Character and moral action in the age of Trump

A response to Bret Stephens.

U.S. President Donald Trump (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump
Let’s begin with the obvious. US President Donald Trump’s comments about some “very fine people” being at the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally were offensive, wholly inappropriate, and provided comfort to white supremacists, however inadvertent.
The president’s unfortunate comments were an abrogation of his moral responsibility as leader of the free world and the globe’s most influential republic.
America is the light of freedom and democracy and no American president can go soft on condemning a growing incarnation of the foremost evil the world has ever seen.
Moreover, a nation whose primary moral sin was the abomination of slavery has a responsibility to go to the opposite extreme in always castigating white supremacist wretches who are stain on America’s reputation.
This is especially true of the first president in history to have Jewish children and grandchildren.
President Trump has a responsibility to repudiate his comments.
Having said that, my close friend Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief who excoriated the “Jewish Right” in a column last Saturday, takes it too far. He asserts that, in saying when it comes to leadership, character is a more important consideration than policy and the American Jewish community should abandon Trump unconditionally, however good he has been to Israel.
Bret was our Shabbat guest last Friday night and we had a spirited debate on the issue. Not only is Bret a mentor to me, but he has emerged as one of America’s great moral voices and one of the world’s most eloquent defenders of Israel. I don’t disagree with Bret lightly, but here goes.
If there is one consistent historical lesson of leadership, it is that men and women of flawed character can still enact great good. As I just completed an in-depth Holocaust educational journey to the killing fields of Europe, let me give the example of Oscar Schindler.
He was a Nazi and a war profiteer who betrayed his marriage endlessly and left his wife penniless. But he saved some 1,000 Jews under the most challenging circumstances and is remembered as a righteous gentile.
His memory is rightly revered in the world Jewish community.
Of greater consequence was Franklin Roosevelt, whose wife, Eleanor, never forgave him for carrying on an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, with his mistress, Lucy Rutherford, at his side rather than his wife. But in saving the world from Hitler he is remembered as the greatest president of the 20th century.
More recently, Martin Luther King Jr. distinguished himself as the greatest American of the 20th century by restoring America to its founding ideals of all people being created equal in the image of God. In so doing he entered the pantheon of America’s founding fathers, even though he was of imperfect character.
King has long been my personal inspiration and his soaring oratory brought the Hebrew prophets back to life.
I need not remind you of biblical figures who, like King David, were similarly of imperfect character, but were seminal builders of the Jewish nation and all the positive influence it has had on world history.
None of this, of course, is to compare Trump, or anyone else for that matter, to these world historical figures. It is to say that, to the extent that Bret is right in criticizing Trump’s leadership, it should not be about flawed character, but flawed action.
I do not much care if Trump or anyone else is a white supremacist in their heart. Rather, I care how they act.
It is righteous action rather than righteous sentiment that counts. Mind you, I absolutely do not believe that the president is a racist or a white supremacist and recognize that he has shown lifelong friendship with the Jewish people.
Regardless, what matters in leadership is not how a man or woman feels in their heart, but what they say and how they act that matters.
Harry Truman in his private journal once wrote of the Jews that they are crueler than Hitler. In a private entry in July 1947, Truman wrote, “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power – physical, financial or political – neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment of the underdog.”
That’s pretty disappointing. But does anyone care, given that he was the president who courageously recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the very same day Israel proclaimed its independence. And Truman did so against the advice of his own secretary of state, George Marshall, who threated to resign.
In a private conversation on February 13, 1973, secretly recorded in the Oval Office, then-president Richard Nixon said Jews have a “very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.” And this was part of many antisemitic comments made by Nixon.
These private comments pale into insignificance compared to the fact that Nixon saved Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he ordered an airlift that resupplied the IDF when it was repelling a genocidal onslaught by Egypt and Syria.
I personally could care less about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, compared to Clinton’s failure in preventing the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The point, stated from the perspective of Jewish values, is this: Whereas Christianity focuses on personal salvation, Judaism emphasizes world redemption.
The difference is that the former looks at the importance of sterling character, while the latter cares much more about our contribution to the lives of others, however imperfect we ourselves may be.
This brings us to modern politics and American values.
When Donald Trump punishes Bashar Assad for gassing Muslim children, when he warns Iran to stop missile testing that might one day bring a nuclear warhead to annihilate Israel. When he stands up to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear saber-rattling, he should be applauded.
Any person claiming to care about Muslim lives must applaud Trump’s courageous action in attacking Assad’s air force. But equally, when Trump fails to fully condemn vile white racists, he should be strongly criticized.
Obama was the same. His passivity in the face of the Syrian genocide and his legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program deserved the strongest criticism. But his considerable military and economic assistance to Israel should be applauded.
None of this has to do with character. It has to do with positive and negative action that has a direct bearing on the lives of others, regardless of a leader’s character.
To be sure, Judaism believes that men and women must strive to always improve their character and be better people. Refining our moral selves is a profound spiritual responsibility, but our obligations to ourselves are still subordinate to our obligations to others.
The writer is founder of the World Values Network and the international best-selling author of 30 books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.