran he would have turned out to be something like Soleimani. So your just war ethics says that we can blow up their guys, but they can´t blow up our guys. Power politics, nothing more. Double standards.

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          • If Generals Powell and Soleimani had exchanged the wombs that bore them, Powell would surely have been suckled on the ideology of Islam, and in due time labored for the annihilation of Israel. And he would have been no less culpable. Nor would Soleimani, raised in the South Bronx, be less justified if he had stopped him.

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        • I am sure that is true. I am not saying that America is worse than other countries. Or that our version of imperialism is worse. We just need to be conscious of our history and responsibility, and also of our errors. Like others.

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        • American foreign policy has collaborated amply with Israel in the slow strangulation of the Palestinians. Certain rightwingers have the GALL to call people who point this out anti-Semites. I am thinking above all of the considerable number of Jewish intellectuals who are true sons of Israel and intellectuals in the truest and most honorable sense of the word who point this out. Arabs and Iranians sometimes speak of the annihilation of Israel but Israel has conducted a slow-motion humiliation and destruction of Palestinian culture, economy, etc. This is not something that exists only in fevered minds, but is as real as for instance apartheid was real in South Africa. Such men are fully conscious of what was done to the Jews under the Nazis, and for that very reason HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN THE LESSONS OF HISTORY and remind the Jewish people of its moral duty in this sense. The duty of that which we as Christians call the Golden Rule. Trump supported Israel all right, but above all in its transgressions. His peace plan consisted largely in buying the Palestinians off. One can argue legitimately for compensations for the Palestinian, but the key thing is at the spiritual level. Wrongs must be recognized. To afro-americans in the U.S. Trump did much the same thing. He told them that, you see. capitalism really does serve everyone and if you just will throw a little incense at the capitalism-goddess with me and join my little movement and forget about the long and tragic history of racism in America and what that tragedy has had to do with the dynamics of capitalism and its exploitations, which causality really explains just about the whole tragic thing, and shows the depth of the infection that we have suffered and continue to suffer, and the profound conundrum of ILL-GOTTEN GOODS, well then you black people will be just fine with me. And by that count, supposedly, Trump is no racist. But most black people with their deep wisdom, do not buy this seduction, but nobly reject it.

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          • “Arabs and Iranians sometimes speak of the annihilation of Israel but Israel has conducted a slow-motion humiliation and destruction of Palestinian culture, economy, etc.” – This elides the gaping asymmetry of first principles in the Arab-Israeli standoff: Muslim catechesis demands the extermination of Jews. Jews ask only to coexist with the children of Ishmael. Progress in Arab/Israeli relations is stalled utterly by the Muslim rejection of any Jewish claim of a right to exist. The rest is contingent details.

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        • I accept the principle, that is the moral beauty of the phrase, that someone who does not grasp the moral evil of abortion shows a moral sensibility that cannot be trusted.
          But this does not give you a Promethean Bed.
          It cannot be applied recklessly.
          It does not prevent cynical manipulations of the Holy Cause of Life

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          • It is Trump who seems too hurriedly put on the Procrustean Bed. He is grandly flawed to an extent that in otherwise charitable minds disqualifies any morally principled stand he might profess. At worst, like my brother’s cynical mimicry of the Faith for the sake of his Catholic wife and children, a ruse which in due time converted him, defending babies by any motive ought intrinsically to bring home the truth of this most monstrous evil ever visited on mankind.

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  6. And yet the astonishing grandeur of the priest remains, in lips that can summon and hands present the person of Christ to you and to me.

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  7. “Ideology of Islam.” How about racial stereotyping?. Or cultural stereotyping, which is another word for the same thing. The idea (the stereotype) is that someone like General Soleimani is an instancing of that stereotype that says that Moslems have these incredibly long toenails. They may wear ironed shirts, they may be admired by their colleagues in the military as cool people with whom it is a pleasure to work, they may not be vindictive in the private sphere but deep down they are still Moslems and Arabs (even though, actually an Iranian is not an Arab, but anyway) and as Moslems and Arabs they have this deep seated vindictiveness. They never forget an offense. Just when you think they are signing a treaty with you and are going to change, watch out, they are going to hall the scimitar out and decapitate you. But you as a Westerner have the right to follow the example of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and take out your little pistol and blow them away. I always feel that scene was very funny. But that is the thing. It is funny.

