This week, President Trump proved once again that character matters.
Trump failed miserably on all fronts — not because of his political principles, which were never philosophically conservative, but because Trump is a deeply flawed man, and thus an even more flawed leader. His obsession with others’ perceptions led him to fire FBI director James Comey — who should have been fired, by all rights, months ago — for the sin of failing to respect Trump’s bizarre theories about Obama-era “wiretapping.” Meanwhile, in an act of extreme arrogance, Trump appeared on national television and proceeded to destroy the supposed rationales for the Comey firing. His pathological insecurities then led him to tweet about “tapes” of Comey, which he then refused to allow his communications team to sweep under the rug.
There is no 8-D underwater quantum chess. There is only Trump. And as the so-called law of the lid states in business, the upper limit of a president’s competence can never be superseded by that of his subordinates. And Trump’s competence is tied directly to his character defects.
But many Republicans overlooked character as an argument against Trump, and they continue to do so today, although it is his character that leads him to jump on rakes. According to an April 2017 poll from the Deseret News, 57 percent of Republicans now say it would not matter to them if a candidate for president “had an extramarital affair in the past.” That compares with 42 percent of Republicans back in 2002. That number also includes 53 percent of white Evangelicals.
Why? Because of President Trump, of course.
It’s obviously silly to argue about whether this has been a principled stand by Republicans. It isn’t, any more than it is principled opposition rather than political convenience driving Democrats’ sudden turn against adultery among politicians (just 47 percent of Democrats said adultery wouldn’t matter to them, as opposed to 69 percent who said the same thing in 2002).
But it does point to a bet conservatives made in the 2016 election: that success equals character. Trump’s business career became, for many conservatives, an all-purpose fall-back argument in behalf of his character. Because conservatives believe in a meritocracy, they tend to believe that those who are successful are not cheats, liars, or scoundrels in the private sector.
To understand conservatives’ willingness to overlook Donald Trump’s personal problems, it’s important to understand the context in which Trump’s fans saw him: as a real-estate magnate. Real estate takes a certain level of expertise. It takes fluency with numbers. It takes willingness to structure “the art of the deal.” It requires patience and the ability to grapple with learning curves — adaptability. Success in real estate means careful planning years in advance and a willingness to pull the trigger on big moves. It requires a certain level of character, too: Your reputation in real estate helps determine whether good deals will ever materialize. Those who begin as real-estate sharks don’t have decades-long careers, in the main.
Trump, his conservative defenders said, was a real-estate mogul — the most powerful real-estate mogul in America. That made him, by inductive reasoning, a decent person, despite his adulterous liaisons.
But many conservatives refused to acknowledge the two points about Trump that should have given them cause for concern, even if they believed the somewhat flawed meritocracy-character link. First, Trump didn’t earn his magnate status; Trump inherited a massive amount of wealth from his father and, by most available estimates, has significantly underperformed the real-estate market. Second, and more important, there is at least one area of meritocracy where conservatives discard the supposed character-success link: in the entertainment industry. Conservatives have always understood that talent for entertaining and quality of character may actually be inversely linked: You’d be hard-pressed to find a conservative touting Kim Kardashian’s success as proof of her good character.
Trump is an entertainer. He acts like an entertainer. He obsesses about his ratings, he spends hours on his hair, he agonizes over public perceptions of his successes and failures. He cannot bear to be out of the spotlight, and he feels personally threatened by those who occupy it more than he does for any period of time.
Conservatives wouldn’t pretend that Paris Hilton would make a good president because she’s so successful in her other ventures. Yet many conservatives told themselves a story whereby Trump was more Warren Buffett than Paris Hilton, so they could continue to maintain the positive image of his character.
But he isn’t. And not all aspects of character are created equal when it comes to governing. Some bad men govern well; others govern poorly. It’s fair to argue that personal fidelity to one’s spouse has little to do with governing ability. Some Americans made that argument in the 1990s; others went with the character argument and maintained that you can’t trust a person who commits adultery. Obviously, Bill Clinton provided proof both ways: He could govern decently, but he was a pathological liar.
The only question is whether Trump has enough character to acknowledge when he’s made a mistake, if anyone is willing to speak honestly to him.
Trump’s flaws, however, differ from Clinton’s. He has the same need for love from the world at large — a love that drove Clinton away from ideology and toward a governing centrism, and which will likely move Trump in the same direction. But unlike Clinton, Trump is also deeply arrogant about his own abilities, which means that he micro-manages rather than delegating; he’s also spontaneous where Clinton was calculating, which means he makes more unforced errors; Trump hates details whereas Clinton loved them, which means Clinton was fluent with his policy proposals. None of this cuts in favor of Trump’s success.
Conservatives are now dealing with Trump in one of three ways: praying, as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is, that Trumpian foibles won’t poison too much of the agenda; practicing outright sycophancy, as his entire White House staff appears to be doing; and calling out Trump when he makes mistakes. Prayer isn’t going to work, at least barring a miracle; sycophancy merely reinforces Trumpian mistakes. The only question is whether Trump has enough character to acknowledge when he’s made a mistake, if anyone is willing to speak honestly to him.
So far, the answer isn’t looking good.
Character still matters in the presidency. Age 70 is a little late to be getting started in developing some, but if Trump wants to have a successful presidency, he’d better start now.