My friend Jonah Goldberg has prompted me to think a bit about the issue of character as it relates to public service. Jonah thinks that Donald Trump is a man of bad character. 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.”
In August, on Twitter, Jonah issued a challenge that, he noted, he had been pressing for three years: “Please come up with a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.”
I’ll take a crack at that in a moment. First, I want to agree, at least provisionally, with Jonah’s observation in his column that “Character is one of those topics, like culture or morality, that everyone strongly supports yet also argues about.” I say “provisionally” because although I agree that character, culture, and morality are typically matters that interest us deeply and, hence, are things that we endlessly discuss and often argue about, I am not quite sure what he means when he says that “everyone strongly supports” them. Thinking it over, I am not sure I have ever heard anyone say “I support character.” Have you?
Jonah is fond of quoting Heraclitus’s aphorism ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων against the president. He says that it is “most often” translated as “man’s character is his fate.” It has indeed been translated thus, but it is perhaps more accurately translated as “Man’s character is his daimon.” The usual Greek word for fate is μοῖρα. “Daimon,” which was that inner admonitory voice that Socrates said guided him, is something else.
While I am at it, I should perhaps also say I am not sure that ēthos means quite what Jonah’s weaponization of the aphorism implies. As I understand it, ēthos means one’s settled disposition; the Liddell and Scott lexicon mentions the Latin word ingenium among its definitions. Someone in the early modern era might have described it as a man’s “humor.” Jonah begins his most recent column by noting:
For a very long time now, I have been predicting that the Trump presidency will end poorly because character is destiny.
The logic is: Trump’s character is bad. Character is destiny. Ergo Trump’s administration will come a cropper. The aphorism by Heraclitus is offered as confirmation of this syllogism.
It is, I’ll admit, amusing to speculate about what Heraclitus would have made of Donald Trump. But for my money, a more pertinent saying of the old Ephesian is φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ: the true nature of things likes to conceal itself.
In any event, Jonah goes on to say, notwithstanding the “obvious truth” that Donald Trump is “not a man of good character,” some people disagree and, mirabile dictu, “seem to have convinced themselves that Trump is a man of good character.” Some of these people, moreover, “take personal offense at the insult, even though I usually offer it as little more than an observation.” The contention that Trump is “not a man of good character,” you see, although it is “an insult,” is also an “obvious truth.” Which is to say, like the proposition “All men are mortal,” one is not free to disagree with it. You might dislike it. You might wish it were not true. But there is something coercive about “an obvious truth.” It is simply beyond debate.
That, I believe, is Jonah’s contention, which makes his irritation at those who persist in disagreeing with him about this understandable. “They rush to rebut the claim,” he says “citing banal or debatable propositions: He loves his children! He’s loyal to a fault! He’s authentic! Never mind that many bad men love their children, that loyalty to people or causes unworthy of loyalty is not admirable, and that authentic caddishness is not admirable. Moreover, he is not remotely loyal to his wives or the people who work for him.”
There is a lot that one might say about those observations, which, speaking of banal propositions, seem to me to mix the banal (“many bad men love their children”) with the highly debatable: is it, for example, unarguable that the president’s fundamental loyalties are to “unworthy” people or causes, as Jonah implies?
One frequent objection to Donald Trump’s behavior—and one that is made by friends as well as opponents—revolves around his sometimes intemperate rhetoric. The president’s friends lament this but exonerate, or half-exonerate, him with the contention that the tweets and the insults are merely a matter of style whereas his achievements are a matter of substance. Jonah anticipates and dismisses this gambit. “[H]is insults are not simply an act,” he says; “they are the product of astonishing levels of narcissism, insecurity, and intellectual incuriosity. Trump’s Twitter account is simply a window into his id.”
Jonah concludes his indictment with this inventory:
Trump’s refusal to listen to advisers, his inability to bite his tongue, his demonization and belittling of senators who vote for his agenda but refuse to keep quiet when he does or says things they disagree with, his rants against the First Amendment, his praise for dictators and insults for allies, his need to create new controversies to eclipse old ones, and his inexhaustible capacity to lie and fabricate history: All of this springs from his character.
Again, I’d say there was a lot that was debatable in this list. For example, there are many instances, as the public record shows, where Trump not only listened to but also heeded the counsel of his advisers. 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. One might agree or disagree in this or that case, thinking the president ought to have said or done this instead of that. But that is my point: the issues are debatable, not settled.
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.
My question is this: what is the character that Jonah wants us to champion and that he stipulates Donald Trump lacks? Let us grant that the president is an imperfect man. 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?
I remember being taken aback when Bret Stephens this time last year took stock of Donald Trump’s accomplishments and concluded, “I still wish Hillary Clinton were president.” The list that Stephens mustered was long and impressive. It began with tax cuts, the effective obliteration of ISIS, and the decertification of the Iran deal and ended with the robust economy and the ascension of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. (Brett Kavanaugh was yet to come.) “What, for a conservative,” Stephens asked, “is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?”
I thought that was a very good question. But Stephens’ answer was the same as Jonah’s: Donald Trump’s character, his “personality,” was defective. He suffers, said Stephens, from a virtue deficit. “Character does count,” Stephens insisted, and Trump does not have it. On the contrary, the president, he said, “has imported a style of politics reminiscent of the cults of Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez.”
This is where Cardinal Newman comes in. In his book The Grammar of Assent, Newman devotes some interesting pages to Aristotle’s concept of φρόνησις, “prudence.” “Properly speaking,” Newman says, “there are as many kinds of phronesis as there are virtues: for the judgment, good sense, or tact which is conspicuous in a man’s conduct in one subject-matter, is not necessarily traceable in another.”
[H]e may be great in one aspect of his character, and little-minded in another. He may be exemplary in his family, yet commit a fraud on the revenue; he may be just and cruel, brave and sensual, imprudent and patient. And if this be true of the moral virtues, it holds good still more fully when we compare what is called his private character with his public. A good man may make a bad king; profligates have been great statesmen, or magnanimous political leaders.
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.
On the contrary, 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.”