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Op-Ed World Culture & Society

Has America lost its soul?

Melbourne, Australia

Joe Biden has won the US presidency, but he will have a hard time restoring ethical concerns in a country with so many voters who have become indifferent to the well-being of those outside their immediate communities. Donald Trump has been defeated, but the election showed that more Americans than ever have come to identify with his narcissism.

By Peter Singer

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save.

MELBOURNE – As I write, the US presidential election remains undecided. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has said that he believes he is on track to win. President Donald Trump has said, without qualification but also without evidence: “We did win this election,” adding that he will go to the Supreme Court to prevent “a major fraud on our nation.” But in several states, the result will come down to the last few thousand votes to be counted. Recounts are inevitable. If the election ends up in the courts, an official result may still be some days away, as the courts decide whether to exclude some ballots.

In his speech at the Democratic National Convention this past August, Biden proclaimed that the election was a “battle for the soul of America.” If we go along with this metaphor, we might conclude that the incomplete election results show that the devil already has a firm grip on a large part of it. Win or lose, Trump will have received the votes of about 70 million American voters. Biden has 73 million, but still, Trump won nearly half of all votes cast.

Nor am I letting off the hook those who were eligible to vote but chose not to do so. Given that about 160 million votes were cast, and 239 million Americans were eligible to vote, and generously assuming that five million of those who did not vote were ill or faced other serious obstacles to voting (even by mail!), that adds 74 million Americans whose souls are stained by their failure to care enough about the fate of their country, and of the world, to cast a ballot. It seems, therefore, that for the souls of a total of 144 million Americans, or close to six in every ten eligible voters, the battle has already been lost.

Deadly Lies

Now consider that the election was held at a time when COVID-19 had killed more than 240,000 Americans. That’s more than in any other country, and the United States also has the dubious distinction of a higher death rate per million people than all but six countries (eight if you count tiny San Marino and Andorra). The Washington Post has published a video compilation of Trump saying, on 40 separate occasions, from February until just before the election, that the virus is “going away.”

Bob Woodward, one of the most respected journalists in the US, revealed in his book Rage that Trump told him in an interview that he knew from the outset that the virus was much more dangerous than the flu. Publicly, however, he was saying the opposite, thereby undermining the case for strong lockdowns of the kind that, in several other countries, have kept infections and deaths to a small fraction of the rate per million people.

For example, in Australia, where I am writing, political leaders of both major parties largely heeded the advice of their chief medical experts. Australia has had 35 deaths per million, compared to 727 per million in the US. Just before the election, Trump’s own scientific adviser was contradicting the president’s remarks that the pandemic would be over soon.

Then there were the catastrophic August fires in California and Oregon, which forced the evacuation of nearly a quarter-million people. Scientists said that global warming, by raising temperatures and reducing precipitation, had increased the probability of such fires. That should have provided an ideal background for Biden to convince voters of the need to reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions, which are among the world’s highest on a per capita basis. Biden demonstrated his commitment to reducing global warming by appointing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had previously championed the Green New Deal, to co-chair his panel on climate policy. He then committed the Democratic Party to a plan to ensure that the US has 100% clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050.

Trump’s policy, in contrast, was to embrace fossil fuels and reverse President Barack Obama’s modest steps toward encouraging the use of renewable energy.

As if all this wasn’t enough, remember that in 2016 Trump had breached US political custom for presidential candidates by refusing to release his tax returns. Trump managed to keep them largely secret until less than two months before the election, when the New York Times published details showing that in ten of the last 15 years, Trump paid no income taxes at all, because he reported losing much more money than he had made. In two of the remaining five years, he paid only $750. That information left readers with the choice of believing that Trump was a tax cheat, or that his carefully cultivated image of being a highly successful businessman was false. The Biden campaign gave out bumper stickers reading, “I paid more income taxes than Trump.”

To these favorable circumstances for the Democratic Party, we can add Biden’s successful fundraising, which enabled him to outspend Trump on advertising in the final weeks of the campaign.

Finally, take into account that Trump is a narcissist, a serial liar, and a man who has been recorded boasting of groping women. In contrast, Biden is a very experienced, middle-of-the-road politician who 780 retired generals, admirals, and national security officers described, in an Open Letter to America, as “above all, a good man with a strong sense of right and wrong.”

