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Democracy without dignity: A Confucian critique of Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photographers before a meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Democracy without dignity: A Confucian critique of Trump

The events of recent weeks have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders.

In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three-and-a-half hour opening speech, during which he sipped on not a drop of water.

By the end of the Congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions and his thinking was established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come.

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omni-shambles of the Trump administration, now officially embroiled in a criminal investigation as it seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time:

Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir recently with Sen. Jeff Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character.

“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behaviour,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done.

Investigations can have chilling impact

The Chinese term “guanxi,” which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically charged investigations into corruption and law-breaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy.

At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary U.S. politics.

The recent charges of conspiracy to launder money filed against former Trump campaign officials serve only to bring the presidency further into disrepute, while in China the de facto conflation of executive, judicial and legislative power only strengthens President Xi’s hand.

Such investigations can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and U.S. politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies.

But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: The virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

Trump violates Confucian norms

In Analects 16.7, Confucius says:

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius.

His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation around the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter?

Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. That doesn’t mean our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human.

But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidential. And acting presidential is as much about what you don’t do as what you do do.

Trump understands one aspect of this. When people “disrespect the flag,” in his view, or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned.

The U.S. president has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.