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Larry Arnn: We Must Make a Distinction Between Public and Private Virtue in Evaluating Presidential Candidates

Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from an interview with Larry Arnn conducted in October 2016. It has been modified for clarity.

Everybody who’s held the presidency did significant public service before taking office. And here you have to introduce a point: There are differences between the public and the private practice of the virtues.

There’s some chance — I guess now a fair chance we have to say — that either Thomas Jefferson, or his brother, slept with a slave girl, and had a baby by her. We know that Alexander Hamilton was killed in a dispute, in a duel, that had to do with unfaithfulness in marriage. No human being is perfect, and so no human being possesses all these virtues to the full. But there are people who have been very great in public services, who may have had important private, especially family vices. That did not overcome their ability to do the public service, in part because they took that public service very seriously — apparently more seriously than some things in their private lives.

Trump is a unique case. We don’t have a previous record of public service to study. Forget about the family for a minute. Private commercial activity has different ends than public service. What you do in business speaks to a different end, and deploys a different mean. It’s a point that Trump makes a lot: “I was trying to run my business.” He says he did it honestly. There are people who claim he didn’t, and there are people who claim he did. He did apparently do it with some very considerable success. There are all of these allegations against him now, and the timing of them is very interesting. How can you know if they’re true or not? You can’t.

He apparently has functioned at a high level with regards moderation for a long time. He’s now a past middle aged man, and he’s in good shape. He works like a dog for very long hours, and seems to thrive under it. Also, Trump is obviously possessed of some considerable courage. The forces that are arrayed against him are huge, and they just don’t seem to be daunting to him. Then there is the justice part. All we have got is this: He describes the way he wants the society to work. He describes it amidst huge controversy, especially immigration and tariffs. He invites controversy on both the left and the right, and from both parties. If you think what he proposes is just, then you’re likely to think he’s a just man in his public character. And if you don’t think that, then you’re likely to think he’s an unjust man.

Featured Image: Copy of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii by Anne- Louis Girodet-Trioson (Wikimedia Commons)

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