The Corner

Politics & Policy

Obscuring the Issue of Trump’s Character

President Donald Trump talks to the media in Philadelphia, Pa., December 8, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

I gather that everyone in Washington is debating Mitt Romney’s — politically debatable — decision to say the obvious about Trump’s character. But as I am wrapping up my vacation, I’ll have to get to all that later. In the meantime, I’d like to respond to a critic of my claim last week that Trump is a man of poor character.

And I must say, given the hostility many of the folks at American Greatness have shown me since its inception (and which I recently returned in kind), it was a refreshing change of pace to read my friend Roger Kimball begin his curious essay with the words, “My friend Jonah Goldberg.”

I say his essay is curious because it spends a good deal of time and space talking around the issue. He offers an interesting lesson in Greek translation, a subject he knows far more about than I do. Though I did already know that the translation of Heraclitus’s “character is destiny” is open to diverse interpretation, I now have more useful detail to flesh out that knowledge, thanks to Roger.

He also does some perfectly defensible parsing of my claim that everyone supports notions of (good) character while disagreeing on what exactly we mean by good character. It’s defensible, but it also strikes me as gratuitous nitpickery and atmospherics unworthy of his talents, given that a man who can parse original Greek surely understood my point at the first reading.

I’ll dispense with similar minor or distracting animadversions and get to the heart of our disagreement. Roger seems determined to minimize, dispute, divert, and debunk the contention that Donald Trump is a person of bad character, while never actually denying it. The goal seems to be less to rebut my argument than to confuse the issue.

And while he certainly offers a more erudite version than the usual fare, his essay mostly boils down to the same conventional tropes of all Trump defenders in such matters. For instance, there’s the de rigueur whataboutism. Roger asks: “What betokens worse character: tweeting rude things or having sex with your intern in the Oval Office? What’s worse, insulting Bob Corker or using the Department of Justice and the IRS to harass and persecute your political opponents?” My record on Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s transgressions is as solid as Roger’s, I think. So these whataboutist attempts at conjuring the stink of hypocrisy fall flat with me. I am the consistent one in this disagreement.

There’s also a technique one rarely finds in print, but often in verbal debates: the pretense to ignorance. Often on TV, or in mere conversation, many Trump defenders will respond to a specific criticism by saying, “I never heard Trump say that” or “I have no memory of what you’re talking about.” Roger seems to do the same thing here:

I cannot myself recall any “rants against the First Amendment,” per se. And I’d say that his “praise for dictators” was really praise for their possible good behavior or acquiescence to policies that the president thought were in our national interest.

I suppose it depends what one means by “rant,” but on numerous occasions the president has talked about “opening up” libel laws and revoking FCC licenses of certain news outlets, endorsed physical assaults on protestors, wanted to ban adherents of an entire religion from entering the country, celebrated the physical assault of a reporter, said (while in Canada) that it is “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” and so on. I don’t think his rants about “fake news,” “the enemy of the people,” etc. are necessarily anti–First Amendment. But given the larger context of his views, I think it’s reasonable to see them that way. Regardless, I am at a loss as to how Roger could have missed all that. Similarly, I find it hard to understand why Roger sees Trump’s fawning over “strong” leaders like Putin, Duterte, the butchers of Tiananmen Square, and others as mere statecraft. By his own account, Trump admires “strength” and he has a strongman’s scorecard of what defines strength.

There are also a fair number of “to be sure” statements. “Let us grant that the president is an imperfect man,” Roger concedes. He also writes: “I don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump, or who later came to support him, because he thought the president was a candidate for sainthood.”

Ironically, I just wrote about this tactic a couple weeks ago:

Many of the most articulate Trump defenders will often use a rhetorical tactic of conceding Trump’s shortcomings, usually in compact “to be sure” asides (“Obviously, Trump’s tweeting isn’t always helpful,” “It would be better if Trump could articulate his position more artfully,” etc.). Once they’ve checked that box, they proceed to go hammer and tongs against any critics on the right or left who are less dismissive of Trump’s foibles. In other words, they concede the critique — but they just consider it less important than others do.

And, as I noted at the outset, Roger employs an enormous amount of logic-chopping and squirrel-spotting that no doubt will sound persuasive to people whose chief gripe with Roger’s rebuttal is its civility towards me.

But if you bring your compass and machete to the dense brush, you can cut a path to his ultimate conclusion where Roger breaks some new ground. He writes:

…people supported him, first, because of what he promised to do and, second, because of what, over the past two years, he has accomplished. These accomplishments, from rolling back the regulatory state and scores of conservative judicial appointments, from moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem to resuscitating our military, working to end Obamacare, and fighting to keep our borders secure, are not morally neutral data points. They are evidences of a political vision and of promises made and kept. They are, in short, evidences of what sort of character Donald Trump is.

