In the 90s, opponents of Bill Clinton asserted to his many defenders, “Character matters.” They argued that whatever professional or political skills he brought to the job, his obvious moral failings disqualified him from the office of the president.
The people making this argument were mostly Republicans. Clinton’s defenders, who dismissed many credible charges of adultery, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, were Democrats. Claiming a man’s ‘private life’ has no bearing on his public office (even when they were one and the same), they stood by as the women who accused him were attacked and maligned. They were silent, or they joined in.
Two decades later, these two parties have swapped philosophies: a remarkable development, no less astonishing or disappointing than it was in the 1990s. Now the president’s defenders (Republicans, mostly) want to deny or ignore his private life, and his opponents (of every political stripe) want to question his moral fitness.
Is there plenty of hypocrisy to go around? Sure. But that does not mean it is impossible to make the case for one viewpoint over the other: that once Republicans – even if some politicians were insincere – were right lo these many years ago and the Democrats were not. And that means that the people who now defend our current president with the claim that his moral emptiness poses no detraction from his exercise of power are dead wrong. They could not be more wrong.
The US President is the most powerful office in the world. The military might at his disposal, and the economic power of the nation grant much of this power. And the US, because of its stature and democratic institutions also wields moral influence in the world – a waning influence, to be sure. The concentration of powers in a single office – so consequential at home and around the world – demands a degree of moral character of its occupants.
This seems to me self-evident – and proven by well-known and recent negative examples. Last week The Atlantic reported on numerous demeaning remarks the president made about our military personnel. This week we heard recorded comments from him which make it clear he deliberately lied to us about the threat posed by Covid-19.
The checks and balances afforded by the Constitution are there precisely because the Framers recognized the dangers inherent in the concentration and arrogation of power. But even these safeguards will not prevent or redress the dangers posed by a president who doesn’t respect them, or know what or why they are.
No law can save us from a president who is morally bankrupt. No Article or Amendment can head off the destructive influence of a president who lies habitually; denies or ignores the Constitutional limitations on his power; derides and undermines crucial institutions like a free and independent press or free elections; or flouts the rule of law by, for example, ordering subordinates to defy congressional subpoenas.
The only thing that guards against such contempt for our political, institutional, and constitutional norms is a moral baseline in the one who holds the office. He or she must care enough about our republic and its democratic structures to respect them even when wielded by their political opponents. This respect is a character trait. It must abide within the person. And it is up to us to elect a president with character in mind.
And let me be clear: our presidents have all been flawed – none were perfect, few were paragons of virtue. It does not require magnificent moral character but rather a baseline of decency. That’s all. But when a man, like our current president, telegraphs his contempt, his disrespect, his self-absorbed fixations, he should be taken at face value. When he tells obvious lies habitually, when he ridicules, calls names, and bullies; when he whines and complains with regularity; when he ignores the cries for justice, he is daily revealing his moral character. And he could be given credit for transparency if he was not also turning around and denying the things he has said and done in public – and on the record.
The fact that he is always applauded by himself and his following does not alter the character he is revealing. And yes, these flaws do have a direct relation the the exercise of his office.
Consider for an example what I see as perhaps the most consequential instance of character revelation: his betrayal of the Kurds. On the president’s orders, US forces were withdrawn a year ago from their bases in Syria near the Turkish border. This left the Kurds, who had suffered 11,000 dead in the successful fight against ISIS (versus 6 Americans), exposed to the onslaught of the Turks, who wished to crush the forces that had long fought for a Kurdish homeland. Soon after the US pulled out, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the massacre of the Kurds began. They had been our allies for decades, but they were stabbed in the back to please the Turks and help the Russians, who moved in and took hold of the abandoned bases, and were left with (given) a trove of US intelligence.
There is no law or constitutional article or regulation that can prevent this kind immoral policy decision. Only a modest degree of decency in the man could do that – and it isn’t there.
A supporter may object that such harsh moral judgments are being made against their man. But the real question is not whether he is truly subject to my assessment or anybody else’s. I freely admit I cannot see into the man’s heart. The real question for me is not, ‘Is he good or bad?’ The question is, ‘What has he revealed through his words and actions about his moral fitness for the most powerful office in the world?’ In that sense I am not judging him as a human being, but rather his words and actions – documented and indisputable – as character witnesses. The witnesses all testify, as they have for more than 30 years, that he has never had – and still does not – the kind of character that so much power demands.
This is one character deficiency – only one: a man who by all accounts demands unyielding loyalty has acted in a most disloyal manner toward his wives, his employees and subordinates, his contractors, his party, military personnel, the Constitution, and yes, our allies. The Kurds were allies and he betrayed them to genocidal enemies in your name and mine.
His past record of disloyalty makes his betrayal of the Kurds no surprise. Disloyalty is part of his character, and character matters. Wedded to power, it’s a matter of life and death.
A man who betrays his friends and allies does not deserve the kind of loyalty he enjoys from his following, and if you support him, he does not deserve yours, either. The best and final safeguard left to us against a morally destitute president is the ballot.