A fam­ily driven by loy­alty, but with­out a moral code

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - DAVID BROOKS ——— David Brooks writes for The New York Times.

Don­ald Trump’s grand­fa­ther Friedrich em­i­grated to the United States when he was 16, in 1885. He ven­tured west to seek his riches and fi­nally set­tled in Seat­tle, where he opened a res­tau­rant that, ac­cord­ing to fam­ily his­to­rian Gwenda Blair, likely in­cluded a sec­tion for a bor­dello.

Gold fever hit the Pa­cific North­west, and Grand­fa­ther Trump moved up to Ben­nett, Bri­tish Columbia. It was a fast, rau­cous, money-grab­bing at­mos­phere, and Trump opened the Arc­tic Ho­tel, which had a bar, a res­tau­rant and, ac­cord­ing to an ad­ver­tise­ment in the Dec. 9, 1899, edi­tion of The Ben­nett Sun news­pa­per, “pri­vate boxes for ladies and par­ties.” Each box ap­par­ently came equipped with a bed and a scale to weigh the gold dust that was used to pay for the ser­vices of­fered in it.

Friedrich re­turned to Ger­many, mar­ried and was sent back to the United States by Ger­man au­thor­i­ties (he hadn’t ful­filled his mil­i­tary ser­vice re­quire­ment) and amassed a mod­est for­tune.

Fred­er­ick, Don­ald’s fa­ther, be­gan build­ing mid­dle-class hous­ing. Pro­files de­scribe an in­tense, suc­cess-ob­sessed man who worked seven days a week and en­cour­aged those around him to be killers in their field. “He didn’t like wimps,” his nephew told Philip Weiss of The Times. “He thought com­pe­ti­tion made you sharper.”

He cared deeply about ap­pear­ances. “Freddy was al­ways very neat, a Beau Brum­mell,” Sam LeFrak told Weiss. “He had a mus­tache, and that mus­tache was al­ways right, per­fect.” He was also re­morse­less. In an in­ter­view with Michael D’An­to­nio, Don­ald Trump de­scribed his fa­ther as “very tough” and “very dif­fi­cult” and some­one who “would never let any­thing go.”

Bi­ogra­phies de­scribe a man in­tent on mak­ing his for­tune and not afraid of skat­ing near the edge to do so. At one point, ac­cord­ing to Politico, fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that Fred­er­ick used var­i­ous ac­count­ing mea­sures to col­lect an ex­tra $15 mil­lion in rent (in to­day’s dol­lars) from a gov­ern­ment hous­ing pro­gram, on top of pay­ing him­self a large “ar­chi­tect’s fee.” He was hauled be­fore in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tees on at least two oc­ca­sions, ap­par­ently was ar­rested at a KKK rally in Queens (though it’s not clear he was a mem­ber), got in­volved in a slush fund scan­dal with Robert Wag­ner and faced dis­crim­i­na­tion al­le­ga­tions.

I re­peat this his­tory be­cause I don’t think moral obliv­i­ous­ness is built in a day. It takes gen­er­a­tions to ham­mer eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions out of a per­son’s mind and to re­place them en­tirely with the ruth­less logic of win­ning and los­ing; to take the nor­mal hu­man yearn­ing to be good and re­place it with a sin­gle-minded de­sire for ma­te­rial con­quest; to take the nor­mal hu­man in­stinct for kind­ness and re­place it with a law-of-the-jun­gle men­tal­ity.

It took a few gen­er­a­tions of the House of Trump, in other words, to pro­duce Don­ald Jr.

The Don­ald Trump Jr. we see through the Rus­sia scan­dal story is not malev­o­lent: He seems to be sim­ply obliv­i­ous to the idea that eth­i­cal con­cerns could pos­si­bly play a role in ev­ery­day life. When the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fer came across his email, there doesn’t seem to have been a flicker of con­cern. In­stead, he replied with that tone of sim­ple bro glee that we re­mem­ber from other scan­dals.

“Can you smell money?!?!?!?!” Jack Abramoff emailed a co-con­spir­a­tor dur­ing his lob­by­ing and casino fraud shenani­gans. That’s the same tone as Don Jr.’s “I love it” when of­fered a chance to con­spire with a hos­tile power. A per­son ca­pa­ble of this in­stant joy and en­thu­si­asm isn’t over­com­ing any in­ter­nal eth­i­cal hur­dles. It’s just a greedy boy grab­bing sweets.

Once the scan­dal broke you would think Don Jr. would have some aware­ness that there were eth­i­cal stakes in­volved. You’d think there would be some sense of em­bar­rass­ment at hav­ing been caught ly­ing so bla­tantly.

But in his in­ter­view with Sean Han­nity he ap­peared in­ca­pable of even en­ter­tain­ing any moral con­sid­er­a­tion. “That’s what we do in busi­ness,” the younger Trump said. “If there’s in­for­ma­tion out there, you want it.” As Wil­liam Sale­tan pointed out in Slate, Don Jr. doesn’t seem to pos­sess the in­ter­nal qual­i­ties nec­es­sary to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that he could have done any­thing wrong.

That to me is the cen­tral take­away of this week’s rev­e­la­tions. It’s not that the Rus­sia scan­dal may bring down the ad­min­is­tra­tion. It’s that over the past few gen­er­a­tions the Trump fam­ily has built an en­velop­ing cul­ture that is be­yond good and evil.

The Trumps have an ethic of loy­alty to one an­other. “They can’t stand that we are ex­tremely close and will AL­WAYS sup­port each other,” Eric Trump tweeted this week. But be­yond that there is no at­tach­ment to any ex­ter­nal moral truth or eth­i­cal code. There is just naked cap­i­tal­ism.

Suc­cess­ful busi­ness peo­ple, like suc­cess­ful politi­cians, are very am­bi­tious, but they gen­er­ally have some com­ple­men­tary moral code that checks their greed and chan­nels their drive. The House of Trump has sprayed an in­sec­ti­cide on any pos­si­ble com­ple­men­tary code, and so they are con­tin­u­ally tram­pling ba­sic de­cency. Their scan­dals may not build to any­thing im­peach­able, but the scan­dals will never end.

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