Add them up and I think they go a long way towards a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.

Voltaire, writing against Rousseau and his self-intoxicated paeans to “virtue,” occupied a similar semantic neighborhood: “What is virtue, my friend?” Voltaire asked. “It is to do good: let us do it, and that’s enough. We won’t look into your motives.”

At first glance, this looks like yet another hoary argument about a “transactional relationship.” But it’s not. After taking the reader on a remarkable journey spotting countless trees while missing the forest,  the City of Gold at the end is a new and wholly instrumental definition of good character. Not only is Trump doing things conservatives want, but because Trump is doing what conservatives want, he clears a definition of good character.

Though we should note that Roger cleverly equivocates even here. He doesn’t actually say Trump clears the definition. He merely suggests these things when added up “go a long way” to getting Trump over the top.

But I would argue that these things don’t go a long way. They barely go anywhere in judging the man himself.

As I have said and written countless times, I believe the transactional defense of Donald Trump is intellectually defensible. I may have severe disagreements about the cost-benefit analyses some bring to it (the long-term damage to the GOP and/or to conservatism may be worth a couple of Supreme Court Justices, but let’s not pretend we’re not paying a price). I also think many of his accomplishments would have been achieved by other GOP presidents and that people exaggerate Trump’s role in many of the victories that have occurred over the last two years. But I can’t object to the logic of someone who says, “Yeah, I know Trump is crude and a boor, but I like what he’s getting done.”

But that is not what Roger is doing here. He is saying that a man who bedded a porn star while his (third) wife was home with their newborn child now fits the — or at least a — definition of good character because he delivers tax cuts. A man, who by his own admission, “whines until he wins” and boasts of how he screwed over business partners, a man who lies more egregiously and incessantly than Bill Clinton and used his family charity in Clintonian ways, has a good character because he’s “working to end Obamacare, and fighting to keep our borders secure.” Is that really what conservatives should be telling presidents? That so long as you fulfill your promises to the base of the party, not only will we abstain from meaningful criticism, but we will in fact redefine good character to fit the president? I have deep admiration for Roger, but if I knew what the original Greek for “bologna” is, I would use it here.

For starters: This argument simply isn’t true. Take Trump’s position on judges, one of the triumphs virtually everyone on the right concedes. When Trump was campaigning, he displayed no meaningful knowledge of the Constitution nor any meaningful desire to correct his ignorance. When asked about who he’d appoint to the Supreme Court, he talked about his sister. It was then explained to Trump that he couldn’t win without promising to appoint justices picked not by him, but by institutions Trump-skeptical conservatives trusted: the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. How does Trump’s agreement to do this make him a man of good character, as Roger suggests? I just can’t see it. And if one were to make similar arguments about Bill Clinton or any Democrat, I’m fairly certain Roger wouldn’t have any patience with the suggestion either.

Which is to say, the new definition of good character Roger is working toward strikes me as inconsistent with arguments and positions Roger has taken in the past — and that nearly all conservatives have taken in the past. I think it fails morally. I think it fails logically. And I think it will spell disaster for conservatives, particularly social conservatives, in the years to come.

Last, I should at least acknowledge that I have allowed Roger to move the goalposts. My argument was that Trump’s presidency will end poorly because character is destiny. Even if one were to credit Roger’s new, fairly Alinskyite definition of good character — the ends justify the means and therefore good character is defined by how well one achieves those ends — it wouldn’t nullify my point. Trump’s inability to hold onto cabinet secretaries of quality; his determination to shrink his political coalition; his refusal to do the minimum due diligence to understand and thereby explain his policy preferences; his incapacity to let insults, real or perceived, go unanswered; his relentless prevarication and insurmountable narcissism; his insistence on denigrating allies; his penchant for conspiracy theories and his unwavering pettiness: All of these things are reflections of his character, too. And they will have consequences for Trump, the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country. Roger can ignore or minimize these all he likes, but it will not persuade anyone who isn’t already a believer.

I often like to ask my AlwaysTrump friends, “What can the next Democratic president do that you won’t look like a hypocrite for criticizing?” No doubt there are some plausible policy answers to this. After all, Trump hasn’t pushed socialized medicine — at least not as president. But in terms of almost every other metric of the president’s role and responsibilities, Trump’s most unequivocal defenders are leaving themselves stranded on very small parcel of ground to stand upon once the Trump presidency is over. And their new attitude toward the issue of character barely leaves enough ground to stand on one foot.

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