Comment writer Jonathan Korn explores the extent to which bad people can be good leaders, and the moral complications that accompany this
Churchill the racist, JFK the adulterer, Politician X the homophobe. Three of the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen. All quite brilliant. Yet all, at least in some aspects of life, quite immoral.
Churchill’s views on Indian self-governance would doubtless shock even the most avid of his supporters, views steeped in the elitist racial superiority we have come to associate with the fascists he helped defeat. In 1937, he said: ‘I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’ Strong stuff from the mouth of the same man who saved Europe from the tyranny of Nazism.
As for Kennedy, his sexual promiscuity is well known. An affair with 19-year-old intern Mimi Alford, who was then cajoled humiliatingly by the President into giving a fellow intern a blowjob in a swimming pool. Another fling with German Prostitute Ellen Rometsch. The list goes on, but you get the gist of a male President who views women as objects. Sound familiar?
I’ve left the last name blank, simply because there probably isn’t a political leader pre-1980 who wasn’t opposed to greater LGBT rights. We can take gay marriage for granted now, but it hasn’t always been this way. And to judge our political leaders throughout history in this way would leave none morally unscathed.
But we don’t think like this, and we shouldn’t. Churchill’s racism doesn’t make his resistance to Hitler’s war machine any less admirable. Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ speech is no less a poignant a reminder of our responsibilities as citizens because he slept with lots of women and wouldn’t be any different if he had slept with 3, 30 or 300 women (or men, or mutant zombies).
It’s not even just the moral relativism argument at work here, although at least some credence should be given to that on the Churchill front and even more so in regard to the views of older politicians on homosexuals. It is the principle that we can separate achievements of leadership from the morality of an individual. Crucially, it is the idea that one can be an immoral person and a brilliant leader.
Why can’t we separate art and the artist? Lionel Shriver highlighted this perfectly in an article for The Spectator, in which she argued that ‘A moral purity test for artists is the end of art.’ Quite rightly, she warned of the danger of dismissing a person’s achievements as invalid due to a dislike of their character. If we do that, we will find ourselves unable to respect the heroes we have at our fingertips, and unable to appreciate some of the most brilliant intellectual and creative minds ever to have existed. The works of Shakespeare, for instance, should surely be appreciated on their own merits, not shunned on account of any defects in the Bard’s personality?
Except this is not right, either, I hear you say. We can’t completely separate art and the artist in all cases, even if it should be our guiding principle to do so. What about Hitler, the hordes cry! You wouldn’t exhibit artwork by Hitler, even if it was good, which it really wasn’t. We wouldn’t laud Stalin’s success in increasing pig iron production in the wake of oppressive slaughter in the same period. It shouldn’t matter whether GDP grows by 3% under a leader who is, let’s say, a serial rapist, you might argue. There are some thoughts and actions which are so horrific that everything else pales into insignificance. That you simply cannot be a good leader, whose actions are remembered fondly in the history books, if you are a fundamentally immoral man. And that everything you do is tainted by the devastation and misery you piled upon other people with your cruelty.
And it’s true. Separating art and the artist cannot be an absolute principle in life. Leaders are role models, and so morality matters when we tick a box and elect a person to represent us. But surely their policies still matter more? Surely a leader could theoretically be a horrible man yet a brilliant political leader who changes the lives of millions for the better?
This brings us to Trump. A nasty man, for sure. A man who boasts of sexually assaulting women, who mocks disabled reporters, who calls Mexicans “Rapists” and refuses to condemn thuggish KKK violence. Not a guy one would look up to for moral guidance. But should this be enough to make citizens of the United States shun Trump’s leadership?
The debate about the success of Trump’s Presidency is a highly partisan one, and 3 years at least still remain. But let’s just put the caveats aside and assume Trump’s Presidency has been a success. Economically, the stock market has boomed, job creation has skyrocketed and confidence is up. Foreign policy-wise, ISIS are weaker now than ever before, whilst for a brief moment it appeared that Trump had come close to brokering an extraordinary resolution of the conflict in Korea. A credible case could certainly be made that his Presidency thus far has been remarkably successful.
The big question therefore is whether Trump could be seen as a great leader despite being a patently immoral man. I wouldn’t have voted for him to lead my country, but I’m not invested in policy decisions in the way US citizens are. There is no right answer in regard to whether personal morality and individual policy decisions should be separated when judging politicians, and when it comes to elections each individual person weighs this calculation up differently.
If the conclusion here is unclear, that’s because the issue is so complex. On the one hand, disassociating personal morality and actions in office completely is clearly foolish. However, perhaps more important still is to recognise brilliance on its own merits, without whitewashing the legacies of great men and women if they have even the slightest blemish.
As for the Trump administration, whether their art can be separated from the odious artist at the helm is a question that only history will be able to answer.