Accusations about shortcomings in character have become a standard part of every political campaign and in this one many people in good faith raise legitimate questions regarding his opponent’s character. But the Trump phenomenon has turned the whole character question on its head. He and his most ardent supporters do not defend against the charges of defective character, instead they celebrate his inversion of the norms of civil society: greed, vulgarity, boorishness, bullying, ignorance, selfishness, pettiness, short-temper, cruelty, and bold dissembling have become markers of Trump’s toughness, his status, and his solidarity with his supporters. As Catherine Rampell, writing in the Washington Post (May 16) put it, for Trump “every vice is a virtue.” This may be unusual in the political realm, but not the celebrity realm, where British philosopher Simon Blackburn observes “the divinity that surrounds our celebrities is scarcely dinted and might even be enhanced by the most absurd behavior.” After all, what is “reality” TV other than people behaving badly?
Apologies for a particularly long posting, but I believe it is merited by the importance of the subject. In my last posting I discussed Trump and truthfulness. What about the other elements of good character?
To understand what modern pre-Trump Republicans considered the essential elements of good character, I consulted a book written by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education and Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Edward J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues. Praised by conservative leaders ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Rush Limbaugh, Bennett tells stories that illustrate the meaning of ten human virtues: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. Of course this is not an exhaustive list. Others, such as André Comte-Sponville in his hugely popular A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, would add politeness, prudence, temperance, generosity, mercy, gratitude, humility, tolerance, gentleness, humor, and love.
Not all of these virtues are relevant to the job of president (you can be a decent president without humor, friendship, or faith, for example). And because ambition, expedience, and compromise are at the heart of modern American politics, it certainly does not raise eyebrows when a candidate lacks the full desired measure of loyalty, good faith, fidelity, simplicity, purity, or gentleness.
Here is my list of the virtues that traditionally have been regarded by both left and right as vital for the person into whose hands we entrust the presidency, the greatest power and responsibility a human being can have:
Self-discipline. This is the great marker of personal maturity. It signals that a person has learned to control the tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses we all share. As Robert Gates, who has served eight presidents and was Secretary of Defense under both Presidents Bush and Obama put it, “when a president shoots off his mouth, there are no do-overs.” Because every word uttered and action taken by the U.S. president is so enormously consequential, self-discipline, moderation, and self-restraint may be the traits we seek most in candidates for the job. As has been widely noted, these are traits in which Trump seems most lacking. For decades, he has demonstrated a lack of inclination, or perhaps inability, to control his impulsiveness.
Prudence. Prudence is the quality that tempers toughness and courage. Toughness and courage also are virtues, but without the tempering effect of prudence, they can turn you into a bullying thug. The more power you have, the more prudence is required. Decisions made in anger or by impulse can lead to war or worse. Prudence is the virtue that counsels care when you are inclined to be reckless, patience when you are inclined to be impulsive, and thoughtful consideration of alternatives when a course of action seems obvious.
Trump seems fueled instead by reckless anger. He lashes out when minimally provoked. There is no calibration or tempering of his responses to provocation. As one prominent psychology professor put it, his personality traits suggest a president who would be “highly combustible . . . [a person] who never thinks twice about the collateral damage he will leave behind. Tough. Bellicose. Threatening. Explosive.” This is what most of the commentators mean when they say that Trump lacks the “temperament” to be president.
Compassion. The president leads but also serves, and he or she must have an authentic compassionate interest in the citizenry. Bennett defines compassion in a way that illuminates why it is often so lacking in narcissists such as Trump. He writes that it is the virtue “that takes seriously the reality of other persons, their inner lives, their emotions, as well as their circumstances.” Most narcissists cannot, as Bennett says, “take seriously” the interests of other people, who have no standing in comparison to the narcissist’s own desires.
And the nexus between compassion and behavior? A person with compassion, Bennett observes, is unable to treat anyone with “callous disregard.” Trump appears to treat almost everyone with “callous disregard.” As his ghostwriter observed, “People are dispensable and disposable in Trump’s world.” Trump’s meanness, coarseness, crudeness, and vulgarity also are reflections of the absence of empathetic compassion because, as British philosopher Simon Blackburn explains, “Good manners are a small but constant adjustment to the reasonable expectations or needs of others.”
Note that the narcissist is always a master at creating the illusion of compassion when necessary in order to achieve some desire or to make himself look good. But narcissists rarely follow through, because their ends are generally served by the announcement of the good deed, and not its actual doing. Reporters from the Washington Post could find evidence of only $10,000 in actual donations from millions of dollars Trump publicly promised to charities over the past seven years.
Finally, the energy he inspires in his most ardent supporters is fueled by the antithesis of compassion, which is hate, the ultimate anti-virtue whose corrosive acidity dissolves what is left of our better selves.
Curiosity and Wisdom. An active curiosity is what drives you to seek out a deeper understanding of a problem and a variety of perspectives, including those that conflict with your own. Without curiosity, you cannot have knowledge. And without knowledge, you cannot have wisdom, which is knowledge tempered by judgment and experience. Tony Schwartz observed in Trump an “absolute lack of interest in anything beyond power and money.” Trump is not a reader. His short attention span limits his ability to absorb information. The Wall Street Journal editorial page observed after the foreign policy forum “he shows so little knowledge about the world that it’s impossible to know how he would react.” President Bush’s Defense Secretary calls Trump “stubbornly uninformed about the world.”
Humility. Humility tempers confidence and allows a leader to seek and take advice, admit mistakes, and inspire others. Trump has none. Instead, he is an incessant braggart, crippled by the overwhelming vanity of the narcissist (described by Blackburn as “greedy desire for the admiration and envy of others”). Crippled, because he simply cannot help himself. His egomania is not a tactic or matter of choice. His primary campaign consisted in large part of an extended boast about his poll results, but over the years he has bragged on the record about his IQ, his wealth, the size of his penis, even his humility. On golf: “Do I hit it long? Is Trump strong?” On business: “Everything we’ve touched has been a big success.” And this, in front of a national television audience: “ . . .he referred to my hands -- 'if they're small, something else must be small.' I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee." His book is “number one,” his defunct vodka, “a big success.” Independent fact checkers at Politico said “his personal and professional boasts . . .rarely measure up when checked against primary sources.” Thomas Moore called humility “that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” Its absence in Trump may be the single animating source of his other character flaws.
Integrity. Many of these virtues reinforce each other and resolve into a character trait we call “integrity.” The idea of integrity has its origins in the concept of wholeness. Although it includes honesty, it is something much greater than that. Integrity is a consistency of character governed by a determination to do the right thing. If your actions are governed by a coherent set of moral principles, then your behavior will be predicable and consistent. You will do the right thing. When you lack this kind of integrity, your actions are unpredictable and inconsistent.
* * *
So what does this brief review of the essential virtues tell us? Highly conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, with whom I rarely agree, put it well: “The central issue in this election isn’t Mr. Trump’s ideas, such as they are. It’s his character, such as it is. The sin, in this case, is the sinner.” Or, on the more centrist side of GOP punditry, columnist David Brooks wrote: “Donald Trump is an affront to the basic standards of honesty, virtue and citizenship. . . . He has already shredded the unspoken rules of political civility that make conversation possible.”
Neo-conservative commentator Robert Kagan asks the key question that we must all ask ourselves before voting: “is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands [as president], likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?”