Trump Destroyed the Most Important Virtue in America

Biden can help us get it back.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally.
Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy.

What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.

We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.

However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.

The collapse of seriousness is the greatest loss we have sustained under Trump, one of the least serious human beings ever to occupy a position of great power in America. What do I mean by seriousness? It is the burden of knowing that we own our decisions, that our actions have consequences. It is the sense of responsibility that helps us to act without being ordered to act, the instinct that tells us, even when we are alone, that we owe a duty to others and that our behavior affects them as much as it does ourselves.

To be serious is not to be humorless. I am 60 years old, and I occasionally revel in my own silliness. We all should. As Thomas Aquinas reminded us, play refreshes the soul. But seriousness is the ability to know the difference between work and play. It is the wisdom to know when to stop laughing and to pay attention, weigh our words, and consider our actions beyond the intemperate advice of our own impulses. It is to know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.

The Founding Fathers were the most serious of men, and not merely because they were brave enough to risk the gallows. They had a sense that what they were doing was transcendentally important, that they needed to make their case, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were not merely transacting business; they were instituting a new form of government while pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes,” and perhaps most telling, “our sacred honor.”

They knew that seriousness is the greatest requisite for a stable democracy, because it allows us to think beyond the moment and to accept the weight of duty and communal responsibility. The many other civic virtues—prudence, engagement, respect, tolerance—proceed from seriousness. And only seriousness produces the mindset that forces us to accept the central tenet of democracy: We are adults who are masters of our own fates instead of irresponsible and powerless children.

Authoritarian regimes are less serious than democracies. It may seem strange to say that, because the day-to-day existence in such places is so grim. But authoritarianism relies on fatalism, which is one of the most pernicious forms of unseriousness. When nothing is in our control, nothing really matters. The experience of life dwindles down to taking care of one’s family and trying not to get sideways with those in charge.

I spent time in the old Soviet Union, a place that combined existential ludicrousness with paralyzing fear. Drinking and laughing with Soviet citizens back in the day was liberating because they had accepted their helpless condition in life. They knew, with great certainty, that nothing mattered. And after a couple of bottles of Russian vodka or Georgian wine or Armenian cognac, I knew it too. Democracy, however, cannot go on Soviet benders and abjure responsibility. In a free society, we, not the state, are the arbiters of our behavior.

Seriousness, then, is a combination of self-discipline and the Golden Rule, the civic reflex that allows us to step outside of ourselves, and to consider whether we would think well of someone who said or did what we are considering saying or doing. Children must learn this lesson or they remain stunted narcissists into adulthood.

Which brings me back to Trump.

Fairness requires me to admit that the American spiral into inanity did not begin with Trump. The end of the Cold War, the advent of multiple decades of prosperity, and the blindingly fast leaps in living standards were all part of the march to unseriousness.

Liberals will locate the start of the unserious presidency with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was famously able to laugh off anything with a quip. (Just ask Jimmy “There you go again” Carter and Walter “I am not going to exploit … [his] youth and inexperience” Mondale.) Conservatives think it began with Bill Clinton and his sax-playing, skirt-chasing, little-boy lip-biting.

But Trump took unseriousness and elevated it from an infrequent presidential vice to a positive virtue. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America great again,” but it might as well have been the internet mantra of “LOL nothing matters.” Nuclear weapons? Yes, he was very worried about “the nuclear” but he preferred to make fun of “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. Climate change? China? Sure, big problems, but wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about locking up “Crooked Hillary?”

And when the most serious moment of his presidency arrived and Americans began dying by the thousands from COVID-19, Trump sought refuge in the ultimate expression of unseriousness: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

His presidency was all kayfabe, the ethos of faked professional wrestling, where nothing is real and no one gets hurt. Trump never cared that he had to make real decisions that had real consequences. At every turn, all that mattered was the brief winning moment and the boffo ratings. It was all about the emotional charge of the here and now, and it was glorious. Tomorrow was someone else’s problem.

In other words: Pass the vodka, comrade. I’ll sleep where I fall.

