For the last two years, a hearty debate has taken center stage among conservatives: Does character matter? That debate was prompted, of course, by the rise of Donald Trump; the debate has not abated. This week, the debate began anew thanks to President Trump’s decision to go mano-a-mano with a Gold Star widow who questioned his sincerity in a condolence call. Trump responded to her complaints by denying her account of the event.
Does this sort of thing matter? In one sense, it certainly doesn’t: Trump may not be politically damaged by this sort of behavior. After all, political damage results from hopes disappointed, and few Americans hoped that Trump was above this sort of thing — at least, not after he attacked John McCain’s war heroism in 2015 (“I like people that weren’t captured”) and after he attacked a Gold Star family that was politicking at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 (“If you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say . . . Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me”). So we shouldn’t be surprised at Trump’s latest salvo against a Gold Star wife who seems to have interpreted his words in the worst possible light.
But in another sense, Trump’s politicization of sacred space in our culture is a serious problem. It’s serious because no culture can exist without certain cultural capital — trust — and that trust exists only when there are certain spaces in which we can assume agreement without having to ask. Thomas Sowell writes that cohesive groups rich in cultural capital have certain advantages in business and life: “Attitudes exist in societies that can be beneficial or harmful.” Like-minded groups can easily minimize transaction costs, thereby lowering cost in economic terms; in social terms, these groups are less likely to facilitate conflict between individuals. When we share cultural totems and taboos, we are all better off.
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