If, like me, you don’t bother reading New York Times editorials on the grounds that you already know what they are going to say on any given subject, you may have missed one over the weekend that was headed: "Morality Is Negotiable for Mr Trump." Of course this one is no less predictable than the rest, but the headline caught my eye because it so perfectly summed up what is wrong with our politics, as well as our journalism. Both, that is, are crippled by the left-wing tactic of removing things from the political arena where they are, ipso facto, subject to negotiation and depositing them instead into the realm of morality, where they suddenly become matters of principle on which there can be no compromise. A highly desirable knock-on effect of this technique is that anyone who does not accept the alleged principle as such, or who treats it as still a matter for negotiation, can then be called unprincipled — a bad person — thus further ratcheting up the moralizing and, with it, political polarization.
The particular "morality" involved for the editorialists on this occasion was the legal status for the so-called Dreamers, or children of illegal immigrants, a subject on which our President had seemed to want to compromise with Democrats, much to the annoyance of many of his most fervent supporters — the "deplorable" ones that the Times, like Hillary Clinton, believes are bigots. Anyone who didn’t know better might suppose that the paper would welcome any such concession to their own position, but on this matter it takes T.S. Eliot’s view of "the greatest treason," which is "to do the right deed for the wrong reason."
"Mr. Trump’s actions are rarely underpinned by principles, or a vision of who we are as a nation," the editorial opines. " Even on matters of near-perfect moral clarity, he is often transactional and capricious." Of course, "to us" is understood after "near-perfect moral clarity," just as The New York Times Editorial Board must be understood as preferring a highly moral dictator issuing highly moral decrees to the messiness of democracy. Do you suppose they know that a certain Barack Obama, who definitely has "a vision of who we are as a nation" matching that of The New York Times — would be available, but for the 22nd Amendment?
In today’s paper, columnist David Leonhardt even more absurdly tries the same trick with what Senator John McCain has called the "arcane rules and customs" of the United States Senate. Since when have those become moral principles, you may ask? Well, actually since Senator McCain took a leaf from the left-wing moralists’ book and made them so himself. They are, he said on providing the deciding vote against the last attempt by his Republican colleagues to repeal and replace Obamacare, "deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all."
Just so. Except that Senator McCain appeared not to have noticed that these rules and customs were already not functioning "at all" — if by functioning he meant getting legislation passed — let alone well. Now Mr Leonhardt has seized the opportunity to dare Senator McCain to live up to his supposed principles in order once again to thwart one last effort by the senatorial party to which he nominally belongs to pass a health care bill. "There is reason to believe McCain will stand firm," he writes, "starting with his sense of personal honor."
Alas, it is but too true. At some point, perhaps after his entanglement in the scandal of the Keating Five in 1989 or perhaps before he ever got into politics, the Senator got "his sense of personal honor" all tangled up with an equally personal, not to say quixotic, sense of morality and so made what may go down in history as his principal (as well as principle) contribution to our politics: the recruitment of a significant portion of the respectable Republican party to Democrat-style moralizing and, thus, political paralysis.