    I am a priest working in Mexico. Carl Kuss indeed. I was thinking the other day of that figure that all Americans of my generation know very well, the Frito Bandido. And that catchy little tune. So simpático..But the stereotype is this little worm that eats away at your innards. The racism creates what it projects. You know, amigos mios, here in Mexico life is cheap. Racism creates what it projects. When people treat you like scum for long enough it is very easy that you start to believe it. And that creates endless cycles of destructive behavior Sin.

    St. Paul VI said it best, perhaps. “If you want peace, work for justice” We consecrated the world (with Russia and the Ukraine) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary the other day. But as Francis reminded us, it is not a magic formula and one must indeed work for justice. Mary will smile on that.

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    • Having lived, worked and traveled in a number of Asian countries, I can say that their opinions of Americans bear a striking resemblance to American opinions of unfamiliar foreigners. I also noted that they also have opinions of their governments, not much different than we have of ours for the same reasons.

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  8. Of course you are right. The US holds no moral high ground. Our errors in fact could not be more horrific. We alone have slaughtered more than 60 million babies since Roe v. Wade, with unthinkable violence, and are thus complicit in the most monstrous evil ever visited on mankind.
    Kiergegaard called the animating principle behind modernism’s generosity “The Beautiful Proposition” that basically everything is the same. Islam and Christendom have less in common than we might be tempted to grant. Let me explain. We have the Logos, and consequently a categorical respect for reason (see BXVI’s 2006 Regensburg Address), even if pride too often derails our rational faculties. This is not true for all cultures, and fideism is inevitably pathological.
    Successful scholars in imperial China were masters of history, letters and any other discipline concerned with the common good. They kept voluminous records of relations with peoples not of the Middle Kingdom. When a leading 17th c scholar (Fang I-chih) set out to assess European culture by the measure of the Jesuits and their mathematical and scientific gifts, beside the record of 1,000 years of contact with the more proximate Muslims, he summed up his inquiry this way: “Europeans are about equal to us culturally; Muslims are violent and prone to murder.”
    But we need not validate this distinction with such remote testimony. The ideal man for Christendom is identically Christ, Who turned the other cheek when struck. The ideal man for all of Islam is Mohammed, who slit the throats of those who opposed him. The distinction in sensual appetites is equally stark. We must hope and pray that future Powells and Soleimanis both renounce the evils of their respective cultures.
    https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/biden-hhs-endorses-surgical-chemical-mutilation-of-gender-confused-children-and-adolescents/?utm_source=top_news&utm_campaign=usa

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    • The LifeSite article confuses gender with gender confusion. And thus it is based on a materialistic conception of personal identity.

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      • I suspect that if you asked the author, he would suggest that it is the advocates of surgery and drugs which facilitate gender-impersonation (both the physical and metaphysical aspects) who mistake gender confusion for gender.

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        • So gender is the same as sex? In other words, is it a purely biological thing. That is not correct–from the point of view of metaphysics. It creates a separation between nature and culture. And you can´t escape from that problem by going on about those that go to the opposite extreme. That is an old sophism. Extremes meet. It is evident that the Church is in need of a theological development which would produce a Catholic gender theory which clearly delineates itself against the errors that are to be found, in equal measure, at both extremes.

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  9. ( I am not sure if this is going to be placed in the correct place.) Regarding gender and sex: If sex is considered a merely biological affair then identifying sex and gender entails the reduction of gender to the biological, something I reject. That is a type of unity and identity which I reject as Cartesian, because it separates the personal center from the body.

    Thus when I say that gender and sex cannot be separated I am not identifying gender with a merely biological determination. What I am saying is that gender includes sex, includes the biological component, that it does not disrespect the biological component. The unity is fundamentally from above, not from below. Gender is integrally human. A merely biological component of human nature is not and cannot be integrally human.

    Gender has a social, cultural and supernatural component that goes beyond man´s lower nature, that which he shares with animals, living things not endowed with reason, and the inanimate

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  10. Some things are singularly bad. And if this is so one is also obliged to allow that some people, also, are bad or evil in a singular way. Or better said, it is a morally virtuous to judge and therefore to communicate to others in a concrete historical context, prudently, with discernment, the singular evil that the person in question represents. An example of this is found in the film A Hidden Life in whuch the blessed martyr meets in his village some Nazi functionary greeting him with a Heil Hitler, and your man responds with Phooie Hitler.
    Are we to dismiss this as Hitler Derangement Syndrome?
    In the 1930s there were sterling examples of
    testimony against Hitler and the ideology identified with him (Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Titus Brandsma) and this was long before the war and the gas chambers. Such testimonies can hardly be dismissed as judgemental and therefore anti-evangelical.

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