If character is destiny, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus had it, then Donald Trump’s character is sending us all a frighteningly clear message: As bad as you think things are right now, they will only get worse. Much worse.
Hold on, you say. Who are you to judge anyone’s character, much less that of the duly elected President of the United States? The American people have exercised their judgement and put Donald Trump in the White House. Claiming you can plumb the inner workings of his mind or personality and find them lacking is to engage in mere ad hominem attack. It’s cheap and easy and likely reflects a partisan bias.
Understood. If you don’t like a leader’s policies yet can’t counter them using facts, evidence and reason, just start slinging mud. If you don’t think Barack Obama is being tough enough on terrorists, for instance, don’t bother grappling with his killing of Osama bin Laden or his unleashing a hell-storm of drone strikes on bad guys. Instead, claim he founded ISIS. Not in a metaphorical way, mind you. No, insist he was actually a founding member of a group that, among other atrocities, kidnaps young girls for use as sex slaves.
Who would make such an outrageous claim? Donald Trump, that’s who.
At this point, It might be useful to recall how a man of real character, Sen. John McCain, responded when a woman stood up at one of his town hall meetings during the 2008 presidential campaign and began assaulting the character of his opponent, the aforementioned Barack Obama. He cut her off and shut her down, telling her Obama was a fine man, that they simply disagreed on the issues. That response may or may not have pleased his crowd that day. I suspect McCain didn’t care. He said what he said not to be popular but because it was the right thing to do.
Now, recall Donald Trump campaigning against Hillary Clinton, calling her Crooked Hillary and leading his frenzied followers in chants of “Lock her up!” See the difference?
Journalists understandably shy away from evaluating the character of the public figures they cover. They may strive to inflict a dose of truth on those swaddled in power and privilege and to hold them to account for their actions, but this is (usually) carried out in a spirit of objectivity.
Judging what someone does is one thing; wrestling with who they are is quite another.
Yet who we are is usually the best predictor of our actual behavior.
What evidence leads me to believe that Donald Trump is something worse than the usual mendacious politician willing to spin and elide the truth in the interest of personal gain, that his character poses a real threat to the nation?
Having never met Trump, I am forced to rely, like most of us, on his public actions and utterances — as reported by journalists or straight from his own mouth and Twitter account— in order to form an opinion. Fortunately, if depressingly, there are plenty of examples from which to choose.
Let’s start with honesty. Integrity has long been considered the foundation of a person’s reputation. You’re only as good as your word. By that measure, Trump is, to paraphrase PolitiFact, a “pants-on-fire” disaster.
American banks don’t trust him enough to lend him money. The Washington Post has estimated that, as President, he tells about a half dozen whoppers per day. He launched his political career on the back of the racist lie that Barack Obama wasn’t a legitimate American citizen and hasn’t let up since.
He claimed he knew nothing about payments to an adult film star to keep her quiet about their sexual dalliance. Then he admitted authorizing the payments. He said he took no part in concocting the dishonest statement about his son’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians peddling dirt about Hillary Clinton, only for his lawyers to admit he had dictated the whole thing. He insists he’s had no business interests in Russia. But his personal lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen was reportedly trying to arrange a Trump Tower Moscow deal even during the 2016 campaign.
Obama, he says, “wiretapped” him. No evidence that ever happened.
The FBI infiltrated his campaign with spies — “Spygate” is the term he still employs. Even members of his own party refute this one.
Millions of people, Trump insists, voted illegally in 2016. Nope.
This is just a taste; I could go on and on. And I’m not even including the silly stuff like the nonsense about the crowd size at his inauguration or the size of his... well, never mind.
What do we call a person who constantly and consistently lies? A liar. How comfortable are you saying the words, My president is a liar?
More to the point, how comfortable will our nation’s allies — and even our foes — be with that idea. We are getting a taste of that discomfort now, after Trump decided to blow up this weekend’s G-7 gathering in a puerile Twitter tantrum (a tantrum, mind you, that he only had the courage to launch once he was in his cozy confines on Air Force One). A U.S. president without integrity is a president without credibility. And credibility on the world stage is a crucial commodity.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy sent an envoy to France seeking President Charles de Gaulle’s backing for a blockade of Cuba. De Gaulle was offered satellite photos of Russian missile launchers on the island. “I don’t need to see photos,” he reportedly replied.
“The word of the president is good enough for me.”
After watching him back out of numerous multilateral agreements — NAFTA; TPP; the Paris Climate Accord; the Iran deal — would any foreign leader say the same of Trump?
If Trump’s lack of trustworthiness poses a serious threat to our country’s ability to act effectively in international relations, with all the potential for calamity that implies, so too does his incompetence.
Trump seems to be counting on his upcoming summit with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un to give him a “win” he can trumpet to his base. But his eagerness for affirmation has led him to, in a sense, give away the game before negotiations have even begun. Kim has long craved the stature to be gained by sitting down as a putative equal with the leader of the free world. Instead of using Kim’s desire as leverage, Trump immediately, impulsively agreed to hand him what he wanted most. Kim triumphs just by showing up. But surely Trump will be well-prepared for such an important meeting. Apparently not.
