As soon as Vice President Mike Pence dropped a “Make America Great Again” reference during his commencement speech at Hillsdale College in May, I knew that inviting him was a mistake — not because of his office or character, but because a graduation ceremony is no place for political gain. The success of the Trump administration had nothing to do with the accomplishments of the graduating seniors. And I know I’m not the only Hillsdale student who felt that way. But a recent article in The Atlantic seems to suggest that those of us who disliked the selection of Pence are morally separate from Hillsdale’s leadership, which is a misguided claim.
Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic staff writer, spent 3,502 words analyzing Pence’s speech, criticizing Hillsdale’s decision to invite him, and denouncing Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn as a sell-out for doing so. It went so far as to question — in the headline — whether the college “sold its soul” in exchange for “worldly gain.”
“What’s an earnest young Hillsdale undergrad who is even passingly familiar with Trump’s character and past actions to make of Pence’s selection as commencement speaker, his speech, or his broader work trying to elevate, empower, and lavishly extol a flagrantly immoral president?” Friedersdorf writes.
Friedersdorf goes on to say that Pence is “engaged in a utilitarian moral compromise, wherein he helps to secure great power for a morally odious man with the expectation that the man will wield power in ways that wind up benefiting the greater good.” Pence parades around the U.S. excusing the president’s morally vacant actions, and he did so once again at Hillsdale College in May, Friedersdorf says.
Many Hillsdale students, myself included, were vocally critical of the college’s decision to invite Pence. I didn’t like that Hillsdale was aligning itself with a controversial administration. Others just didn’t want a political figure speaking at commencement, regardless of his or her political party. But Friedersdorf makes no mention of this — because, though he makes many assumptions about the Hillsdale student body in this piece, he doesn’t reference a single Hillsdale student or faculty member to back up his claims. I can’t speak to his depth of research, but even if he did reach out to students and faculty members, the fact remains that his only Hillsdale voice in the piece is Arnn, in a radio interview transcript. Although it’s respectful, the piece does seem to question an entire college’s moral direction based on a few comments from its president and one commencement speaker.
Now, I agreed with much of what Friedersdorf wrote. His concerns about Pence were well-founded — Pence routinely justified Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail (and still does) and he endorsed a morally depraved man, Joe Arpaio, during a rally in Arizona. Both are questionable and neither should be accepted without skepticism. But Pence’s shortcomings don’t reflect on Hillsdale College just because he gave one speech on campus.
I’d also argue, like Friedersdorf, that conservatism has no room for Trump’s populist policies and should not blindly accept them into the fold just because he was the lesser of two evils. This is an important discussion regarding the school’s direction that we, as students, shouldn’t shy away from having.
But since Friedersdorf also welcomed any responses and disagreements from Hillsdale alumni, faculty, or students, I’m taking the bait.
Mr. Friedersdorf, allow me to explain a few things about my school. First, Hillsdale College isn’t perfect and it’s never claimed to be. Inviting Pence was not a choice I supported, but the growing affiliation with the Trump administration is not leading students astray from the principles Hillsdale’s mission clings to, as Friedersdorf suggests, albeit “marginally.” The school’s staff strives to live what they teach and its students pursue truth just the same. That is true regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
Second, Hillsdale is not perfect because it is led by men and women who are far from perfect. As we’re taught in class, fallen human nature inevitably leads to flawed leadership, including Arnn. But a 10-minute conversation between Arnn and Hugh Hewitt is not enough for Friedersdorf to understand and dissect Arnn’s thinking.
“The logic here is clear enough. Neither Hewitt nor Arnn talks as if they believe that good moral character is really essential in an American president — they talk as if they believe that a president who flagrantly exhibits all manner of character flaws and odious behavior can put the country on a trajectory that benefits it greatly for decades if he appoints good judges,” Friedersdorf writes.
That’s a bold claim. Unlike Friedersdorf, I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of Arnn’s mind, but I did spend a semester studying under Arnn, and one of the many subjects we covered while reading Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” was the magnanimous man. This man, Aristotle writes, is fit to rule because he possesses what is great in every moral virtue. This man — the perfect ruler — has attained a greatness of soul to which the rest of us should aspire. Arnn’s conviction and authenticity during that lesson seem to suggest a claim opposite of what Friedersdorf suggests. Arnn has not shied away from acknowledging Trump’s flaws, and he appears to support him for reasons he believes to be right. And though Friedersdorf admits Arnn “commends a more idealistic, principled approach, in which good character is at the core of good leadership,” he casts that in doubt because Arnn supports a politician he doesn’t like. I agree with Friedersdorf, however, that since he’s vocally thrown his weight behind Trump, Arnn should engage with an apparent tension. After Pence’s speech, Hillsdale students, like myself, have questions about the college’s ties to the administration, and Arnn should be willing to speak to those in both a public and private setting. That conversation needs to be had and this is the perfect opportunity to do so.
Furthermore, Friedersdorf’s criticisms of Arnn open a huge can of worms. His argument centers on the idea that it’s wrong to support someone who’s personally immoral, even if it’s for morally upright reasons. Following that line of reasoning, because Arnn supports Trump, Arnn is morally vacant, and because Hillsdale students support Arnn, we, too, are deficient. See the problem there? No leader is perfect, so at some level we all support immoral people — not that we should do so blindly. I could argue that Friedersdorf’s leader, The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, made a poor, immoral choice to fire Kevin Williamson earlier this spring because of his conservative views on abortion, and that because Friedersdorf works and writes for him, Friedersdorf is also immoral. But I won’t, because that doesn’t make any sense. Friedersdorf is not Goldberg and Arnn is not Trump.
I agree with Friedersdorf’s assertion that individuals who care about upright living and the pursuit of truth shouldn’t rashly throw their allegiance behind a leader deficient in both. But to put Arnn in that category is evidence that Friedersdorf doesn’t know him well enough. Arnn’s support for Trump is nuanced — he gives credit where credit is due and criticizes the president when need be, like many other principled conservatives I know.
Friedersdorf’s criticism was respectful and poignant, and it didn’t completely miss the target. Yes, there’s a dissonance between Arnn’s growing ties with a president riddled with moral shortcomings and the values Hillsdale represents, but it’s a stretch to argue this divide reveals an impending crisis that undermines what the school stands for. The principles Hillsdale was founded on will remain and outlive the Trump era, with the college’s soul intact.
So, to answer your question, Mr. Friedersdorf: Yes, you do have something wrong.