February 16, 2017
On February 6, 2017, USA Today published conservative columnist Max Boot’s editorial “Trump bows to Russia again.” In this opinion piece, Boot contends that conservatives have rightfully shunned “moral relativism” or “the tendency to draw comparisons between the conduct of the United States and its enemies” and that President Trump is betraying this tradition with his rhetoric on Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. Boot’s piece opens the door to discussion of a couple of issues which I believe are best unpacked individually.
First, we must address Boot’s understanding of moral relativism. In explicating conservatives’ past rejection of moral relativism, he cites statements from the Reagan era against “superpower equivalence” and “blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,” and a 2011 Paul Ryan quote in which he calls moral relativism “the biggest problem in America.” He goes on to uphold conservatives’ criticism of former President Barack Obama for apologizing for past transgressions such as the nuclear bombing of Japan and not promoting the doctrine of American exceptionalism.
Here, Boot seems to imply that moral relativism itself is the problem and that support for the doctrine of American exceptionalism is the solution. On the contrary, to act as if the United States can do no wrong, nor ever has, is a negative for honest discourse. If anything, the Obama administration set a positive precedent by admitting the United States’ past moral failings and suggesting that we could do better. Boot went on to cite a 2015 quote from then-Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on Obama’s non-subscription to American exceptionalism, calling him “maybe the first president ever who truly doesn’t believe in … America as a force for good.” On the contrary, Obama’s multilateral action in the Middle East demonstrates clearly that America could act as a force for good on the world stage.
Boot lists among Trump’s transgressions his criticism of traditional American allies like NATO member states and his praise of Putin’s Russia, noting that Ryan and Jindal have not wavered in their support of Trump. Boot notes that Bill O’Reilly called Putin “a killer” in an interview with Trump to which the president responded, “you think our country’s so innocent?” Boot also noted that Trump expressed similar sentiments in a December 2015 interview with Joe Scarborough, after Scarborough noted that Putin’s regime “kills journalists.” Without necessarily upholding the doctrine of American exceptionalism, one can agree with Boot that it is startling and threatening to the American way for a president to attempt to justify or even praise a dangerously repressive and authoritarian regime.
Our leaders should eschew the rosy doctrine of American exceptionalism and recognize that the United States is not above reproach. Our country has a long and substantial record of allowing and even fostering racial and socioeconomic injustice on the home front, in addition to causing death and destruction through unnecessary wars. But, our country’s formation also helped advance the Western shift from monarchism to liberal republicanism, and American reformers have long and valiantly fought for a better nation and world. Leaders ought to embrace moral relativism, but for the right reasons. They must recognize the failings and shortcomings of our own nation, while challenging us to do better and themselves leading a charge to genuinely make America great.