It should not, of course, have been a shock that America under Trump became a collection of overgrown adolescents who were incapable of facing adversity. When the time came for genuine seriousness—literally, a matter of life and death—America was a nation of spoiled children, sullen when corrected, explosive with rage when forced to do anything they found unpleasant, ready to lecture others on why the Constitution gave them the right to wear a surgical mask on their chin.

This level of entitlement and the toddlerlike understanding of “freedom” to mean “I can do anything I want without consequences” came to a head in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. One of the most serious challenges to constitutional order in the history of the United States was led by a group of the least serious citizens among us.

The mob was not made up of the poor and dispossessed seeking redress of grievances. This was a bored lumpen bourgeoisie, a narcissistic middle class of deep pockets and shallow minds who felt that life had not paid them the respect they were due. Some of them, to be sure, were intent on serious crimes, including kidnapping and murder. But even these would-be terrorists had a weird tourist vibe. (One of the insurrectionists, a 30-year-old ex-bartender sporting a ski mask, brought zip-tie flex handcuffs—and so did his mom, who accompanied him to the riot.)

Indeed, the insurrectionists were so unserious, they somehow got it into their heads that they could overwhelm the Capitol, take Congress hostage, and rerun the presidential election—after which, apparently, everyone would exchange congratulations on a job well done, retire to the hotel for a few drinks, and then fly home with wonderful memories and stories to tell. We know this because, like the narcissistic children they are, they could not stop talking to their phones and taking selfies and videos even in the midst of a violent insurrection.

Hundreds of people now face arrest, and most of them are shocked to find that an attack on the Capitol and the murder of a police officer will not be written off by the federal authorities as merely a self-actualizing day trip to Camp Sedition.

Consider, for example, the soul of helium displayed by Jenna Ryan, a realtor from Texas who flew to Washington, D.C., on a private jet—as one does to get to an insurrection—and who stopped in the midst of the attack to assure us all that she was, in fact, inside the Capitol and committed to victory or death, but that upon her return to Texas everyone should know that Jenna Ryan is the person who can handle even the toughest real-estate deals. The day she was arrested, the realtor-patriot went on television and said that Trump owed her a pardon.

All of this would be laughable if America were some irrelevant banana republic. But when a superpower becomes an unserious nation, it becomes a dangerous nation. A giant, nuclear-armed clown show is a menace to the life and liberty of its own people and to the stability and safety of the planet itself.

Unseriousness is not limited to Trump cultists, although they seem to have embraced it most fully. It is, like COVID-19, a national affliction. Last summer, America experienced genuine and justified rage against racism and police brutality. These protests were, at first, the embodiment of seriousness, an acknowledgment that one person’s pain affects us all. However, they were later hijacked by those who wanted to play camp-out in the middle of major cities and who looted and engaged in mindless vandalism.

Even after so many years of unseriousness, Biden prevailed in the election. Whatever his other failings, he is a serious man. Yes, he sometimes has an unserious mien, a come-on-man, no-malarkey doofusness, but he’s also a man who has experienced pain, love, tragedy, and loss—the moments that affirm to us that life is a serious business. He is a reminder that serious people do important things every day, like taking care of their children and showing up to their job ready to work. When he talks about problems, his empathy is real; when he talks about policy, his commitment is genuine.

Perhaps most important, Biden shares with his pre-Trump predecessors a visible sense of gravity about the presidency. He speaks of the office with both excitement and reverence—and maybe, too, a bit of sadness, because he knows what is to come. No man is the same after his first day as president. The office is too big, too terrifying, to rest lightly on anyone’s shoulders. Even Trump, on his first visit to the White House as president-elect, was visibly shaken, at least for a moment. (That moment passed quickly.)

Biden cannot rescue us from ourselves, but he can give us an example to follow. He can remind us that we live in a serious, and dangerous, time. He can talk to us like adults, and demand in return that we listen like adults. He can forgo the false promises and grand plans, and level with us that he has come to Washington to put out the fires and repair the foundations of our system.

Most of all, he can force us to confront the challenges ahead—the pandemic, the foreign dangers, the threats from within, the damage to our institutions, and the weakening of the rule of law—with stoicism and quiet confidence.

And without whining. We’ve had more than enough of that.

Biden is a serious man. We can be a serious people again. The choice is ours.