Donald J. Trump became a “thing” in 2016 when he canon-balled into the pool of presidential wannabees. With his orange hair, small mouth, and bluster he sucked the oxygen out of 17 elite Republicans hoping to win the race. They were politicians with credentials, experience, legal knowledge, and well versed in the Constitution. They never spilled soup on their ties or blouses. He was widely unknown, except for his TV reality show. He claimed to have lots of money, was a proud misogynist, narcissist, bank swindler, and lived in a New York 5th Avenue tower with an escalator. His seventeen political foes in the Republican primary race for the nomination were ill-equipped to compete. They did not lie at will, had established reputations for ethics and fair play. They read books, paid their taxes, had good manners, belonged to a reputable political party, and did not foul the public air with profanity, vulgarity, or false claims. His advantage was that he knew his immorality would not be a barrier because most of his rally followers didn’t care. Mostly, they shared his prejudices.
Reduced to its essence, Trump’s primary campaign was devoid of ethics, giving him an advantage over 17 political combatants who did. When his primary campaign moved to the big race against the Democratic nominee, he won again. It was the first American race for the presidency to engage on a level where a man stalked a woman on national TV during a debate for the highest office we have; POTUS.
The ethical question du jour is how can a candidate with an appalling personal and professional record of unethical behavior dare to run for the presidency again? Trump, in November 2022, announced his third run for the presidency. Surveys in 2020 regularly showed that Americans ranked Trump lowest among modern presidents on ethical standards, including Nixon and Clinton, and many media thought pieces focused on his morality and character. Tragically, it seems then that when assessing Donald Trump, most Americans care less about who he is and what he stands for. They base their judgment more on what he has done in office.
A 2020 poll from the Survey Center on American Life of the American Enterprise Institute offered insight. “How do Americans weigh a president’s personal qualities against his policies and accomplishments? The data show that in aggregate 60% of Americans say their opinion of Trump is based more on what he has done as president, while 39% say it’s based on who Trump is and what he stands for. This suggests that attacks on Trump’s character won’t resonate much with the majority of the electorate. In fact, this result holds true with little variation among survey respondents by income, geographic location, education, or gender differences. Even the opinion of immigrants and native-born Americans converge on this question — 64% of Americans born outside the U.S. judge Trump by his actions in office rather than his character and values, as do 59% of people born in this country.”
Trump has announced a third run for the presidency in 2024. Two ethical questions should be posed to water-witch his audacity. Is there such a thing as political ethics in today’s moribund political reality? Does his role in the January 6 insurrection matter?
Political ethics is an oxymoron. The Ethics Sage says, “Regardless of how they are defined, political ethics is at a low point in the U.S. because of self-serving decision-makers in our legislatures, the desire to remain in office by cozying up to outside interests and avoiding the tough issues by kicking the can down the road. Legislators and politicians make promises to their constituents that are aimed at keeping them in office, not problem solving, even though most of these promises will never be met. The public good no longer is front and center in decision-making. Ethical decision-making has become too relativistic and not based on tried-and-true ethical standards, such as diligence, integrity, and responsibility. For example, we all know Donald Trump will not be able to get Mexico to pay for the wall. The wall may never be built. Trump can’t do it alone unless he uses his own money rather than get Congress to allocate the funds.”
Madame Wiki says, “Political ethics is the practice of making moral judgments about political action and political agents. It covers two areas. The first is the ethics of process, which deals with public officials and their methods. The second area is the ethics of policy, which concerns judgments surrounding policies and laws. The concept of political morality can be easily understood when the roots of the term and its gradual development are assessed. The core values and expectations of political morality have historically derived from the principles of justice. . . the political concept of justice is ultimately based on the common good of the individual rather than on the values one is expected to follow.”
Authors should make moral judgments about political issues. This calls for introspection of our own perceived definition of morality. When we write about the political ethics of others, especially political leaders, we can turn to history and political commentary about ethics and whether they matter. Niccolò Machiavelli was a political theorist who spoke on, and later subverted matters of political ethics. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that a political leader may have to behave in evil ways if necessary to maintain his authority. Trump would likely have been Machiavellian had he given any thought to how best to govern. Sadly, he cared little about the process of governance or the actuality of presidential limited power. He steadfastly counted on how many social media likes he got and how many tweets were tallied.
