Far and away, the most fascinating thing I ran into over the long holiday weekend was this series of tweets from the host trying to encourage a discussion between Roger Kimball and Jonah Goldberg about character and public service. The starting point is an article by Kimball in which he is responding to what I presume, since I could find no trace of it, was a private conversation between himself and Goldberg. He could be responding to Goldberg’s body of work or he is responding to Goldberg’s new book, released just Monday 12/31/18, that I know the host was able to read in advance of publication and wonder if Kimball was not similarly able. I am not blessed with such access, but what I have seen and heard in advance indicates that some of that book would relate to this topic.
To date, I have been unable to find a direct response from Goldberg to Kimball’s piece. The host, in his tweet series promoting such discussion, adds to it by quoting Washington’s farewell address. I would encourage the reader to read all links, in detail. The entirety of Washington’s address would be a great place to start. The host’s quote is an attempt to inject religion into the discussion, pointing out that Washington said plainly that character was necessary to the functioning of our republic and that religion was necessary to maintaining character. As preamble, I would also encourage the reader to read this piece by Victor Davis Hanson on why our so-called elites have let us down in many ways.
And finally, before I dive in, some disclaimer. This discussion, as far as it has gone, quotes the great classics, sometimes in the original. I must confess to not being terribly well versed in them. I have read some, and by degree I am as educated as those in this discussion, but while they were reading Aristotle in the original I was learning to prove the Mean Value Theorem. (For the uninitiated the Mean Value Theorem is the theorem one must prove before proving the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and the far more difficult proof.) While they became fluent in Greek and Latin, I learned to synthesize darn near anything beginning with alcohols of four carbons or less and benzene. While they read their way through the Reformation, I learned to identify unknowns using Infrared, Mass and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. Some are likely to claim that I am therefore disqualified from entering the discussion. I disagree. Character should be universal and universally accessible – it should be common. This country, as Washington says, is prefaced on such. If it is strictly the purview of the specifically and highly educated then we lose.
The discussion, as presented in the Kimball piece, centers on Donald J. Trump. He is the current heart of the matter, is he not? But the discussion should be broader. The president is; however, at hand and quite illustrative. So, I’ll play. Much of the discussion centers on Goldberg’s assertion, as quoted by Kimball, “He’s written this several times, most recently, I believe, at National Review where he puts it negatively: it is an ‘obvious truth,’ he says, that ‘President Trump is not a man of good character.'” Kimball then tries to take up Goldberg’s challenge, “Please come up with a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.” Kimball then goes on to make the case that Trump’s character can be measured by his accomplishments. While I agree that the president’s accomplishments are many and for the most part good, I think character is far more complex than simply accomplishment.
Besides, it is not the accomplishing, but the specific accomplishment and the manner in which it was accomplished that matters when it comes to character. Quoting Kimball:
As for coming up with “a definition of good character” that the president can clear, let me begin by backing into it and offering a negative definition a friend of mine offered: “Maybe not having sex in the Oval Office with an intern, weaponizing the IRS, DOJ, CIA, and FBI, being impeached for lying under oath or wiping clean thousands of text messages and emails under subpoena…”. The concluding ellipsis, it should go without saying, looks forward to a much longer list.
That is a laundry list of accomplishments by other administrations, but they in no way add up to good character. There is clearly more to character than simply accomplishment, even good accomplishment. It seems clear that accomplishment is, at best, a moral neutral.
Rather than discuss what is “obvious,” (As someone that had to prove things with mathematical rigor in school I can tell you that our shorthand for not being able to actually prove what we set out to prove was the statement “It is intuitively obvious to the casual observer”) I would like to discuss what is clearly, and not so clearly, in evidence concerning the current president and character. I’d like to focus that discussion in three areas. First, the president is indeed a man of very poor character when it comes to his marital and sexual conduct – the evidence is clear. Secondly, when it comes to his business dealings there is insufficient evidence regarding his morality and character. Finally, the evidence is quite persuasive that the man is a boor. The question is does that add up to a man that is of bad character, and more importantly of sufficiently bad character to disqualify him from the presidency?
