On March 23, David French, opinion writer for the New York Times, was interviewed for the Ezra Klein Podcast. Following are some excerpts from his interview.
…what we really see is how imperfect a vehicle the law is to correct a breakdown in moral norms. So let’s just look at the challenge created — and I keep going back to this when I think about these times — the challenge created by the failure of, in particular, the second impeachment effort.
So this was not a legal proceeding in the classic sense that you think of as legal proceedings. This was a political process designed by the founders to check the power of a president. And if you were going to tell me as a kid that a president could incite an attack, a violent attack on the Capitol based on a completely fraudulent theory of an election fraud where he was literally trying to overthrow the lawfully elected government of the United States, and that wouldn’t qualify for a conviction — he was impeached, not convicted — I would think that we’d lost our way, that we just flat out lost our way.
And so what has ended up happening, I think, is that a number of people have failed to exercise or demonstrate the moral fortitude to stop Donald Trump from breaching American norms. And now a lot of people are sort of begging the legal system to do what they failed to do. And the legal system, it is a necessary part of American democracy. But it is not a substitute for moral courage.
And the real failure that we have seen in the Trump presidency, going from when he came down the escalator, was a large scale failure of moral courage, time and time and time again. To the point now where, Ezra, I talk to Republicans who are still — they will go out and say that they don’t like this prosecution of Trump. And they’re secretly hoping it happens and it succeeds.
That’s a textbook failure of moral courage.
And one of my real concerns here is if he is indicted and convicted and sentenced and that ends the matter, that people will say, well, see? The system worked.
And I would say it barely worked. It barely worked. The last remaining guardrail held. The basic baseline rule of law, every other guardrail was stampeded over.
But that’s another reason why I strongly object to political considerations of saying it’s too destabilizing, it’s too disruptive to prosecute him. Because then you would trample over that last guardrail. You would say that the anger of the mob, in the final analysis, is going to trump the rule of law.
“He’s a blue collar guy who happens to have a big balance sheet.”
-Donald Trump Jr. describing his father’s political appeal, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign.
Class struggle portrayed as nostalgia: appealing to defenders of moral surrender, claiming we don’t have to do this.
Fast forward to the campaign of 2024.
Moral surrender is occurring with increasing frequency across the America’s two party realpolitik. (1) Trump’s tone is a whimper, not a curse. ‘See what they are doing to me… ‘ they are doing to you. too. This is what keeps us close. Keeps us together: to think we will accept the world they are creating.
Truth be damned.
From the David French interview:
So this was early in the Trump presidency. I was invited and I spoke to a gathering of Baptist pastors. Many of them were pastors of big churches, some of small churches. And we’re talking about the importance of character in politicians.
And the reason for this was obvious. I mean, we had just seen the data that evangelicals had gone from, in 2011, the religious group in America most likely to say that immoral acts would disqualify a politician to the group surveyed that was now least likely to say that. And what was particularly ironic is that in 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is quite conservative, issued a statement on moral character of public officials. This is the height of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And it said words, “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, leads to unrestrained lawlessness, and surely will result in God’s judgment.” And this was something passed overwhelmingly in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998.
And so I’m talking to these Baptist pastors. And I said, if that was true in 1998, isn’t it true in 2017 or 2018? And, again, I’m talking about a Baptist moral resolution.
And a pastor raised his hand and I said, yes? And he said if I bring that up to my congregation, they’re going to call it elitist. And he’s a pastor, I believe, of a congregation in Alabama.
And it was an interesting demonstration to me as to how thoroughly the sort of Trump movement and the populist movement had taught, and how thoroughly the members of this populist movement had imbibed, this potion that said criticism of our populist leader is elitism. Criticism equals elitism.
And so in many ways, people became inoculated against the truth. Even a Baptist statement was elitist in a Baptist gathering if it took on Donald Trump.
And that was quite striking to me. I’ve got story after story after story of the Trump years living in a very, very red, heavily evangelical area like that where you couldn’t even get to the truth because the firewall against hearing it had been lifted so high.
Can American institutions suffer the moral surrender of the Republican Party?
When autocracy is the only alternative. Tone and timing are the pitch, the ‘sell:’ not if, but when.
If a segment of the assembly argues the conditional — if — and a segment of the assembly argues now, not ever, the upshot is not a political discourse but a violence done to the assembly. This is why defending First Amendment rights cannot be a refuge for insurrectionists, the ‘rights’ of the mob.
Nor is why defending First Amendment rights a demonstration of effectiveness despite President Ford’s warning. (2) In a way Ford was right in claiming the need for him to intervene in the indictment of former President Nixon’s coverup: convinced that the system doesn’t work, Ford was acting in the nation’s best interest.
If repression — listen to how this works — is the sole alternative to defending the right of speech and assembly — democracy and its defense thereof is elitist and not in the mob’s interest.
The good ship Lollypopulism has sailed.
Comment: Witness the sole and first self-proclaimed third party Presidential Candidate to declare he is running for President in 2024 is not touting a policy initiative nor an ideological position. Rather the candidate, Prof. Cornel West, is running to defend truth and justice.
I have decided to run for truth and justice, which takes the form of running for presidemt of the United States as a candidate for the People’s Party.
-Prof. Cornel West, June 5, as reported in Politico
But that’s not the prosecutor’s job. And the classic example of this is, of course, the grand jury that was moving towards indicting Richard Nixon. And Gerald Ford stepped in and pardoned Nixon. Extremely controversial that he did that, and I think that in hindsight there’s maybe a lot more reasons why it’s a mistake than proper.
But that’s the way the system is supposed to work. The justice system was moving in one direction. And then the president intervened, using his constitutional authority to make that political determination.
-David French, interview with Ezra Klein, March 23