Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 2: 199 and Counting: Donald Trump’s Insults

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data-collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair and unfair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

At this point, most are likely familiar with Donald Trump’s propensity to personally insult his opponents. The New York Times even keeps a running tally of his insulting tweets (he currently sits at 199). Trump tweet

The accusation:

Some argue Trump’s incessant personal attacks are undignified and dishonorable; “Trump has no sense of personal honor. None.” Others claim that his “raunchy language” lack of “basic decency” and “is ill suited to the nation’s highest office.” David Brooks suggests that “Trump’s bashing style of rhetoric makes communication impossible.” Trump’s style of speech doesn’t bode well for democratic governance, Brooks continues, because it forecloses the possibility of compromise and cooperation. Still others contend that his insults are troubling because they inspire Trump’s online followers to harass and intimidate his ‘enemies.’

The accused’s response:

Last fall in an interview with Megyn Kelly, Trump said: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either” (see here for the full quote). More recently, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski asked (rhetorically), “When someone attacks [Trump], should he just not respond? That’s not fair.”


Because of the sheer amount of commentary on all things Trump, it is difficult to definitively categorize critics’ objections to Trump’s actions. That said, some common themes emerge in many of the reactions to his repeated resorts to personal insults. As noted above, pundits (and rival candidates) have accused Trump of being an undignified or dishonorable person. Brooks’ claim is slightly different; he seems to be more concerned that Trump’s habit of personally insulting his opponents makes governing (after elections) impossible. Either way, few have criticized Trump of playing the game unfairly (e.g. bending the rules or cheating). And nobody has accused him of acting illegally by insulting his opponents. Thus, most objecting to Trump’s action accuse him of personal (im)morality in general, and dishonorable behavior in particular.

Other relevant information:

I have specifically avoided discussing some of Trump’s (and his rivals’) more inflammatory ‘policy proposals,’ here. I intend to address the ethics of those controversial comments (e.g. carpet bombing, the use of torture, name-calling of particular groups, etc.) in another post.

One response to “Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

  1. This might be the least inflammatory discussion of Trump’s insults ever! Congratulations on the restraint! I wonder if you’re underestimating the extent to which the critiques and defenses of the insulting remarks are connected to different conceptions of adversarial ethics (as opposed to the everyday ethics of being a good person). As you note, some of it is about how behavior on the campaign trail can lower the chance of good governance after the election. If we assume that the institutions, rules, and “unwritten rules” for elections are justified in large part by how they make good government more likely, then these violations of long-standing “unwritten rules” or norms about campaign communications and (as one of your quotes would have it) “personal honor” might indeed be a relevant issue. Almost all institutions in a free society rely heavily on the participants accepting certain norms that couldn’t be enforced efficiently, but which are nonetheless necessary for the whole system working.

    We might also flag Trump’s own staffer’s appeal to the competitive norm of “fairness” in connection with the right for Trump to respond to attacks. Of course, it would be unfair if one candidate was not allowed to respond to an attack or criticism of another. But it doesn’t follow that *any* response is fair!

    Trump’s opponents seem to think there is something very unfair that his outrageous remarks of all kinds have the predictable effect of sucking up most of the prime media time in any given new cycle. Knowing that the media will respond this way (i.e., one might argue, knowing that the media will not do the job that the democratic system relies on from the press), Trump is able to exploit a flaw in the system that enables him to minimize the amount of media attention devoted, e.g., to the details of his and other candidates’ policies, records, etc. In this way, the playing field gets tilted in favor of a candidate like him without a winning record as a political leader and without a sophisticated policy platform. Yet presumably, the whole system had been designed to favor precisely the opposite kind of candidate. Doesn’t that look like “gaming”? (Imagine the rules of football are designed to favor powerful and graceful players and intricate formations and play options — because this makes for a much more entertaining contest for spectators. Now imagine a big uninspired team finds a way to win at home by fielding a squad of goons and watering their field to the point where it is too slippery for a great team to play their game?….)

    Anyway, great questions in the posts; great examples and analysis. Looking forward to more and more.

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