I’ll start by discussing his business dealings. The most troubling reports regarding the president’s character that I have encountered are those claiming that he is fond of renegotiating contracts after the work has been performed. As someone who generally works on contract, I am quite familiar with this tactic. The problem is it is not always good or bad. No contract can anticipate everything that might happen in the course of a project. Therefore that circumstances would arise that might mandate further discussions or renegotiation is not surprising. Also, if a contractor fails to deliver adjustments should be made. However, if a contract is any good, what constitutes good delivery should be spelled out as the penalties if the contractor fails. But people work on a handshake or less that stellar contract all the time, so disputes upon delivery are fairly common. Any contractor willing to take work without all that spelled out has signed on for that sort of issue and just has to deal with it. I don’t see any character flaws here, just business.
Of course, with a guy like Trump, contracts are about development and that’s an investment and it is quite possible that the development will not pay off as expected and then the deal simply does not have the money to fulfill the contract. Renegotiation is actually smart in those circumstances. Without it, things quickly descend into litigation upon litigation which is spending, not making, money. But this is also a place where things get ugly. The party letting the contracts, often to try and maintain a position of strength, does not come to the contractor hat-in-hand and admit the money is not there. Rather they simply refuse to pay, trying to force renegotiation under more favorable terms. And of course, with a guy like Trump, while the money may not be in the project at hand, the money is there – somewhere. Nonetheless, an astute contractor should have been tracking the project as a whole. If they thought the project was not going to payoff, they could go to the developer just as much as the developer can come to them. When it comes to evaluating character, this circumstance is a gray area. In the end it is more about style and strategy than character. Sure, it might be preferable to be frank and direct, but that is not always possible in business.
The real character problem arises when the company letting the contract has intended from the beginning to pay less than was originally contracted, which is something one does run into from time-to-time. The question is, what is the case with the reports about Trump’s dealings? My response is, “Who can tell?” All the reporting I can find has been written in a transparent and deliberate effort to excoriate Trump, not to try and understand the circumstances and report. Further, anyone that does what Trump has done for a living will have let thousands of contracts in their life and each one is different. It is not enough to report anecdotally on some that were renegotiated after the fact and call it “proof” that Trump is a bad business dealer. They would all have to be investigated, evaluated and a pattern determined.
Which brings me to the broader point about character that I want to make here. It cannot be evaluated well based on a few stories. It’s a big picture thing, and at the same time quite circumstantial. Sometimes it is a moral necessity to lie and mislead and even sacrifice others. Anybody that makes as many consequential decisions in his private business life or as president as Donald Trump has is going to make some decisions that taken out of context and in isolation are going to appear to be evidence of poor character This is true for every person that has ever held the office.
I will not even attempt to justify or agree with Donald J. Trump’s marital and sexual conduct. The record is clear – he cheats on his wives. Is that a sign of bad character? Yes, it is. But that said, does it matter? Well, certainly in the conduct of American politics the standard has been set – it does not. We can thank Bill Clinton for that. Further we can thank Bill Clinton for the fact that lying about such conduct des not mater either. As we heard ad nauseum during the Clinton impeachment process, “Everybody lies about sex.” I have written in these spaces that I actually thought Trump’s infidelities were preferable to Clinton’s because Trump never lied about them; he was pretty in-your-face about it. The Stormy Daniels story does reveal that Trump too lies about sex when it serves him. Sad, but again, the standard has been set – it does not matter.
But to those of us that are Christians, the political acceptability of such sexual misconduct is a pretty hard thing to swallow. Nonetheless, I think it a minor sin. Rick Warren has notably pointed out that the Bible mentions homosexuality only about seven timers, but encourages us to feed the poor countless times. In so saying, Warren is attempting to help us set our priorities – and he is right. The greatest king in the history of Israel – David – was an adulterer and a murderer. And yet God loved him and blessed him and his nation. Does that justify David’s conduct? No, of course not, but it does say that when it comes to the character of a leader, sexual misconduct is a minor and low priority consideration.
Our presidents, Donald Trump among them, are not men of ideal character, but that does not make them men of poor or bad character. As the host pointed out in his original tweet, “Washington was far from a perfect man….” And so, I think we can make a refinement to Kimball’s assertion that character is evaluated by accomplishment. Character is evaluated on a big, and well-informed picture and not simply on the basis of incidences and circumstances. Accomplishment will tend to be indicative, though not conclusive, about the big and well-informed picture – so it matters.
