May 14, 2016

839 words 4 mins read

How Conservatives Abandoned Principles Over Trump

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about “principles” lately. Ted Cruz’s entire campaign centered “conservative principles” and being a “principled conservative.”

Lately, though, most of that “principles” talk is about how Donald Trump has caused good conservatives to abandon their principles.

Maybe that’s true. In fact, I’m starting to believe it.

The one principle that many conservatives have abandoned and encouraged others to abandon: keeping your word.

The lead advocate for abandoning this principle of keeping one’s word is Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the American Enterprise Institute.

Every Republican candidate for president signed an oath to support the party’s nominee. An oath. The oath-signing ceremony was a knee-jerk reaction to Donald Trump’s insistence that he might not support the nominee. Isn’t it ironic that the oath meant to keep Trump from running as an independent now morally obligates all of his opponents to support him? And all 17 Republican candidates  signed the oath which reads:

I (name) affirm that if I do not win the 2016 Republican nomination for president of the United States I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is. I further pledge that I will not seek to run as an independent or write-in candidate nor will I seek or accept the nomination for president of any other party.

Sure, the oath is not legally binding. But another principle that many conservatives admire is the principle of doing what’s right, not just what’s legal. That promise was not made to Donald Trump; it was made to the Republican Party and to the people. While the oath is not legally binding, it is morally binding.

I thought conservatives believed in moral principles.

Now, Jonah Goldberg and other conservatives want the Republican candidates to break their oaths. Goldberg seems to believe that it’s okay to abandon a lower principle to defend a higher principle. That’s probably true. But I think Jonah and many other conservatives operate from a disordered list of principles.

In my thinking, principles of personal conduct rank far above principles of political philosophy.

Principles of Government

When people talk about “conservative principles,” they’re usually talking about principles of government or political philosophy. “That which governs least governs best,” is a conservative principle of governance.

Those principles of government, while important, provide almost no information on how men and women like you and me should behave. The only information about personal behavior is in how we instruct our governments. Because we live in a democratic republic, it’s our job to cajole the government to govern least.

In all other ways, principles of government cover how other people should behave, not us. That’s a pretty low set of principles.

Principles of Personal Conduct

On the other end of the spectrum are principles of personal conduct. These are the highest principles, not the lowest. Politicians who lack principles of personal conduct cannot be trusted with limited government. We teach children to keep their word long before we teach them principles of government. That’s telling, is it not?

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”

— Seneca

Yet, now we’re told to break our written vows to promote a philosophy of government? The great philosophers would be appalled. From Aristotle to Epicurus to Seneca and beyond, the great philosophers taught us that men must govern themselves before attempting to govern others.

“it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones.”

— Seneca

These principles of personal conduct, then, are clearly superior to principles of government. Yet Jonah Goldberg encourages men like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to break their pledges. He exalts men like Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham for violating the contracts they signed. And Goldberg ridicules men who keep their word, like Rick Perry.

Jonah Goldberg’s list of principles is highly disordered.

I’ll leave you with this: For two years I’ve heard from friends that we can trust Ted Cruz to keep his word because he’s never broken his promises. Cruz’s PACs were called “Keeping the Promise." Yet, if Ted Cruz fails to endorse Donald Trump, his honesty streak will end. What have we gained if we promote our philosophy of government by abandoning our philosophy of personal conduct?

I predict Trump will win in a landslide.

Update: Some commenters on Twitter seem to believe Cruz is free to break his pledge because of Trump’s behavior after Cruz signed it. But Ted Cruz disagrees with that thinking. He told reporters in March (via Salon):

 “It’s a shocking concept to members of the media,” he said, “that an elected official actually does what he says, [but] at the outset of this campaign,** I committed [to] support[ing] the Republican nominee, and I honor my word**.”

Cruz did allow one exception: “If he were to go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, I would not be willing to support Donald Trump,” Cruz said. As far as I know, Trump hasn’t shot anybody on Fifth Avenue.