The talk-radio host, writer, and speaker Dennis Prager has spent most of his career as an unapologetic public moralist who champions Judeo-Christian values in American life. He believes that it is important for public figures to be good role models. And he wants Donald J. Trump to win the upcoming presidential election. Can his principles be reconciled with supporting that man, however reluctantly?
Unlike in 2012, when the upstanding Mitt Romney was vying for the White House, the 2016 election puts public moralists who are also partisan Republicans in an unenviable position. The talk-radio host Bill Bennett has already faced tough questions this cycle about how he can square a career touting the importance of virtue with apologias for this Republican nominee and hypocritical attacks on Trump critics.
Now Dennis Prager is grappling with a similar critique.
This week in National Review, he observed that Trump critics “seem to imply, or at least may think, that conservatives who vote for Trump have abandoned their principles.”
His retort is eye-opening.
“We hold that defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle,” he explained in defense of himself. “And that it is the greater principle.”
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Those who’ve followed Prager’s work over the years likely grasp why his commentary triggered questions about whether he has abandoned his principles. Many of his past positions seem irreconcilable with supporting Donald Trump.
Here’s a rundown for the uninitiated.
The most straightforward example: his 2011 column, “F-Word Laced Speech Disqualifies Donald Trump From Presidency,” where Prager declared that Trump’s public utterances of profane words “render him unfit to be a presidential candidate, let alone president,” especially because, “and this IS important, he used it once and, upon seeing the enthusiastic reaction, felt encouraged to use it again and again.”
As Prager put it then, “leading Republicans need to announce that there is no place in the Republican Party for profane public speech. You cannot stand for small government without standing for big people.”
He went on to suggest larger stakes.
“The audience's reaction is even more important — and more distressing — than Trump's use of the word,” he explained. “Had there been booing, or had someone who invited him arisen to ask that he not use such language … the good name of the Republican Party and of conservative values would have been preserved. But if Republican women … find the F-word used by a potential candidate for president of the United States amusing, America is more coarsened than I had imagined.”
He concluded with the rhetorical question, “If we cannot count on Republicans and conservatives to maintain standards of public decency and civility, to whom shall we look?” Another time, he wrote that liberals who think that public cursing by politicians is no big deal illuminate “the massive values-differences between the Left and the Right … We who are not on the Left think public cursing is a big deal, because we believe that people can pollute their soul, their character, and, yes, their society, just as they can pollute their rivers and their air and their lungs.”
Today, Prager is encouraging a vote for the very man he deemed unfit in 2011, who has since engaged in more public, unapologetic profanity than any other candidate. By his own argument, he is elevating a man who will morally pollute our society.
Prager has always taken a nuanced position on adultery, arguing that it doesn’t always disqualify someone from a position of leadership––the circumstances matter. But he has been clear on one point: “In choosing a president of the United States, adultery would greatly matter to me is if it were engaged in indiscreetly. I don't trust the integrity or conscience of a man or woman who publicly humiliates his or her spouse.”
No adulterer in America has been less discrete than Donald Trump. He has admitted to cheating on two wives; he has humiliated them publicly on multiple occasions; he has even given mass media interviews where he brags about committing adultery. Is there anyone who has more flagrantly violated Prager’s standard?
Yet Prager is urging Americans to make that very man president.
The contempt that Dennis Prager shows for the act of lying about others in a way that harms their reputation is hard to overstate. Here is how he put it in one column:
The rape of a name can be as vicious a crime and as destructive an act as the rape of a body. Sometimes the rape of a body is worse, sometimes the rape of a name is worse. But they are both rapes.
And morally likening the two is in no way meant to lessen the horror of rape; it is meant only to heighten awareness of the horror of intentionally destroying the name of an innocent person … What do we have in life, after all, that is more valuable than our name and reputation?
Donald Trump frequently attacks the characters of public figures with whom he is feuding; political adversaries; and notably, even the family members of political adversaries. Most memorably, he has recently and repeatedly publicized the absurd claim that Ted Cruz’s father participated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Again, it is hard to think of a national politician who lies to destroy reputations more flagrantly or frequently than Trump. But despite how often he perpetrates a transgression that Prager considers morally akin to rape he would have Americans vote Trump.
In Prager’s estimation, “Any human being with a functioning conscience or a decent heart loathes torture. Its exercise has been a blight on humanity.” Trump favors torture. “What do you think about waterboarding?” he asked an Ohio crowd. “I like it a lot,” Trump told them. “I don’t think it’s tough enough.” Another time, he declared that “we’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable almost.” By Prager’s own standard, Trump favors a blight on humanity, lacks a functioning conscience, and does not possess a decent heart. Yet Prager would have Americans elevate this man to an office where he will possess the ability to order torture.