There is a variant of political ethics known as the “problem of dirty hands.” It is a classic paradox—politicians must “do wrong to do right.” Michael Walzer put it this way. “The politician uses violence to prevent greater violence, but his act is still wrong even if justified. . . Some critics object that either the politician is justified or not. If justified, there is nothing wrong, though he may feel guilty. Others say that some of the acts of violence that Walzer would allow are never justified, no matter what the ends. Dennis Thompson has argued that in a democracy citizens should hold the leader responsible, and therefore if the act is unjustified their hands are dirty too.”
In early 2021, 52% of Americans said Donald Trump bore “a lot” of responsibility for the violence and destruction committed by his supporters in their insurrection and invasion of our national capitol on January 6, 2021. In February 2022, 43% still assert his complicity, while 24% said he bears no responsibility for the mayhem caused by his supporters that day.
The J-6 congressional investigation has discovered new developments. “President Trump did not fail to act … he chose not to act, Rep. Adam Kinzinger said at the latest J-6 congressional hearing. While Trump’s public silence during much of the violence is already well-known, the congressional panel argues that the new evidence it presented about what happened inside the West Wing showed he purposely didn’t intervene in the chaos until it was clear the mob had failed to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election. . . Donald Trump ignored and disregarded the desperate pleas of his own family, including Ivanka and Don Jr., said the select panel’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, referring to the former president’s children. He could not be moved.’”
On October 21, 2022, CNBC reported that former President Trump was issued a subpoena by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., wrote to Trump and said his role was central and a deliberate effort to reverse his loss in the 2020 presidential election and to remain in power. The records being sought by the House committee pursuant to the subpoena are due Nov. 4. They included documentation of telephone calls, text messages, or communications sent through the encrypted messaging app Signaland photos, videos, and handwritten notes relevant to the scope of the probe. The panel specifically asked for communications to, and memorandums from, 13 Trump allies and fellow deniers of Biden’s victory, among them former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Republican gadfly Roger Stone, retired Army Lt. General Michael Flynn, and former White House aide Stephen Bannon. In their letter to Trump, committee leaders Thompson and Cheney accused him of maliciously making false allegations of election fraud, attempting to corrupt the Department of Justice to endorse those claims, pressuring state officials to change election results, and overseeing efforts to submit false electors to the Electoral College. The letter also noted that he had pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, to refuse to count Electoral College votes during the joint session of Congress. As demonstrated in our hearings, we have assembled overwhelming evidence, including from dozens of your former appointees and staff, that you personally orchestrated and oversaw a multi-part effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election and to obstruct the peaceful transition of power. You were at the center of the first and only effort by any U.S. President to overturn an election and obstruct the peaceful transition of power, ultimately culminating in a bloody attack on our own Capitol and on the Congress itself.”
“By any measure, Trump’s historically divisive presidency shook the pillars of our democratic institutions. His run-again in 2024 announcement is a challenge to mainstream Republican principles. Does ethics matter to his far-right wing? His declaration of availability to again don the mantle of power in White House again in 2024, ignores the appeals of Republicans who warn that his continued influence on the party is largely to blame for its weaker-than-expected showing in the midterm elections. As usual, there is a simple explanation of his surprise declaration. He is the product of his own personality and believes a formal candidacy will shield him from multiple investigations into his attempts to cling to power after his 2020 defeat, which led to the deadly mob attack by his supporters on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which are still playing out as hundreds of his mob are tried, convicted, and confined in America’s prisons. Our political system may be short on ethics, but it is long on conviction.
As of December 7, 2022, at least 964 people have been charged in the Capitol insurrection. 465 federally charged rioters have entered guilty pleas. The FBI and the DOJ have heavily invested in justice for all who invented and carried out the attack on a building and a document—the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Constitution. Only around a quarter of those arrested—185 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, 80 defendants were sentenced to periods of incarceration, with longer prison terms for those who engaged in violence or threats.”
Trump may eventually get a lesson in ethics from a federal judge.
 Strauss, Leo (2014-07-04). Thoughts on Machiavelli. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226230979.
 Michael Laban Walzer is an American political theorist and public intellectual. A professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, he is editor emeritus of Dissent, an intellectual magazine that he has been affiliated with since his years as an undergraduate at Brandeis University. He has written books and essays on a wide range of topics—many in political ethics—including just and unjust wars, nationalism, ethnicity, Zionism, economic justice, social criticism, radicalism, tolerance, and political obligation. He is also a contributing editor to The New Republic. To date, he has written 27 books and published over 300 articles, essays, and book reviews in Dissent, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harpers, and many philosophical and political science journals.
 Thompson, Dennis F. “Democratic Dirty Hands,” in Political Ethics and Public Office (Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 11-39. ISBN 9780674686069
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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