According to this most inexperienced of presidents, preparation is really not important. As Trump tells it, what really matters is “attitude”.
Might I suggest that when dealing with someone who blows relatives to bits with anti-aircraft guns and who not so long ago murdered his own brother in a crowded airport using female assassins carrying deadly nerve agents, ‘tude is not the wisest strategy?
Besides honesty, integrity and competence, we are also known by the company we keep. On this score, too, Trump is deeply suspect.
In past business dealings, he apparently had no qualms about consorting with convicted felons like Felix Sater. Russian mobsters seem to have felt a marked fondness for renting Trump Properties.
As President, Trump’s affection for autocrats like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Hungary’s Victor Orban as well as his embrace of outright thugs like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, has not escaped notice. Then there’s the suspicious bromance with Vladimir Putin. You know, the Russian guy who’s doing his sneaky best to undermine western democracies.
Meanwhile, Trump, who regularly signals disdain for our closest allies, has declared Canada a threat to our national security. He and his team spent the better part of the weekend disparaging Justin Trudeau, even arguing that the prime minister from the country just north deserved a special place in hell for having the audacity to respond to Trump’s tariffs with tariffs of his own.
Trump has also stocked his cabinet with a whole roster of the shifty and self-dealing. Scott Pruitt is the poster-boy among this dubious bunch. Amid the dozen or so separate scandals swirling around our EPA Administrator, we now learn that the White House Mess has requested Pruitt stop abusing the privilege of dining there. This might be amusing if it wasn’t so pathetic. In any other administration, Pruitt would be toast. He hangs on without reproach from his boss presumably because he’s such an accomplished ass-kisser.
Trump seems to feel that, as long as you’re on his side or share his grifter’s sensibilities, you’re OK. No matter what. Hence the whole Charlottesville business where he equated the character of haters wearing swastikas, waving torches and yelling about Jews with the people who, y’know, object to that sort of thing. I think we can agree that nazis are never “very fine people”. Period.
There is also the question of empathy — in other words, how one treats people. I’ll leave aside the underlings thrown under the bus, wives left in the dust, athletes insulted for exercising their First Amendment rights, even the women he calls liars whose crotches he’s boasted of laying claim to without their consent.
This is a man who has gleefully admitted that, as the honcho of beauty pageants, he would regularly sneak into the dressing rooms of underage teen girls in order to see them naked.
This is the sort of guy we’re dealing with. Don’t tell me we’re not entitled to judge.
Much has been made of Trump’s reflex to see every interaction as a zero-sum game — he wins if you lose. This is not a matter of toughness as he and his toadies would have you believe. It is the result of a narcissistic fragility wherein even the mildest rebuke constitutes an existential threat. Journalists who report accurately are inventing sources — “fake news!’. Football players who don’t kowtow are “sons-of-bitches” who don’t belong in the country. Politicians insufficiently deferential are saddled with demeaning nicknames. Can you remember another president going after his own Attorney General the way Trump attacks Jeff Sessions?
Merely being held accountable for his behavior is, for Trump, the equivalent of a death sentence. Imagine his fevered desperation in the face of the Mueller probe!
In another era, this man would already be heading toward impeachment, Not in today’s political climate. Even if the Dems take back the House and begin impeachment proceedings, it is highly unlikely they could ever wrangle enough Republican colleagues to reach the 66 vote threshold for conviction in the Senate.
In any case, Trump will make this fight as nasty and destructive as he needs to in order to cling to power and salvage his ego. Undermining the reputation of the FBI, Justice Department and intelligence community while whipping up enraged Trumpskyites is only the beginning.
Trump, it seems, will go to any length to protect himself from revelations of wrongdoing, the country’s vital institutions be damned.
And while all this political/legal turmoil unfolds domestically, the world and its myriad crises — nuclear proliferation; pandemic disease; climate change; threats to democracy; competition with rising powers like China — continues to turn. It will not wait for an inept flounderer like Donald Trump to catch up.
We are nowhere near the bottom yet, but the trajectory is clear.
The threat of real disaster is Code Red.
Heraclitus had it right: a person’s character, more than anything else, determines the course of their life. Because he is our president, Trump’s fate and that of the American people are yoked together. For the remainder of his time in office (at least), Trump’s destiny is our own.
My father used to tell a story about a WW2 bomber shot up on a run over Germany and angling into its death plunge. As the crew begins bailing out, the captain realizes that the young gunner in the ball turret is trapped in mangled metal, unable to escape. Rather than save himself, the captain crawls to the stricken man and, grasping his hand, tells him, “Don’t worry son, we’ll ride this one down together.”
Those who knew my father will not be surprised to learn he was actually recounting a scene from a movie. No matter. It served as an inspiring tale of courage and self-sacrifice, of character. Sadly, these are concepts Donald Trump appears utterly incapable of embodying.
We are all now trapped in the flaming wreckage of Trump’s administration as it spirals to its terminal catastrophe.
There is no one here to hold our hand.