Goodness and Whining
Prager has written, “Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.” Trump is frequently dishonest and unkind. Inquiries into his charitable giving, or the lack thereof, suggest he is ungenerous. He shows no moral courage. And he is infamous for the way he publicly mistreats and insults others.
Self-esteem frequently runs counter to goodness. Raising children with self-esteem sounds great, but when unearned — which it usually is — it leads to bad results. In fact, it is people who do not have particularly high self-esteem, people who feel that they constantly have to prove their worth, who are more likely to act good.
Trump famously holds himself in the highest regard, and reminds everyone of that fact almost daily. If Prager is right about how goodness is defined, then Trump is not good.
In comparison, whining is a small matter. “Complaining not only ruins everybody else's day, it ruins the complainer's day, too,” Prager writes. “The more we complain, the more unhappy we get. Want to raise children who will be happy adults? Teach them not to whine.” Still, I find it hilarious that Trump literally declared himself “the most fabulous whiner” and unabashedly described his own approach to public life as follows: “I do whine because I want to win and I'm not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win."
The weight of the evidence is overwhelming: Trump is the quintessential embodiment of so much that Prager claims to abhor (so much that he alighted on Trump as an example of who shouldn’t be president in the past); and Trump is the antithesis of much Prager claims to value. No wonder Prager’s support for the Republican candidate has caused observers to charge that he is abandoning his principles!
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That brings us back to Prager’s defense of himself.
Given these seemingly flagrant contradictions—and there are many more that I could offer—what can be made of Prager’s argument that “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle … And that it is the greater principle”?
A principle, by one standard definition, is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”
So Prager’s claim is that he still holds all the principled beliefs that have shaped his columns over the years—he is still for goodness and against torture, still abhors “the rape of names,” indiscrete adultery, and public profanity—it’s just that those principles are less important than defeating the Democrat in this presidential election. Thus the decision to support Trump, even if he is a no good, torture-loving, character-assassinating serial adulterer who curses. It’s the principled thing to do!
If one’s long held principled concerns are suddenly subordinated to an overriding concern, such that one acts in conflict with them, is it correct to consider them abandoned?
Perhaps there is wiggle room. Reach your own conclusion about the semantics.
What I wonder is where Prager now draws the line. He ranks declining to support a man who engages in “the rape of names” as less important than winning the election.
Would rape itself cross the line? Or murder? What principles, if any, does he regard as more important than the “greater principle” of defeating Hillary Clinton?
Uncomfortable questions like that lend insight into why some Dennis Prager fans are dismayed by this turn. They’re used to the sort of counsel that one would expect a public moralist to offer. But now it’s as if they’re dealing with a career political operative, the sort who tells the idealistic young intern, “To hell with your precious principles, it’s time to do what it takes to beat those damned people on the other side. So leak that nasty, false rumor! Or do you lack the greater principle?”
“The greater principle? What’s that?”
“Don’t you read Dennis Prager? It’s beating Democrats!”
Attitudes like that are not uncommon in U.S. politics, but if that’s all principle means now, we haven’t much need for public moralists to write weekly columns with appeals to Judeo-Christian ethics and the importance of good character. Just pick the political party you like best and let the ends justify the means on its behalf.
Prager does offer a glimpse, in that same National Review column, into how he came to justify his logic and endorse the man he once called unfit to lead by name. As he sees the political landscape, “One side seeks to undo just about every founding principle that made America exceptional,” Prager wrote, defending his support for Donald Trump. “Examples include small and limited government; preservation of the power of the states to serve as political and social laboratories; a belief in individual responsibility; a society rooted in Judeo-Christian morality—meaning a society composed of people most of whom affirm God and Bible-based moral teachings; and a deep sense of a unifying national American identity and destiny.”
Yet Donald Trump cares for neither small, limited government nor principled federalism; he displays his personal irresponsibility in the most flagrant ways imaginable; he regularly flouts Judeo-Christian morality; he is deeply clueless about the Bible’s contents; and all evidence suggests he polarizes rather than unifies Americans.
Put another way, Prager hasn’t just subordinated his long held principles after deciding that the “principle” of defeating Hillary is more important—he has done so based on a shoddy analysis of what the GOP nominee believes and is likely to do if elected. Prager came much closer to the mark on a previous occasion, when in the course of declaring that he’d vote for Trump he added, “I am contemptuous of much of what he does, I don’t trust what he says, and I have no reason to believe he holds conservative values … In addition to meanness, immaturity, and personal insecurity... Trump either is not very intelligent or lacks intelligent judgment.”
Perhaps setting all this down will help folks on the right who are angry at Never Trump conservatives to better understand the wisdom of the choice they’ve made. Never Trumpers correctly believe that they cannot support Trump without abandoning their long-held principles while undermining the place of those principles in civic life. Seeing what supporting Trump has done to Prager’s principles should reassure Never Trumpers that rejecting the GOP nominee is the best course.