The Threat of Moral Authority

Representative John Lewis, Selma, Alabama, February 14, 2015

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Representative John Lewis, Selma, Alabama, February 14, 2015

Moscow, June 1989. A stooped, bespectacled old man named Andrei Sakharov is at a podium, making an urgent appeal to the Congress of People’s Deputies about respect for the rule of law. Another man, the most powerful in the Soviet Union, is sitting at a presidium that towers over the podium and tells him he is out of time. “Don’t you respect this congress?” he asks. Sakharov continues speaking and gesticulating, but he can no longer be heard: his microphone has been cut off. Only the other man’s voice is audible: “That’s it,” he keeps saying. “That’s it.” Sakharov finally turns around, scooping up his speech, steps up to the presidium, still stooped, and tries to hand his sheets of paper to the other man. “Take your speech with you,” he responds disdainfully.

The younger man is Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and he has just silenced the country’s most emblematic dissident and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Another man takes the floor. “Why should we listen to Comrade Sakharov?” he demands. “Doesn’t he seem to think too much of himself?” Now a majority of the deputies stands up to applaud.

Minsk, October 2015. Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, is pinning a medal on the lapel of a man with long blond hair. The man is Victor Drobysh, a pop singer famous for compositions with names like “I love you any way I want” and “Love is better than sex.” Lukashenko (whom I once described, too optimistically, as “the last dictator in Europe”) says he wants to honor the singer “most of all, for the fact that, even when you’ve been far from our motherland, when people would say not very nice things about us, you were never ashamed to call yourself Belarusian, unlike some other so-called creative artists… These so-called artists, these creative personalities, even these Nobel Prize laureates, before they even get their prize, they go abroad and try to dump a bucket of filth on their country.” The object of Lukashenko’s derision is a tiny, soft-spoken woman who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: Svetlana Alexievich.

New York, January 2017. The very large, very loud American president-elect unleashes a Twitter fury on an older, smaller man who can and does appear vulnerable in public. The man, Congressman John Lewis, has vowed to boycott the president-elect’s inauguration. Donald Trump attacks Lewis as a man of words, not action—and, as some Americans watch in shocked disbelief while others surely applaud, continues to hound Lewis long after Trump’s usual Twitter attention span would have run out.

In his now familiar way, Trump has come across as clueless, as though he doesn’t know who Lewis is, which district he represents, and more important, what history he represents. But his instincts are guiding him into a confrontation that is hardly new: it is a response that has occurred over and over when an autocratic leader is challenged by the voice of moral authority.

Almost invariably, moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body—perhaps because it takes years and decades, and risk and injury, to amass. Yet the words of certainty, spoken softly, pose a threat to power secured through the conventional means of force and title. No voice other than that of John Lewis could have called forth the number of congressmen—fifty-nine at last count—now planning to boycott the inauguration.

Trump has a keen sense of danger, and though he could never put it into words, he understands the threat Lewis represents. Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such. Once cynicism triumphs, wrote the dissident Václav Havel in a 1975 letter to the Communist leader of Czechoslovakia, “everyone who still tries to resist by, for instance, refusing to adopt the principle of dissimulation as the key to survival, doubting the value of any self-fulfillment purchased at the cost of self-alienation—such a person appears to his ever more indifferent neighbors as an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote, and in the end is regarded inevitably with some aversion, like everyone who behaves differently from the rest and in a way which, moreover, threatens to hold up a critical mirror before their eyes.” The majority then stands to applaud his humiliation.

The war on principles unleashed in the Soviet world was more successful than Havel could have imagined in 1975—long outlasting the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. His own calls for a moral politics were mocked by his countrymen years after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the apparent defeat of the Soviet post-totalitarian system—when Havel became president of his country, and after he stepped down. In the Russian language today, the entire vocabulary of principles and ideals has, after decades of abuse, been relegated to disuse. Even in private conversation, Russians will frequently apologize for using words or concepts that they feel are marked with “pathos,” a word that has come to connote not so much suffering but earnestness and loftiness of concept. In the public sphere, the language of “pathos” does not exist at all: a word like “democracy” can be pronounced only with a smirk.


For a number of years, perhaps since the end of the cold war, the language of ideals and principles has been fading from American political discourse too, giving way to the language of realism and action. In his farewell speech, President Obama addressed the “work of democracy,” the daily grind of change and the importance of the belief in the American experiment rather than the ideals on which the experiment is based. When he rehearsed the milestones of American history, he framed them in terms of “purpose” rather than vision, idea, or yearning. This was hardly a failure of Obama’s: his language goes as high and perhaps higher than the political conversation as it has evolved over the last quarter century allows. The groundwork for Trump’s assault, his drive to debase us all, has been laid. Fortunately, there is Representative Lewis, who can say, as he did in his Meet the Press interview, “You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong.”

When Trump dismissed Lewis as “all talk, talk, talk,” he dismissed the value of moral politics in general, and in particular the basic conversation about right and wrong in which Lewis is engaging. In supporting Lewis, it’s important to recognize not only his personal history but the rhetorical history of his protest: Lewis, like Sakharov, Alexievich, and others before him, is reaching for a higher note.

That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. Sakharov, who spoke of greater change than most of his countrymen could have imagined, was quickly proven right by history. Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.

On Sunday, January 15, a large number of New York writers gathered for a protest on the steps of the city’s public library. They read a variety of texts, and a high proportion of them, ranging from the preamble to the US Constitution to Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” belonged to that same unabashedly high-moral register. This is precisely the right choice for protesting the looming threat of autocracy: an assertion of principles and an insistence that, in the words of Langston Hughes, “America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

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