The implosion of Donald Trump’s campaign is a reminder that at the end of the day, character matters more than professional success or political commitments. At the beginning of the second presidential debate Donald apologized again for the lewd comments recorded during a private discussion with Billy Bush in 2005 in which he boasted of romantically pursuing married women and groping others. In his apology, he referred to that discussion as regular “locker room talk.” In other words, Trump believes he is just a normal locker room guy. If lewdness is normative, America is in deep trouble. But should we be surprised?
What I found especially interesting was the attempt to contextualize Trump’s comments as something we might expect from younger men but not from older men. For example, during the October 8 edition of The News Hour on PBS, Roger Simon, Chief Political Columnist for Politico commented that Trump’s comments emanate from “frat boy culture” before adding, “but he’s no longer a frat boy.” Simon may have uncovered the root of the problem. Young men do see moral virtue celebrated as a young man’s norm.
For example, teenage and college male fraternity life has been depicted in the exact terms that Trump used in movies as old as Animal House (1978) or Porky’s (1981), and even as recent as the series of Neighbors films starring Zac Efron, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. This “frat boy” culture was evident in the political scandals of President Bill Clinton and Congressman Anthony Wiener.
The absence of any celebration of moral virtue for young men has long been a problem in “frat boy” culture. In 1996, A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade published the landmark article, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” in the journal Gender and Society. In the article, Boswell and Spade summarize what we have known for decades about much of university Greek life—namely, that fraternities turn a blind-eye to rape, encourage sexual assault in group settings, consume higher doses of alcohol and drugs, and place a higher value on social life in general. In fact, for many the practice of sexual aggression is learned behavior in Greek college life in ways absent prior to enrolling in college. These trends have been repeatedly confirmed in research data. According to Department of Education data analyzed by NPR, the number of ‘forcible rapes’ reported at four-year colleges increased 49 percent between 2008 and 2012 and continues to rise. In other words, we are currently in the midst of a campus sexual assault crisis.
Why has this happened? Because America has all but abandoned the celebration and promotion of moral virtue and character in raising boys to men in the public square. Character forming organizations like the Boy Scouts, for example, no longer pass the “cool” test after 9th grade. To make matters worse, today’s future male leaders are far less likely to receive regular, sustained, life-long moral formation in the church than their fathers and grandfathers. Instead, it seems that athletic, academic, and financial success are the real cardinal virtues we point men to. As a result, we should expect to have more and more financially successful men who have the moral character of men like Donald Trump.
As long as excelling in moral virtue is disconnected from what it means to be successful in the marketplace and politics, America’s teens and college students will continue to disappoint us when they assume positions of influence and authority. Markets and moral virtue cannot exist apart from one another. In fact, “frat boy culture” should see everything happening to Donald Trump—the man that he is, the attributes that he displays, his arrogant narcissism—and seek radical change. Our country needs future leaders who we can be proud of for their upstanding moral character.