Virtue Is Overrated

Larry Arnn speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Photo by Gage Skidmore.

When I began my journey to learn more about the Constitution, the Founding, our government system, economics and political philosophy, one of my first stops was the Hillsdale College free online courses. Most of you probably heard about their free course on the Constitution through one of our (former, for many) favorite talk radio personalities.

I thoroughly enjoyed the courses that they provided and upon completing them, I was inspired to continue my learning and I highly recommended the course to anyone that would listen. I still do.

One of the main figures that provide the lectures during the course is the President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. I enjoyed listening to Dr. Arnn’s presentations and could sense the enthusiasm he had for the subjects. I came to respect him and Hillsdale College for what they were doing…promoting an education on the basic principles of our Republic and stressing the need and importance of honor, virtue, and a strong, moral foundation.

When I learned that Dr. Arnn was a vocal, public, outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, not only was I shocked based on everything I had learned about and from him and Hillsdale College, but also was quite dismayed, to say the least. Yet another one who proved not to be what I thought.

So, why do I bring this up now? Because Dr. Arnn wrote an article for the National Review today that is a rebuttal to an article from The Atlantic that takes him to task for his support of Trump. As I have been harboring similar thoughts for the last 2 years, my interest was piqued.

The article at The Atlantic, written by Conor Friedersdorf, essentially lays out the same issues I have with Arnn’s support of Trump. He describes a discussion between Arnn and Hugh Hewitt (another big supporter of Trump), and remarks:

The logic here is clear enough. Neither Hewitt nor Arnn talks as if they believe that good moral character is really essential in an American president—they talk as if they believe that a president who flagrantly exhibits all manner of character flaws and odious behavior can put the country on a trajectory that benefits it greatly for decades if he appoints good judges.

Neither do they seem to believe in opposing the elevation and empowerment of such men on principle. They talk as if doing what’s politically advantageous is obviously the best way forward. The prudent thing is to elect a flagrantly immoral man if he’s going to do things like appoint originalist judges and hire Hillsdale graduates as bureaucrats. In short, they talk as if they believe that the ends justify the means––as if they don’t think Pence has done anything wrong because Pence behaves as if he shares their malleable, relativistic posture, and is willing to be less than truthful with the public to ensure victory.

The Atlantic

The references to Pence are from the beginning of the article where Friedersdorf describes Pence as a less than principled man and criticizes not only the commencement speech that Pence gave at Hillsdale this year, but also the very fact that Arnn invited him.

In my opinion, Friedersdorf makes a very compelling case against Pence, Arnn, and Hewitt and the entire notion of elevating a man like Trump.

Understandably, Arnn saw the need to defend his positions:

Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist at The Atlantic, has written an article about Hillsdale College that falls in the category of a relatively new (to me) literary genre called “concern trolling,” where someone wishing you ill pretends to wish you well by offering advice that is not in your interest. The article is full of venom and rubbish, the former weakened by the latter. The venom appears at the end, where the author invites Hillsdale students, alumni, and faculty to write him and agree with him that I am leading the college astray. He will then of course use the responses to try to do harm to Hillsdale. People may respond to Friedersdorf’s call — indeed, I am told that some have — but it will not work, which is where the rubbish comes in.

National Review

I’ll let you read Friedersdorf’s article and determine for yourself if this is an accurate depiction of it. (Hint: For me it seems a bit weak for someone of Arnn’s stature).

Arnn goes on to make four points to refute Friedersdorf. I’ll address each, in turn:

The first is that I pretend that everyone at Hillsdale College agrees with me, and that I speak for the college when I speak about Donald Trump.

National Review

I don’t believe that Friedersdorf makes any such assertion. However, whether Arnn acknowledges it or not, he has become the face of Hillsdale College and whether he acknowledges it or not, what he publicly says is going to directly reflect on and be perceived as the position of Hillsdale College. But of all of the issues Friedersdorf raises in the article, for this to be the first major contention Arnn has is baffling.

Second, Friedersdorf alleges that the financial well-being of the college was somehow behind my public support for Trump in the 2016 election — that I gambled the reputation of the college on Trump for fundraising purposes.

