Last night I sat at a dinner gala in New York and listened as Andrew Roberts—not only a distinguished historian but also a faithful friend of the US—asked the audience if 1776 wasn’t starting to look like a mistake. Politely as he could, he pointed out that our vaunted system had produced a corrupt, amoral drone queen to run against a bully and buffoon.
Not having a musket ready to hand, I reached for my butter knife. As a red-blooded American, I would defend Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, any Yankee Doodle scoundrel you can name against a critic with a posh accent and a Savile suit.
Today, though, it looks as though Roberts had a point. In the course of investigating Anthony Weiner’s career as an amateur pornographer, the FBI has found new emails that may implicate Hillary Clinton in the abuse of classified information. Partisans are once again trading denunciations in an effort to show that the other side’s candidate is most damnable. They have a point.
Beyond the endless debate over which side’s candidate is more hateful, a more troubling trend has emerged. Prominent writers on both sides of the aisle have begun to argue that a lack of concern for ethical and legal norms is a virtue, rather than a vice. Take Matt Yglesias, a writer for Vox who plumps for Hillary Clinton. In October of last year, he responded to news of Clinton’s email scandals by saying that her unethical behaviour made her a more attractive candidate for progressives:
Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas. This is normally portrayed as a political weakness of hers, and in many ways it is . . . But it's also an enormous source of potential strength. . . . More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.
A similar case has been made by some of Trump’s most sophisticated defenders. In the Claremont Review of Books, Publius Decius Mus (I believe I spotted the venerable Roman at last night’s dinner), defended Trump against charges of vulgarity by saying that he was a 'radical against respectability' in the mould of Malcolm X.
Most Americans would still prefer a head of government who is also a plausible head of state. They want someone who not only is willing to work for the future, but who can also serve as a role model for our sons and daughters. But more and more people seem to be taking a different and darker view. If writers like Yglesias and Decius are any indication, Brits aren’t the only one having doubts about 1776. I always thought decadence was supposed to be elegant, but in America it's getting off to an ugly start.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.