Trump's Abdication of Personal Responsibility

Conservatives have put families and communities at the center of their conception of a better America—but they’re notably absent from the Republican nominee’s account.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Again and again at Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump’s record in business. She accused him of caring only about himself. Again and again, he pleaded guilty.

When Clinton quoted Trump as cheering for a housing crisis, Trump responded, “That’s called business.” When Clinton accused Trump of not paying taxes, Trump answered, “That makes me smart.” When Clinton attacked Trump for declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying the people he owed, Trump replied, “I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company.” Clinton set out to paint Trump as selfish and unethical. Trump basically conceded the charge.

Commentators are declaring Trump’s answers a tactical mistake. But they’re more than that. They show how unmoored he is from conservatism’s conception of America.

Since the birth of “fusionism” in the 1950s, America’s most prominent conservative thinkers and politicians have called for both reducing government’s power over the individual and strengthening traditional morality. They’ve squared that circle by emphasizing personal responsibility. Don’t use government to force people to take care of each other, conservatives have argued, since that threatens freedom. Don’t force people to hand over large swaths of money to Washington, which then doles it out to the poor. Instead, encourage them to look out for one another voluntarily, without the coercion of the state. Inculcate the moral character that leads people to take responsibility for their families and communities. In the 1980s, George Will called this “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” and Republican presidential candidates have been preaching it ever since.

In his presidential announcement speech in 2000, George W. Bush said his first goal as president would to “usher in the responsibility era,” an era in which “each of us must understand we are responsible for the choices we make in life. We’re responsible for the children we bring into the world. We’re responsible to love our neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves.” Creating such an era, he argued, required changing Americans themselves: “Cultures change one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time. Government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives.”

In accepting the Republican nomination in 2008, John McCain urged Americans to take care of one another rather than waiting for government to do so: “Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”

In his 2012 acceptance, speech, Mitt Romney declared that, “All the laws and legislation in the world will never heal this world like the loving hearts and arms of mothers and fathers … The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, our faiths. That is the bedrock of what makes America, America. In our best days, we can feel the vibrancy of America's communities, large and small.”

Paul Ryan makes this point in virtually every speech he gives. In 2012, he explained that he had learned “the importance of community from experience. I come from a town that’s been hit as hard as any. A lot of guys I grew up with worked at the GM plant in my hometown, and they lost their jobs when it closed. What happened next is the same thing that happens in communities around the country every day. The town pulled together. Our churches and charities and friends and neighbors were there for one another. In textbooks, they call this civil society. In my own experience, I know it as Janesville, Wisconsin.”

Donald Trump never talks this way. In his presidential announcement speech, he never mentioned “morality” or “responsibility” or “community.” The only family he mentioned was his own.

In his acceptance speech this summer, talked about “chaos in our communities … communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals” and “the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens … communities.” But he never offered an example of a community banding together to solve problems. He never offered an example of an individual taking moral responsibility for his family or his neighbors.

The contrast is particularly stark when Trump talks about African Americans. For decades, conservatives have placed the primary blame for inner-city poverty on the decline of the two-parent family. To be sure, they’ve also argued for tougher crime laws and for abolishing the taxation and regulation that inhibits black entrepreneurship. But the root of the problem, they’ve argued, is moral breakdown. And they’ve consistently valorized the mothers, fathers, churches, and neighborhood-watch groups that seek to redress it.

Trump, by contrast, rarely talks about the importance of people helping one another. In his speeches, civil society doesn’t exist. In 2012, Romney claimed that service to others guided his conduct before entering government. In his second debate with Obama, he talked about working as a missionary and pastor. In his acceptance speech, he depicted Bain Capital as a business that aimed to do more than merely make money. As an example, he cited its role in helping to create “an early childhood learning center called Bright Horizons.”

Trump, by contrast, argued on Monday night that businessmen like himself can do whatever it takes to get rich, so long as they don’t violate the law. He essentially rejected the proposition that people should live by a moral code that goes beyond what is mandated by the state. And he discussed the country as a whole the same way. While George W. Bush saw “faith-based communities” as the answer to urban blight, Trump’s answer is stop-and-frisk. While Ryan praised his neighbors in Janesville for helping each other after a GM plant closed, Trump’s answer is for the president to force GM to stay. For more than a half century, conservatives have put families and communities at the center of their conception of a better America. For Trump, by contrast, the heroes are self-interested businessmen and a brutally powerful state. Profit is good; law is good. Culture doesn’t matter.

It’s no coincidence that Republicans have nominated such a man at a time when working-class white Americans are suffering much of the familial and communal breakdown previously associated with African Americans. (And that Trump is doing poorly in Utah, a conservative state where social capital is unusually high.) It’s easier to lecture people when you’re not trying to win their votes. Trump hasn’t told blue-collar white Americans to stay married, go to church, and get off drugs. He’s told them that he’ll protect them from Chinese workers by preventing companies from relocating, protect them from violent African Americans by imposing law and order, protect them from terrorism by banning Muslims from entering the United States, and protect them from Mexican immigrants by building a wall.

Maybe it’s because Trump doesn’t emphasize moral responsibility in his own work and family life that this message comes so naturally to him. The fact that it has proven so appealing to so many Republicans shows how weak conservatism’s traditional message now is, even in the precincts where it was thought to be strong.