Twelve, Hachette Book Group
259 pp., h.c.
We normally would not take the time even to read, let alone review, a book by an anonymous author. Yet in this particular case we are confronted with information of enormous import in a presidential election year. The author of the book identifies himself as “a senior Trump administration official,” and gives us what purports to be an inside look at how the Trump administration actually works. And just because a book is published anonymously does not necessarily mean that it has no value. The Federalist Papers were originally published under a pseudonym, “Publius.” They were really written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Their work has been an enduring classic.
Anonymous (and that is how we shall refer to him) is evidently a traditional conservative Republican serving in the White House. He appears to be well educated, with a background in history – at one point he makes an interesting comparison with ancient Athens. And it becomes evident as we read through the book that part of Anonymous’ complaint about President Trump is that Mr. Trump is not a traditional, conservative Republican. Anonymous faults Mr. Trump for opposing free trade, foreign entanglements and open borders. Yet on some of these issues it could be argued that Mr. Trump is right and that traditional Republican thinking is wrong.
Free trade is a classic case in point. In a chapter entitled “Fake Views” Anonymous quotes Adam Smith as saying that “it should be in the public interest ‘in every country’ to let the people ‘buy whatever they want from those who will sell it cheapest . . .The proposition is so very manifest that it seems ridiculous to take any pains to prove it’” (p. 110). But try to explain that to unemployed auto workers in Flint, MI, who lost their jobs to Mexico as a result of NAFTA. Anonymous says that “Working-class and poor Americans will be hit hardest” by higher tariffs. “They are the ones who rely on low prices to run households where there is little margin for financial error” (p. 113). Apparently it never occurred to Anonymous, or to most Republican economists for that matter, that lower wages hurt working-class households. It is easy to see why Mr. Trump carried the State of Michigan in the last election.
Anonymous blasts Mr. Trump for the burgeoning federal deficit, but fails to mention the possible role that Republican sponsored tax cuts may have played in that.
What is far more alarming, however, is Anonymous’ portrayal of Mr. Trump’s personality and character. He pictures a chief executive who is inattentive and impulsive, believes falsehoods and conspiracy theories, makes crude statements about women, tells lies and half-truths, and attacks others. None of this should be new to Anonymous’ readers – people who have known Mr. Trump personally down through the years have been saying these things all along.
This does raise the philosophical question of how we define good character in the first place. Interestingly, Anonymous falls back on the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece; wisdom, temperance,, courage and justice. He especially looks on the way that the later Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero developed them in his work De Officiis (“On Duties”). Wisdom is “understanding and acknowledging truth”; justice is “maintaining good fellowship with men, giving to everyone his due, and keeping faith in contracts and promises”; courage is “greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered mind”; and temperance is “the order and measure that constitute moderation and temperance” (p. 58). Anonymous concludes that Mr. Trump “isn’t a man of great character, or good character. He is a man of none” (p. 88).
The fact of the matter is that in many way Donald Trump fits the biblical description of a “fool.” He hates knowledge (Prov. 1:22; 18:2), trusts his own heart (Prov. 28:26)), does not take advice (Prov. 23:9), is wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:12), utters all his mind (Prov. 29:11), enters into contention (Prov. 18:6,7), and speaks slanders against others (Prov. 10:18).
Anonymous sees Donald Trump as a threat to democracy. At one point he compares Mr. Trump to Cleon, an ancient Athenian demagogue who used abusive language to attack his opponents and as a consequence left Athens deeply divided. Anonymous concludes, “Like Athens, we also have a Cleon in our midst, a foul-mouthed populist politician who uses rhetoric as a loaded gun” (p. 186). Trump’s words, he says, “are hardening the national discourse, making it more difficult to sustain civility.” Secondly, “they are undermining our perceptions of the truth, making it challenging to find common ground.” And thirdly, “they are fanning the flames of . . . mob mentality” (Ibid.).
All of this spells trouble for the future of American democracy. It could be argued, however, that America was already deeply divided before Mr. Trump came into office. Supreme Court decisions involving moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, as well as the identity politics of the Left, have created profound divisions which will be difficult to surmount. Mr. Trump has simple exacerbated the tensions with his intemperate mouth.
All of this raises a very difficult question. Anonymous concludes that no president is perfect and that several have had serious moral failures in the past. He also concedes that President Trump has accomplished some beneficial things. But do the good things outweigh the bad? In Mr. Trump’s case Anonymous says “no,” and that Mr. Trump should be removed from office through the election process. For conservative religious voters, however, the alternative is likely to be even worse. It is almost certain that whoever the Democratic nominee will turn out to be, he or she will be pro-abortion and pro-gay rights. The former involves a serious human rights issue, and the latter will eventually lead to religious persecution for those who want to uphold biblical standards of morality. The 2020 election promises to give us an unpalatable choice of candidates for the highest office in the land.