National Review

I had to go back and reread the article on this one. Having done so, either Arnn is misinterpreting something or I am missing it, but I found no such basis for this claim. For those keeping score at home, that’s 0 for 2 for Arnn in my book.

Third, it is alleged that, because I support Donald Trump politically, I am eroding the moral standards of the college and of its students.

National Review

This goes back to the original quote I included from Friedersdorf where he states that it appears Hewitt and Arnn do not really believe that good, moral character is important for the President. Arnn rebuts:

This is silly. What one teaches the young about morality is a very different thing from choosing whom to support for president of the United States. For the young, a whole life is before them, and it is right and possible to encourage them to build all of the virtues in themselves. The first step is for them to learn what those virtues are. We teach that.

The choice for president is by contrast sharply circumscribed: One opts for the best of two people. I made the choice for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

National Review

Yep, he goes to the old, tried and true rationalization of the binary choice. Ok, let’s give him that for the sake of argument. But he can’t have it both ways. He wants to excuse his actions because he had to choose the “lesser evil”. So why does he not say that now? Why does he not explain to his students that neither Trump nor Hillary were fit to be President, based on everything he and Hillsdale College stands for, but sometimes in life we have to make choices like this in order to avoid the worse evil?

Instead, he now promotes Trump (and Pence by extension) as a positive good. Why not stand strong on the principles of morality, virtue, and honor and consistently call out Trump’s lack of these characteristics while supporting the various policies at the same time? This point also goes to Friedersdorf, because he correctly points out that Arnn (and Hewitt) display a belief that the ends justify the means. This goes way beyond the binary choice.

Fourth, Friedersdorf makes the extraordinary claim that it was improper to invite the current vice president of the United States to speak at a college commencement.

National Review

Friedersdorf’s “extraordinary claim” is based on his conclusion that Pence is not a worthy person to put forth the message that he did at the commencement, and he went to great lengths in the article to explain why…very successfully in my opinion:

Take a moment to unpack what Arnn is saying: that if you’re a religious conservative who puts faith at the center of your life, faith that manifests in part as utter devotion to your wife, and then you see an opportunity to advance your ambitions and beliefs by praising and empowering a man who, among other things, has been utterly unfaithful and not at all devoted to three wives, the “insightful” and “gutsy” thing for an ambitious person of faith to do is to help him rise to power by tying your fortunes to his and praising his character to the public.

Perhaps I’m confused about the values that Hillsdale teaches to its students when a powerful ally in the Republican Party is not the subject under discussion. But I would have thought if a Hillsdale student were to ask, “Should I travel the country lavishing praise on a flagrantly immoral man to empower him in a way that advances my ambitions?” the answer would be an unequivocal, “No.” But apparently, Arnn would actually say, “Are your ambitions good? Can he win?”

The Atlantic

My Final Analysis

In the end, I found Arnn’s arguments lacking. I accept that people felt like they were stuck in a binary choice between two horrible candidates. And I have no qualms with people who grudgingly made that choice. I asked quite a few people, at the time, whether they believed the primary system gave us a great choice and they vehemently agreed that it most certainly did not. So I asked them, after they plug their nose and vote for Trump, what will they do to help make sure we do not end up with a horrible binary choice in the future? They agreed that changes need to be made and that they would be more involved.

However, now that we have so many “conservative leaders”, like Arnn and Hewitt (and so many more), praising Trump and convincing people that he is not only now acceptable, but he is among the greatest Presidents EVER, all of the talk about how flawed the primary system is and what we need to do to prevent such a terrible choice between two evils is gone. Poof!

The “success” of Trump in converting all of these people who should know better will encourage more and more unfit demagogues to come forward and attempt the same thing.

If Arnn truly believes that Trump is now acceptable, then he should change his teachings to instruct us all that virtue is not important in a President or for success. Furthermore, he should change the entire Honor Code of Hillsdale College.

Why teach the students about virtue if it’s not even important for the President of the United States?

About the opinions in this article…

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About Steve Wood 257 Articles
I am a husband, a father, a small business owner, a veteran, and a Citizen of the United States. As my avatar depicts, I believe The People need to relearn and focus on the basic principles that our Republic was built upon. My contributions here will be geared toward that end. Please join me in rational, civil discourse.