Given all that, Biden should have won in a landslide. Instead, the outcome will be decided by the narrowest of margins in a few states, or in the courts. The election has dashed the hopes of all who thought that American voters would seize the opportunity to repudiate, decisively, a president who has demonstrated zero concern for ethics.

Zero Ethics

My judgment that Trump has no concern for ethics is not an expression of my disagreement with his views. In 2004, I published The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, explaining where, and why, I disagreed with Bush’s views on fairness in tax policy; abortion and the use of human embryos in medical research; the place of religious faith in political life; his failure to support essential global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court; and his decisions to go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq. During the early years of Trump’s presidency, many of my friends asked me if I would write a similar book on the incumbent’s ethics. My reply was that although I strongly disagreed with Bush’s ethics, he did have ethical views worth discussing. Trump does not.

Bush’s first prime-time televised national address was on the ethics of using human embryos, stored frozen in infertility clinics and unwanted by those from whom the egg and sperm came, to create stem cell lines that scientists believed could lead to treatments for otherwise intractable diseases. It is unimaginable that Trump would do something similar. The only consistent thread in Trump’s opinions on controversial ethical issues is that he supports what enables him to further his ambitions. When, in 1999, he was exploring the possibility of becoming the Reform Party candidate for the presidency, he went on “Meet the Press” and said “I am pro-choice in every respect,” even saying he would not ban third-trimester abortions. It was only when he became attracted to the possibility of running for president on the Republican ticket that he announced his opposition to abortion.

Likewise, consider the issue of race. Even after the shock of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Bush never played the race card against Muslims. In contrast, when white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 against the city council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and a participant drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman, Trump said that there were “fine people on both sides.” In June, Trump had another opportunity to lead when race became the dominant issue in the wake of the videotaped murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer. But Trump made no real attempt to use his position as president to bring the nation together to overcome evident racial injustice. He preferred to use the protests for political gain by falsely claiming that Biden wanted to “defund the police.”

Trump’s willingness to shift his views as his political advantage dictates has become pervasive in the Republican Party. In terms of shamelessness, Senator Lindsey Graham is hard to beat. In March 2016, when Obama nominated Federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court seat following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Graham opposed filling the vacancy, on the grounds that there was a presidential election that November and the winner should decide who should replace Scalia. To demonstrate that he was acting on principle, he said: “I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say ‘Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’ And you can use my words against me and you’d be absolutely right.”

Yet when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died shortly before the 2020 election, Graham, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominations, immediately supported Trump’s decision to nominate Amy Coney Barrett. It wasn’t the first time Graham betrayed his own ethical principles. Running against Trump for the Republican nomination, Graham called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” He added: “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to Hell.” Yet, while Graham’s hypocrisy – he is now one of Trump’s most loyal supporters – was well-publicized by his Democratic opponent this year, it did not stop the voters of predominantly Republican South Carolina from re-electing Graham by a comfortable margin.

Suffer Little Children

You might think that my ethical concerns lack the emotional force that moves most voters. So, my final reason why we should be dismayed that Trump attracted so many votes is a heartbreaking news story that broke two weeks before the election. In 2017, to deter families from seeking asylum in the US, the Trump administration began putting the children into detention camps, separate from their parents. In October, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration had been unable to make contact with the parents of 545 of the children it was detaining. Of these children, 60 were under the age of five when they were taken from their parents. It seems likely that the Trump administration has made them, in effect, orphans.

Americans pride themselves on the importance of family life. They gather their families together every November at Thanksgiving, the country’s most distinctive national holiday. If ever there was a story that should have sparked outrage and a demand for change, this was it. But the story appears to have sunk without a trace.

If Biden does scrape through to victory, he will have a hard time restoring ethical concerns in a country with so many voters who have become indifferent to the well-being of those outside their immediate communities. If, on the other hand, Trump manages to hold on to power, we face four more years in which America comes to reflect more faithlessly the narcissism of its president.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), Rethinking Life and Death, The Point of View of the Universe, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can Do, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, One World Now, Ethics in the Real World, Why Vegan?, and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, also with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. In 2013, he was named the world's third "most influential contemporary thinker" by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.

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