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How character counts with Donald Trump

The quality that counts in a president is whether he suits the needs of the country at a given moment

December 31, 2018

7:11 AM

31 December 2018

7:11 AM

Whatever my differences with Jonah Goldberg, I appreciate his taste in thinkers. He enlists serious sources, both ancient and modern, to buttress his arguments. In a recent syndicated column criticizing President Trump’s character, he drew on the wisdom of one of the classical world’s pre-eminent minds, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said, ‘man’s character is his fate.’ To Goldberg, this means Trump is certain to fail as a president.

Roger Kimball has an excellent response to Goldberg in American Greatness,  where he considers precisely what the Greek words ‘ethos’ and ‘daimon’ — the terms conventionally translated as ‘character’ and ‘fate’ in Heraclitus’s aphorism — mean. I would only add that the conventional translation is correct if ‘fate’ is understood the way that Greeks understood ‘daimon’ — that is, as involving one’s relationship to happiness (eudaimonia) or its opposite. The fate is question is not about how well you perform a job, whether as president or anything else, but what it takes to be happy. If you have a resentful temperament, you won’t be happy no matter how well you do; neither riches nor fame nor anything else will supply what your outlook does not. Heraclitus’s point is that you are only as happy or miserable as your own mentality makes you.

By that standard, President Trump fares better than most of his critics. They are genuinely, furiously unhappy, even to the point of making themselves sick. Washington, D.C. has become a city-sized clinic for ruling-class mental distress — not that the capital was exactly well-adjusted before Trump, either. But back then, the narcissists were full of confidence; now they despair as they gaze longingly into their mirrors only to see Trump grinning back at them. For all their armchair psychoanalyzing of the president, it’s hard not to notice the degree to which many of the president’s haters suffer from the very afflictions they diagnose in him: pathological self-regard, a lack of empathy, intolerance, incuriosity, and red hot rage. And it’s challenging to find a clearer example of psychological projection than when the Washington smart set accuses Trump of incompetence: The Iraq War? Libya? The Great Recession? Obamacare’s impact on premiums? Trump can hardly do worse than the best and brightest have already done — and would keep doing if they had the chance.

Goldberg is not a clinical case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, however — look to the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin for a specimen of that — and the question he raises is an important one. Is good character necessary to successful leadership?

In one sense, the answer is clearly no. Just as for Heraclitus happiness, the good daimon, is not about external things, including achievements, as much as your frame of mind, moral excellence is not the same thing as being, say, an excellent surgeon or navigator or president. Excellent surgeons are in fact notorious for being disagreeable human beings. But you don’t select a surgeon based on whether or not he cheats on his wife; you select him based on whether he’s the best person for your specific surgery. When it comes to a president, the quality that counts is not his goodness as a human being but whether he suits the needs of the country at a given moment. In 2016, no one suited the needs of the United States better than Donald Trump. He was not elected to be a moral beacon but to do a necessary, difficult job — including ending wars, curbing immigration, and supporting American workers and industry over free trade.

It may not be a coincidence that the columnists most concerned about Trump’s character also happen to oppose the ‘surgery’ he was elected to perform. A bit of charity and self-awareness is called for here: to emphasize Trump’s flaws when you oppose his program is not so very different from discounting his flaws when you support that program. What blinds many of Trump’s critics to their inconsistency here is that they find it impossible to understand how urgent the program is for those who actually support it: the moral lines you draw concerning the personal failings of a doctor who is just giving you a check-up are very different from those you draw regarding the morals of one who is about to perform life-or-death surgery. War, immigration, and industry mean a lot more to Trump’s supporters than they do to most of his opponents — who are used to getting their way and expect to get it again as soon as Trump’s gone. Little wonder, then, that these critics think the big Trump story is his behavior, not why he was elected.

American presidents have never been saints, and sometimes a man with worse character makes a better president. Jimmy Carter is commonly considered to be a decent human being; Bill Clinton is a cad or worse. Yet most people deem Clinton’s presidency a success and Carter’s a failure — voters rendered just such a verdict in 1980 and 1996, when each man was up for re-election. Ronald Reagan was divorced; the two George Bushes were each married only once. No conservative thinks that makes the Bushes better than Reagan as presidents. Look further back into American history and you continue to find that personal morality and public performance are two different things. Alexander Hamilton’s unfaithfulness to his wife did not, in fact, make him unfaithful to the Treasury, whatever his enemies may have wanted to believe. George Washington was a model gentleman as well as the father of his country; he also owned slaves, as of course did Thomas Jefferson. That grave moral evil did not preclude them from being great statesmen.

The difficulty of reconciling what it means to be a truly good human being with what it means to be a good citizen or statesman is one of the oldest problems in political philosophy — surely an even older problem in practice. Ideally, impeccable personal qualities will coincide with suitability for the needs of the moment; but where there’s a disjunction, the citizen must choose what is best for the country, not what is the best human type.

There is another problem with equating simply good character with good leadership. To succeed in national politics takes great drive, which rarely if ever coincides with humility, and the desires that compel a person to seek power are never altogether wholesome. Yet in business or surgical practice personal flaws sometimes supply the ambition and even something of the skill needed to excel — a single-minded focus on perfecting one’s talent easily becomes detrimental to one’s relationships with others. The work may nevertheless do great good, to the point of saving lives. Character is the most important thing for man as man, as Heraclitus suggests, but any kind of practice modulates virtue and vice, subordinating both to the task at hand. To make a moral judgment about a practitioner (whether surgeon, president, or anything else) first requires judging his task — is it good or bad? how urgent? — then judging his suitability for it in light of the available alternatives.

What are the alternatives to Trump? There are none if you want to support his program. A morally upstanding podiatrist is a substitute for an overbearing thoracic surgeon. If you think podiatry is all the country needs, that’s fine — make that argument — but don’t be surprised if people who disagree with your diagnosis tune out everything you say after that.

How does Trump’s character affect his suitability for his task? His habitual critics, who tend not to agree with the task in the first place, nevertheless say they think he would carry it out better if he were more disciplined, didn’t tweet so provocatively, and listened more to his advisers. The last point gives the game away, however: Trump was elected to do the kinds of things that the Washington establishment, including its medal-bedecked members, has long refused to do. The question of personnel and whether Trump should listen to them is primarily a question of policy. As for tweeting and tough-talk, it’s hard not to see a connection between the determination to say what he likes — however crude it may be — and the spirit necessary to defy the elite consensus in practice. Rhetorical excess is a small price to pay if it comes with the strength to say ‘no’ to the next war.

Trump’s flaws are glaring, but even that is refreshing: a contrast to the deeper, hidden flaws of the polished politicians who brought us 17 years of continuous conflict — as if 9/11 required more than World War II — and such horrors as the Great Recession and an epidemic of despair in the heartland (not to mention the epidemic of homicide in Chicago). If there was a better Trump, I’d vote for him. But the one we have is superior to his rivals where it counts, including morally. His vices are vices, yes; but their virtues are vices. For respectable Washington, moral reform has to begin right at home, in front of that mirror.


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