No one was more capitalistic than the Boston descendants of the Puritan founders of America. The old families of Beacon Hill were the captains of every money-making venture in the early years of the Republic: finance, trade, railroads, textile mills.
Yet no one felt more keenly a duty to promote the general welfare: when Boston built the very first public libraries, hospitals, schools for the deaf and blind, universities, museums, and concert halls in the nation in the early nineteenth century, the wealthy citizens of the city reliably donated millions. In 1810, Dr. John Warren sent a circular letter seeking donations for the Massachusetts General Hospital: he addressed it to the "treasurers of God's bounty."
Which presidential candidate (hint: he has "large numbers" on his physical exam) does that attitude toward wealth and societal duty not remind us of?
As the Washington Post reported this week, Donald Trump's record as a treasurer of God's bounty has been to take from everyone and keep everything for himself. Despite his boasted billions and voluble public assertions of munificence, his only discoverable charitable contributions of note have been made entirely with other peoples' money.
But this is of a piece with his larger contempt for the things that actually have made America great, the kinds of things that those earnest citizens of mid-nineteenth century Boston valued, and were proud of valuing. Trump's obsession—there is no other word for it—with ratings and riches as the sole measure of value would be simply pathetic were it not accompanied by an equally great ignorance of and contempt for science, the arts, law, history, morality, learning, and charity: in other words, the ideals and values that from the time of the Puritans to today have been the soul of what our nation has strived for in its vision of creating a new society built on justice, decency, and the advance of civilization.
As such, it is not simply pathetic: it is frightening. To contemplate the destruction to America's values that a President Trump could wreak through his casual willingness to toss aside the principles, knowledge, wisdom, and values so painfully acquired, at great cost, over centuries is the most alarming aspect of what we're facing in this election.
For more than two centuries, America led the world in bringing the civilizing rule of law to the conduct of war. The United States fought both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table to affirm the right under international law of neutral nations to safe passage and free trade during wars (one of the causes America fought for in the War of 1812); to hold soldiers accountable under military law for the mistreatment of enemy civilians or theft of their property (a policy instituted by General Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War, which earned the United States the admiration of the world and was widely recognized as an advance for justice and humane behavior); to require proper treatment of POWs (embodied in the Geneva Conventions); to outlaw the use of chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs that pose an inhumane risk to civilians.
Good, honorable, courageous, and wise American men and women, soldiers and diplomats, devoted their entire lives to advancing the cause of ensuring that war is subject to the restraints of civilized conduct to the extent possible. Winfield Scott's General Orders No. 20 established the principle that even when instituting martial law in an occupied land, a military commander is subject to and accountable to higher legal authority. The subsequent military panel that drafted rules for occupation commanders during the American Civil War legal emphasized that martial law must be “strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity —
virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason
that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.”
Subsequent generations of American statesmen and military leaders saw that not only honor and justice, but basic practicality, was served by advances in the law of war: that it is American POWs who will suffer too when combatants descend into torture and reprisal; that even a defeated foe will fight to the death rather than surrender is he knows he will be mistreated if captured; that every civilian death and every abuse of enemy property undermines the justness of the cause and the reputation of America in the eyes of the world, and thus makes the soldier's job that much more difficult.
This is what a President Trump would toss aside with two words off the top of his head, and with arrogant ignorance of any larger principle at stake beyond sounding tough or revving up a crowd of followers. With the same disdain for any actual knowledge (after all, he has "a very good brain") that informs his "views" (if they can be called that) on vaccines, global warming, trade restrictions, counter-terrorism strategy, nuclear weapons, the Constitution, and health care policy, he has blithely called for torturing enemy prisoners, plundering Iraq's oilfields, and "freeing" the military from "the Geneva Conventions, all these rules and regulations" that make "the soldiers afraid to fight."
And don't count on the weak comfort that those around him will somehow prevent him from carrying out his instant insights: the utter cravenness of his acolytes was perfectly on display this week when his minion Rudy Giuliani scurried to second Trump's nostalgic assertion that (referring to his insistence that America should have seized Iraq's oilfield for itself) "it used to be to the victor belong the spoils." Giuliani chimed in by affirming that "anything is legal” in war.
Actually, that doctrine—encapsulated in the medieval Latin maxim Inter arma leges silent (in time of war the law is silent)—began to go by the boards about 600 years ago, when admiralty courts in the 14th century began asserting jurisdiction over the legality of captures of enemy ships at sea. It has been completely cast aside in the last two centuries by Winfield Scott's General Orders No. 20, the Treaty of Paris, the Geneva Conventions, and the U.S. Code of Military Justice. Those were things America at least used to be proud of.
It's no coincidence that Trump knows literally nothing and cares nothing about the worlds beyond fame and fortune, in which he has succeeded by bluster, braggadocio, hype, and shortchanging small tradesmen and investors alike. His sole measure of the worth of what a commentator has to offer is what his ratings are. His sole measure of the greatness of a foreign leader is what his poll numbers are. His sole measure of scientific truth is what assertions on Twitter get a lot of responses. His idea of a "university" is a place to soak people with a get-rich-quick scheme. His idea of charity is taking credit for others' generosity. His idea of culture is a resort decorated like one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. And his idea of the Constitution is something to say he's really, really for, without apparently having read or understood the principles it embodies.