Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see: Point: Character Is Valued, but Policy Is Now Priority
“Character is destiny,” the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, famously said.
Two and a half millennia after Heraclitus lived, Donald Trump and his administration are proving the point.
Without undertaking a psychological inquiry into his emotional well-being, we know a lot about President Trump’s character, based on what he says and writes about himself, not to mention what we’ve seen from him over four decades as a public figure. He is boastful (he brags about it). He’s transactional. He’s hypermaterialistic, and he cares a great deal about appearance. His relationship to the truth is, at best, shaky (he brags about that, too). He likes conflict and unpredictability. He believes that admitting error is a sign of weakness and that he should hit back 10 times as hard at his critics. He doesn’t like to read, doesn’t care much about policy details, and makes decisions from the gut.
These are not the kind of values and attributes I’d like to pass on to my children — but there’s no question that they have brought Donald Trump great success, including propelling him to unlikely victory in a presidential campaign.
But these character traits are ill serving Trump well as president, and indeed threatening the country. It is character even more than policy that has immersed Trump in an unprecedented parade of scandals. It is character as much as policy that is most imperiling our nation. Consider:
—As the original sin of his administration, Trump refused to divest his expansive business holdings. There is no such precedent for a president maintaining such all-encompassing conflicts of interest, which violate the spirit and arguably the letter of the U.S. Constitution’s anti-bribery (“emoluments”) clause. But Trump imagines himself immune from standards applied to others. He cares too much about seeing his name atop buildings that he owns. The direct result has been a profound corruption of government policymaking — on everything from taxes to clean water policy — as the administration makes decisions that directly effect Trump’s business empire.
—Trump continues to repeat the lie that voter fraud is a significant problem and explains why he lost the popular vote. His grandiosity does not enable him to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton received more votes. As a result, he looks silly for embracing transparently untrue claims; and, more seriously, he perpetuates a myth designed to suppress the vote of minority voters.
—Trump cannot stomach the fact that his campaign is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election. If it is true that there was no collusion, then Trump should welcome an inquiry to resolve the matter. But Trump believes himself above the law and disdains the constitutional checks and balances that are the bedrock of our working democracy.
What he believes in his gut is that if attacked, he should hit back harder. Hence the reckless decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, and his repeated efforts — so far, stillborn — to dismiss Mueller. Irrespective of whether any Russian collusion occurred, the president cannot be permitted to fire an independent investigator simply because the investigator is looking into allegations of misconduct by the president himself, or those close to him. That’s the pathway to authoritarian rule.
All of these are problems — and many others — of Trump’s own making. By and large, they don’t reflect any particular ideology or program. Rather, they are a direct outgrowth of his personality and character.
The effect of these character defects are broader still. Trump’s example has been emulated by his Cabinet and political appointees, who apparently have similar qualities. The grandiosity and disregard for ethical standards is pervasive in the administration, evidenced most recently by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s use of a lobbyist’s condominium for just $50 a night.
Even more consequentially, Trump’s impetuousness has created a chaotic White House with seat-of-the-pants decision-making. It is entirely likely that the White House’s erratic process will lead our nation into a dangerous and unnecessary war with Iraq, North Korea, Syria or an enemy to be determined.
Most elected officials run for office out of a sense of public service — but they also tend to have very healthy egos. For better or for worse, that’s almost part of the job description. Still, as he himself says, President Trump is not like other politicians. He is a character unlike others, and his character is unlike others. As a result, we’re destined to lurch from crisis to crisis, peril to peril, as long as he is president.