I’ve long argued that Donald Trump’s presidency will end poorly because he’s a person of bad character. I still think that’s true, though I very much doubt the impeachment trial now underway will result in his removal. Regardless of its outcome, his impeachment illustrates the damage bad character can do to the presidency, the culture, and the constitutional order.
In monarchies and other systems built around one-man (or one-woman) rule, the leader’s quirks, obsessions, or inadequacies cease to be any of those things, instead becoming fashionable attributes of greatness. Bad jokes that emerge from his or her mouth become hilarious; rudeness, strength. Mispronunciations become fashionable locution. The story of Castilian Spaniards replacing the “s” sound with a “th” sound (“therveza” instead of cerveza) to accommodate King Ferdinand’s lisp is myth, alas (or “alath”). But the moral of the story stands.
We’ve seen something similar happen to large swaths of the GOP. Because Trump is unteachable about how the presidency and our constitutional system are supposed to work, politicians and media figures have dropped their long-held views on foreign policy, the national debt, trade, and even the need for basic civility in order to get in sync with the president.
Arizona senator Martha McSally’s outburst on Thursday is just the latest example. When asked by a CNN reporter whether she’d support allowing witnesses at the impeachment trial, this once sober-minded politician called him a “liberal hack,” creating a viral social-media moment perfectly suited for cable-news preening and digital fundraising.
A new book by Washington Post reporters, A Very Stable Genius, recounts in alarming detail how early members of the Trump administration struggled to teach the president the rudiments of the job of commander-in-chief, only to be rebuffed as “dopes and babies” because they didn’t see our international alliances and military assets as an opportunity to turn a profit. Two years later, he’s surrounded by a coterie happy to let Trump be Trump.
The impeachment drama itself stems from the fact that no one can convince the president that the presidency is more than the whims, desires, and ambitions of the person occupying the job.
Unfortunately, the responses from Democrats, much of the media, and opponents of the president, although emotionally understandable, have often compounded the damage.
My American Enterprise Institute colleague Yuval Levin has written tellingly about the Trump era:
My rule of thumb . . . is that every scandal will proceed in whatever way is maximally damaging to public confidence in our core institutions. Each twist and turn and revelation will give everyone on all sides of our politics . . . just enough reason to believe that their side is in the right, the other side knows it but is corrupt, and the only way to get justice is to recognize that there is no alternative to stretching the norms and rules of our politics a little in this particular case.
The Washington establishment’s rush to get ahead of the evidence on Trump’s unproven collusion with Russia; the constant exhortation that the only reasons someone might agree with Trump policies are racism, cultism, or indebtedness to Vladimir Putin; and the often-voiced determination to impeach Trump before impeachable offenses had materialized might sound like brave resistance to those already converted. But to the unconverted, such rhetoric sounds like evidence of bad faith, warranting more bad faith in response.
Our problems with partisanship and polarization predate Trump’s election, but his presidency has been gasoline on a fire. Trump could have avoided impeachment countless times. Most obviously, he could have not done what he obviously did vis-à-vis Ukraine. Or he could have admitted his error, apologized, and taken the steam out of the impeachment train’s boilers.
Instead, because of his low character, he opted to stand by his claims that his actions were “perfect.” As a result, Republicans must now further deform their character to accommodate his and scramble to protect themselves from hearing the truth at his impeachment trial, on the accurate but embarrassing pretext that the Democrats didn’t expose the truth the right way.
Trump could have avoided impeachment had he governed, from the start, as a servant of all Americans, whether they voted for him or not. But that option was no option at all, because his character would not allow it. Now we are plunging further into dysfunction because the presidency was never designed for a man who could not comprehend what it means to be presidential.
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