Ethics Quote Of The Week: Donald Trump (And An Ethicist’s Zugzwang)

Let’s start with the quote: Donald Trump wrote on his Twitter alternative Truth Social in response to the January 6 kangaroo court’s withdrawal of his subpoena,

“Was just advised that the Unselect Committee of political Thugs has withdrawn the Subpoena of me concerning the January 6th Protest of the CROOKED 2020 Presidential Election. They probably did so because they knew I did nothing wrong, or they were about to lose in Court. Perhaps the FBI’s involvement in RIGGING the Election played into their decision. In any event, the Subpoena is DEAD!”

Gee, why don’t you tell us what you really think, Mr. President?

I don’t want Presidents of the U.S. to express themselves like this, essentially in the style and with the cheap-shot rhetorical flourishes of a middle school wise-ass. It harms the office; it degrades the dignity and credibility of the office-holder, it’s a terrible example for the nation’s #1 role model to set for the young, and it undermines public confidence in the judgment and trustworthiness of the individual.

Trump talked and tweeted like this all through his four years in office, as we know, and has ever since. The approximately 30% of the electorate that, in his immortal words, would continue to support Trump if he shot someone in broad daylight in the middle of Times Square love this crap—it’s so, so authentic!–and they are dead, dead, dead wrong. This kind of outburst shows why Trump should never have been elected, and why people like him should not lead the United States —and until a weird confluence of random events and factors intervened, have not.

Outbursts like that one place me in ethics zugzwang, a place a professional ethicist does not want to be. Zugzwang, for those new to Ethics Alarms who are not chess players, is a term used in chess circles to describe when a player is doomed no matter what move he or she makes, and not moving isn’t a option. Ethics zugzwang, a term that as far as I know originated here, is the situation in life where every alternative involves unethical behavior.

What has made dealing with Trump’s words and actions zugzwang-y is in part the ongoing determination of the news media and the Trump Deranged to destroy him by any means necessary, because 1) they hate him for beating them and their allies, like Hillary Clinton; 2) because he’s right about a lot of their sacred agenda items like abortion and open borders and 3) he doesn’t play by their rules. These are  dishonest, ruthless, unethical institutions and individuals,  and I view it as irresponsible to assist or support their efforts in any way because they are determined to do damage to basic American values and the foundation of our democracy.

In addition, Trump has been subjected to indefensible double standards, which my recent encounters with some Trump Deranged trolls on another post amply illustrated. There is also the problem that the guy, crude and bluster-addicted as he is, is often right, and in this case, he is mostly right again. The Committee was unethically assembled (“UNselect”); “thugs” isn’t the right word, but the group is a bunch of hyper-partisan, fairness-be-damned, Machiavellian blots on the respectability of Congress; no, there is no proof that the election was “crooked,” but it had enough irregularities that it is reasonable to question its integrity; withdrawing the subpoena is quite likely to be a hint that the Justice Department is not going to be so foolish (and unethical) as to indict Trump on the authority of the Committee’s transparently political witch hunt; the FBI didn’t rig the election, but it was outrageously complicit in undermining Trump’s chances of being re-elected, and yes, the subpoena is dead.

What is the ethical approach to this episode and so many like it? There isn’t any…

  • “The Julie Principle” would hold that Trump’s rhetoric is just the way he expresses himself (“fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”) and criticizing what isn’t going to change is reinforcing the strategy of his unethical foes, whose position is that everything Trump says or does is wrong even when many or all politicians have behaved the same way without punishment or criticism.
  • Ignoring Trump’s excesses, on the other hand, will be cited as proof of “Trumpism” and an obvious bias in favor of the man, thus undermining my credibility as an ethics umpire.
  • Defending him, meanwhile, is even more damning in the jaundiced eyes of the Trump-Deranged.


As readers here know, my approach is to try to thread the needle: defend Trump when he is right or is being held to different standards than Democrats and other Presidents, criticize his worst ethical breaches, and to let the non-substantive, Trump being Trump stuff go when it is self-evidently silly, dumb, or harmless.

How I wish he would just go away.

4 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Donald Trump (And An Ethicist’s Zugzwang)

  1. Jack,

    With all due respect, I believe you are struggling with a wrong priority. Worrying what the Trump-deranged think of you is a non-ethical consideration when it comes to dealing with Trump and his ham-handed declarations, especially when he is substantially correct. I do not believe that accusations of partisan favoritism should concern you when you know, as do most of the long present readers here, that you are not showing favoritism. Such accusations are being given out because rhetorical skills are in decline and accusations easily stop others from attacking false positions by making them defend against a straw man.

    That being said, I understand your frustration with the situation. It is difficult to be ethical when the unethical win by unethical means and the only way, it seems, to compete is to use said unethical means.

    I do not believe you are actually in zugzwang. You percieve yourself in zugzwang because your “thread the needle” approach is reviled by so many and the effect of the constant attacks on your ethical character and analysis is starting to wear on you. It is easy for me to say, “don’t sweat it” and “keep at it” but hard for you to hear as we as humans have been wired, from prehistory, to focus on the negative things so we don’t get eaten by them. However, I encourage you to try and focus instead on doing what you have been. To me, this “thread the needle” approach has been the correct one.

    In this case, agreeing with the sentiment Trump seems to be espousing, correcting his use of vocabulary, and sticking to the facts, not assumptions, is the correct approach.

    Finally, we all wish Trump would bow out gracefully to allow new blood to get in the game. I cannot fault you for that. His retirement from politics would make your endeavors here much easier, indeed, life everywhere would be eased.

    • Yes, very well stated indeed.

      I would contend that we are actually closer to being done with Trump than we have been for a long time, and a lot of it is his doings.

      The results of the midterms were an eye opener for a lot of people, and right or wrong, one of the big lessons taken away from them is that parroting Trump and focusing on the 2020 election are losing issues for Republicans. Most of us, with the possible exception of the Freedom Caucus, more than anything want to finally win. We got a taste of it in 2016 and it worked out pretty well for the country, I think.

      But another thing weighing down Trump are his attacks on other Republicans, especially DeSantis. Florida was an unalloyed bright spot in this election, and to dismiss what happened there and denigrate the GOP leaders from Florida I don’t think sits well with Republicans.

      The other thing is that, after endorsing a number of high profile candidates, and supporting them as best Trump could bring himself to do, most of them lost. Not all, but we clearly left Senate, House, and gubernatorial seats on the table that should have been ripe for the picking this cycle. People know who pushed those candidates, and they’re not stupid.

      All in all, I think that it is now possible to believe that the GOP could nominate someone other than Trump in 2024, which would mean that they have a chance to win.

      It will depend on the diehard Trump supporters in that case. If they cannot bring themselves to vote for the GOP candidate, we’re likely to have at least four more years of Democratic rule, with possibly someone actually competent as President (hard as that is to envision, I’m sure the Dems have someone).

  2. I would say support the truth when it is spoken and disregard the methodology of the truth-teller. In most communication classes I took or was subjected to it was always emphasized that we should actively listen to the underlying message and disregard the delivery. What is actually being said is more important than how it is being said.
    Mr. Trump’s methodology is boorishly bordering on 5th-grade schoolyard language skills, however, as you pointed out he was and remains correct in the substance of what he says. Aristotle teaches that reality consists of substance and accident. The accident is what we see, feel touch, the substance is the true essence of reality. Words and their delivery are “accidental”, the message is “substantive.”

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