Recently “moral authority” has become part of the debate over the effectiveness of the Trump presidency. It is important to understand how this concept works beyond presidential politics. It can impact more broadly how we interact with each other.
First, the political. Former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration Robert Reich wrote in April that “the moral authority of the office” of the president has “disappeared” with Trump. Reich tweeted on April 24 that degradation of this authority is “one of the biggest legacies” of Trump’s first 100 days in office. And if you think Trump started this, Senior National Correspondent for MTV News, Jamil Smith, replied to Reich that “Trump is an avatar for the lack of moral authority that was there all along.”
We could debate that claim for eons. But it is also important to point out that a lot of our institutions work on this authority, not just the government. Clergy members are acceded this authority, for example. But it also works in economic arenas, such as when David French at the National Review questioned the moral authority of United to drag one of its customers from a flight in April. Finally, moral authority works in professional fields: Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who was the first to discover the drinking water crisis in Flint, MI, was given an award for returning moral authority to engineers.
These examples assume the need for and want of moral authority. In a time of proliferating questions about moral authority in the presidency, these assumptions must be openly articulated. If indeed there is a need or want for this authority, ‘fleshing it out’ is required. We do need this authority to fight presidential authoritarianism but appeals to moral authority are present in other arenas. For example, a white Florida state senator resigned after using a racial slur to describe a black colleague. As The New York Times noted, we don’t consider this appropriate behavior for an elected official. The white senator’s moral authority to represent us as Americans was erased by his moral errors, forcing his resignation.
Reich wrote that moral authority is based on the notion “from early in the Republic” that the presidency (and here I include all elected officials) is “a focal point for the nation’s values.” Reich says Trump’s family enrichment, cruelty, and lies demonstrate his lack of moral authority.
Clearly there is a moral code that grounds such authority. Reich points out in his April essay that this code comes from our nation’s history. Presidents such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, are “exemplars” of this authority: “It is not merely what these men accomplished, but how they did it; not just their policies but their positive effects on the institutions of democratic governance.”
However, this moral code isn’t just received, it’s also actively made. In her essay “Crafting virtue: The rhetorical construction of public morality,” rhetorical scholar Celeste Condit calls moral authority a “collective discourse.” In other words, the moral code is continuously made and remade by us all.
Yet our “collective” has been consistently undermined by what Condit and others call a “privatization of morality.” In other words, the authority one gets from the collective now comes from one’s own morality. This can be summed up in a misreading of the Bible verse “judge not, lest you be judged.” Or in layman’s terms, my morality is not better than yours so I can’t judge yours.
The privatization of morality leads to certain people or certain offices having moral authority. The antidote for this is what Condit calls “the value of human craft.” We see this in the ways that we give ‘flesh’ to morality when we speak and then collectively use these crafts to judge our democratic institutions or representatives. As the Florida Senator’s example shows us, appeals to moral authority are still powerful.
To paraphrase Condit, morality is created with every word we speak. But a moral individualism is not the end of the story. If we allow moral authority to flow one way – for example, to let Trump tell us that whatever he says is presidential, as one of his supporters said in January, or allow only our personal moral authority to reign – we run the risk of failing to recognize the collective nature of the human craft and so, as Condit says, “we sadly deplete the quality of human life.”
If indeed we seek to impose our authority on another, how then do we live together in a democracy? One method can be seen in past presidents who have lived out their moral authority. While they all were complex moral actors – each with their own failings and limited vision – each sought to be a voice for a general American consensus. When this consensus is violated – whether in legal or social arenas – the moral crafting of the nation either pulls us back into consensus or punishes the outlier through resignation or silence. Most of the time.
In other words, what we’re missing is a president who speaks a nationally transcendent language—who speaks to our national identity, to our national aspirations. But, what Trump’s presidency may have exposed is that there is no longer a viable nationally transcendent language with which to speak.
The only way democracy works out its moral authority is if we all aim to craft morality together, working through issues. We cannot use moral pronouncements as mere bricks in our isolating walls. In short, any moral authority a representative has comes from the moral crafting we do. And so voices from individuals like you and me make an impact on the collective power implied in the moral authority given to our local, state, and national representatives.