Which brings us to the last area of discussion. Donald J. Trump is an unquestionable boor – rude, loutish, crude and uncomfortably confrontational. The truth of this is, as Goldberg said, obvious. Moreover, the evidence is voluminous. But it is absolutely elitist, bigoted and exclusionary to insist that good manners and social refinement equate to good character. This differentiation between boorishness and character lies at the very heart of the astonishment so many have expressed at Donald Trump’s election. The plain fact is that most Americans are boors to some extent – cheap-beer-swilling, NASCAR-watching, cussin’-and-fumin’ boors. Jeff Foxworthy calls them “rednecks” – And the reason it is funny when he does so is because he makes it plain we are all rednecks at some point in our lives and as we hear him talk we recognize ourselves.
I have spent most of my professional life on factory floors working with precisely these kind of people. I hate to break it to my friends from the Ivy League, but they are automatically suspicious of too much polish and refinement. I have yet to meet the well-mannered, highly refined person that in the right situation and with the right encouragement does not become at least a bit of a lout. Boorishness is our natural state and it requires a great deal of energy and effort to maintain a polished front. Therefore, the presumption is that a lack of boorishness is in fact disingenuous and thus worthy of suspicion. When you add to that suspicion eight years of Barack Obama, whose initial claim to presidential timber, as expressed by Joe Biden was, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” well the voters are likely to go looking for boorishness. Obama’s policies were so injurious to this entire class and his claim to the presidency was so established on his polish that boorishness becomes a natural political asset. Read “The Great Revolt.”
But it is more than a mere political asset. These voters know that such boorishness is not a character flaw because they are all of reasonable character themselves. They see boors being decent people every day – the factory floors I work on run on that fact. What is most valued is honesty and directness. Here’s the thing about manners and polish. Under the best of circumstances they a social lubricant – but they can be, and often are, used as camouflage to hide an entirely dishonorable and uncharitable agenda. Honor, honesty and charity are a lot more important to character than are soft-spoken manners and polish.
There are three conclusions I would draw based on this discussion. One, judging character takes a lot more than media reports. It takes history and/or a personal relationship. Two, no one has ideal character – no one. When it comes to choosing leaders it is a question of what character flaws we can and cannot tolerate, not the absence of them. Three, character is quite complex. What is generally understood to be good and bad character is on a spectrum; it is not an absolute.
One of the more interesting things I have noticed in all this is that it in many ways defines the divide between Evangelicals and the rest of the community of faith. Evangelicals wear so many of the faults on their sleeves. Divorce, for example, is pretty matter of fact in the Evangelical church while in the other expressions is was historically verboten and is still viewed a bit askance. On the surface it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an Evangelical congregation and a fraternal service organization. But that said, Evangelicals also work very hard to be direct and honest and plain-spoken. An Evangelical would express it something like, “We work very hard to fix our insides and let the outsides follow.” Traditionally, Mainstream Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholics and Mormons work very hard to have highly polished shiny surfaces, but those surfaces often cover a rotten interior.
Which brings me to Mitt Romney’s WaPo Op-Ed from late yesterday. It is being bandied about as another shot at Trump’s character. I do not read it that way. It is a critique, sometimes quite stinging, of the president’s leadership skills, but not of his character – at least not directly. That is very wise on Sen. Romney’s part. Criticism of character is ad hominem, but leadership is a skill that can be learned and adjusted. I think that explains the mild and actually constructive nature of the president’s tweeted response.
The most cogent analysis I have read of the Romney op-ed is Jim Geraghty’s, even if I do not agree with it entirely. Geraghty does think the piece is about character, but thinks such a tactic is a political loser:
Somewhere along the line — most likely shortly after Romney’s defeat, in fact — a significant chunk of the American people, in particular, many Republicans, started to believe that character is for suckers. At the very least, a significant number of conservatives concluded that good character was no advantage in politics and possibly a liability. Mitt Romney had good character and lost; John McCain had good character and lost; George W. Bush had good character and barely won and found himself compared to Hitler and a monkey by furious critics for much of his presidency.
I also do not believe that conservatives have come to believe that “character is for suckers.” I think we have, instead, come to believe that character can be faked and we would rather have someone who may have more flaws than typical, but at least those flaws are transparent.
So, while I disagree with Kimball that accomplishment is the way to judge character, I do think it is the way to judge a president, regardless of character.
ADDENDUM: After I published this, Goldberg responds to Kimball. All I can say is this thing is descending fast. Goldberg argues with Kimball’s argumentation by pointing out Kimball never really makes a case for Trump’s character or lack thereof – missing entirely the point that Kimball was making that neither has Goldberg. According to Goldberg, it’s “obvious.”