We write to appeal to our fellow citizens who support or might support Donald Trump for president of the United States.
With you, we wish to ask: What qualities make our democracy possible? For we know from the founders and from our history—we’ve all learned in school—that freedom is not free and that democracy, more than any other form of government, requires what James Madison, a main architect of our Constitution, called “qualities” in citizens and leaders “which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”
Which “qualities” are essential to our democracy? Probably all of us can agree on six.
- Self-control. A basic democratic insight is that self-government begins with governing the self. That’s why “America the Beautiful,” the patriotic song we learned as children, prays for America to “confirm thy soul in self-control.” In authoritarian regimes, there is little expectation that rulers will regulate their emotions and behavior so as to demonstrate respect for those being ruled. In a democracy, there is. We typically demand that democratic leaders demonstrate the strength of character to hold in check the natural human tendencies toward self-centeredness, excessive self-regard, casual cruelty, and the need to dominate others.
- Honesty. Democracy stems from the sometimes fragile hope that, by arguing and reasoning with one another, we can achieve something good. Chronic dishonesty in our public debate destroys that hope. It breeds mistrust, which makes the debaters suspicious, and it blocks the possibility of shared understanding based in reality, which makes the debate pointless.
- Giving reasons for one’s views. In non-democratic forms of government, leaders typically rely on personal assertions to justify themselves. They simply assert that they are stronger or in some way more worthy of admiration or fear than others, or that their rivals are stupid, bad, weak, or in some other way inferior to them. But such personal assertions are not conducive to democratic accountability and cannot provide democracy with the necessary intellectual oxygen. That’s why democratic leaders must also give impersonal reasons for their views—substantive arguments, apart from subjective status claims, that can be evaluated and debated by the electorate.
- Judging others as individuals. The slogan “one person, one vote” points to a broader truth: In our American democracy, what ultimately counts—what makes one an American—is individual character, not group attributes such as skin color, religion, or the language of your parents. Judging people by their character and not their group is a core American idea.
- Respecting the rule of law. The great enemy of democracy is the arbitrary use of power. The rule of law limits this danger by requiring elected officials to use their power in accordance with public, transparent rules, not just their own whims and preferences. Few things are more dangerous to a free society than ignorance of, or disregard for, the rule of law.
- Respecting the independence of the press.Freedom of speech, arguably our seminal democratic freedom, is inseparable from an independent press. And in free society there is a natural clash between politicians, who typically believe that they deserve favorable coverage, and journalists, who often disagree. That’s why we’ve developed an informal but important code of conduct. It’s fine to criticize press coverage. But it’s not fine for politicians to demean journalists, denigrate their motives, or in other ways seek to coerce or intimidate them.
Nearly all of us, including the signatories to this appeal and most candidates of both parties in this election season, at times fail to exemplify these traits. Moreover, our system of government does not require perfect people, as Madison makes clear when he reminds us that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
But our system of government does require that most of us, most of the time, at least try to exemplify these traits. And for this reason and others, most of us do try.
Donald Trump does not. We will not insult your intelligence by recounting some of the many examples of Mr. Trump exemplifying the inverse of each of these traits as well as making clear his philosophical contempt for them. You know this behavior as well as we do. Moreover, we suspect that many of you don’t approve of it any more than we do. Instead, as far as we can tell, our main disagreement is whether Mr. Trump’s clear-for-all-to-see repudiation of these democratic “qualities” disqualifies him from becoming the next president of the United States. We say it does. You say either that it doesn’t or that it might not.
You have a number of respectable arguments on your side. We’d like to look briefly at five of them.
- They all do it. Yes, they do. But no one does it nearly as much as Mr. Trump. For example, almost all politicians sometimes fail to tell to the truth. But all independent studies of the candidates’ veracity during this election season have found that no other candidate is remotely close to Mr. Trump when it comes to making false and misleading statements. And at a certain point, a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. Nor does anyone else do it nearly as proudly as Mr. Trump. He doesn’t just violate standards such respecting the rule of law and judging people as individuals—he apparently believes in violating these standards and publicly defends doing so. What for most of us are lapses are for him principles.
- He’s the nominee of my party. We acknowledge that it’s harder for Republicans than Democrats to walk away from supporting Mr. Trump. But some of us who write to you are Republicans. And we believe deeply that, at times in our national history, it is important to put country before party. This is one of those times.
- His policies and appointments would be better than Clinton’s. Even if we concede this point—and we strongly disagree among ourselves about Hillary Clinton’s policies and likely appointments to important positions—is that fact important enough to override a more basic consideration? We aren’t criticizing or praising Mr. Trump’s policy proposals or his likely appointments. Our objection to him is deeper—we believe that his entire way of behaving represents a rejection of the essential character traits (the “qualities”) that our democracy requires of its leaders. We of course acknowledge that policy positions matter. But doesn’t political behavior inimical to democracy matter more?
- Once he’s president, the system will contain and restrain him. Maybe so. But what if it doesn’t? Certainly little to date has done so. And let’s not forget that the U.S. president is one of the world’s most powerful people, with much leeway to take actions for good or ill on many crucial issues, including issues of life and death. We admit that becoming president might change Mr. Trump, requiring him to modify some of his behavior. But we also ask you to acknowledge the possibility that becoming president might not change him much at all.
- Today’s politicians are crooked and incompetent and don’t care about ordinary Americans and at least he’s not a politician. In conversations with grass-roots Trump supporters, this one has probably been the most commonly expressed reason for supporting him. And we understand the point. We agree that millions of Americans are being poorly served by American politics today. We share at least some of your priorities and anger. But we ask you to consider whether Mr. Trump—who as far as we can tell is far more interested in himself than in anyone else—is really going to do anything for you or for the country, other than continuing to say things that aren’t true, make promises no one could keep, constantly brag about himself, and insult and try to bully the growing number of people and groups he doesn’t like. We don’t think he will. We believe that you—that all of us—would come deeply to regret putting this man in charge of our country.
We are not enemies, but friends. We probably have more in common than we realize. We intend this letter less as an announcement of an opinion than an invitation to a conversation. We hope that some of you will respond. Perhaps we can organize some public debates on this topic in the near future, so that we can talk with rather than only at each other. We know that we have in common wanting what is best for our country.
David Blankenhorn, Better Angels, New York, NY
Dale Carpenter, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law
John J. DiIulio, Jr., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
William J. Doherty, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN
Don Eberly, Civil Society Project, Lancaster, PA
Mickey Edwards, Former Member of the U.S. House Republican Leadership, Washington, D.C.
Robert M. Franklin, President Emeritus of Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Susan M. Glisson, William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS
Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way, Washington, D.C.
Alan J. Hawkins, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
Margaret Hoover, American Unity Fund, Washington, D.C.
Kay S. Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute, New York, NY
Liz Joyner, The Village Square, Tallahassee, FL
Eli Lehrer, R Street Institute, Washington, D.C.
Linda Malone-Colón, Hampton University, Hampton, VA
David G. Myers, Hope College, Holland, MI
Mitch Pearlstein, Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN
Robert Putnam, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
- As of 6/30/16. Organizational affiliations listed for identification purposes only.
This article was originally published on July 4, 2016 in The American Interest.