A lot of Americans value “toughness.” Lawyers are praised for being “tough-minded,” politicians promise to be “tough on crime,” therapists urge us to show “tough love,” and professional athletes are praised for their “mental toughness.” Advertisers use the appeal of toughness to sell everything from jackets and headphones to rain gutters and trucks.
President Trump is obsessed with toughness, the trait he most closely associates with his supreme value, “winning.” He uses it to justify everything from the new tariffs on steel and aluminum to his outrageous effort to split undocumented children from their parents at the border. The effectively abandoned “zero tolerance” policy was said to be tough but necessary.
Trump’s obsession with toughness goes way back. After the ruthless Tiananmen Square massacre of over two hundred people in 1989, he praised the Chinese government for demonstrating its strength and power. As president, he has expressed his admiration for President Rodrigo Duterte, a known rapist who has overseen the extrajudicial killings of about thirteen thousand Filipinos.
After their meeting in Singapore, Trump dramatically switched from describing North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as a “maniac” and “madman” to praising him as a “tough guy”—the highest form of praise Trump can offer. He admires Kim’s skill at consolidating power, ruthlessly eliminating anyone perceived as slightly disloyal, and effectively controlling his population through relentless propaganda and institutionalized terror.
Of course, Trump’s admiration of toughness reflects his own insatiable craving for respect. Discussing Kim during a recent interview on Fox News, the president observed: “He speaks, and his people sit up and listen…. I want my people to do the same.” Trump is willing to concede that Kim “has done a lot of bad things” (including ordering the torture, imprisonment, and murder of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens). But the president sought to neutralize worldwide moral condemnation of Kim’s behavior with the lame and irrelevant observation that human rights are abused in many other countries as well.
What is completely missing in Trump’s discourse, and that of his allies, is any attempt to subject his love of toughness to ethical assessment. In ordinary language, toughness is a quality akin to strength, durability, resilience, or sturdiness. But rather than a virtue, toughness is morally neutral. We might praise the “toughness” of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Rosa Parks, because their perseverance served noble ends. All displayed various kinds of strength. In contrast, we do not praise bloody tyrants like Herod, Stalin, or Mao for the “toughness” they displayed in their ruthless pursuit and preservation of power.