When trust fails, the virtuous circle turns vicious, and then the state has to find other ways to encourage or compel cooperation in order to function. The spirit of nationalism is cultivated by Beijing and by Budapest to serve that purpose — by emphasizing a common national identity (often with the aid of a common external enemy or a hated internal minority group) and a sense of solidarity and shared destiny, the state can achieve a high level of buy-in and consensus, at least for a time, in spite of corruption or incompetence. The socialist ideology of the USSR served much the same purpose, as a variation on its main theme does in contemporary North Korea…

Trump’s self-serving commutation of Stone’s prison sentence is another chip off the U.S. government’s foundation of trust and legitimacy. No one can claim to be surprised by this behavior — this is exactly what any reasonable person would expect from Donald Trump and from his associates. It is what Bill Bennett would have expected if he had understood his own books or had not forgotten what they say. The heavy price we will pay for Trump’s presidency is not that we will feel bad as a people about his lack of virtue and have a good cry over it but that his lies and abuse will leave the government itself, along with the political system and our civic culture, degraded. It is not a baby step but a mighty stride down the road to the Venezuelafication of American politics, and if you don’t think we have our own Hugo Chávez out there ready to step forward and fill the trust gap with ideology and an enemies’ list, then you are not paying very close attention.

Civic virtue is not a pleasant abstraction; still less is it a merchandising opportunity. It is a necessity if we are to have an open and transparent government based on trust and cooperation. The alternatives to that are autocracy and anarchy in varying combinations and proportions.