For conservatives like me, it may be the unexpected silver lining of the Trump era. Liberals are suddenly in favor of a tough stand against Russia, vehemently opposed to the protective tariff, and personally invested in holding a lecherous president accountable for his lies and personal peccadilloes. (The downside, of course, is that modern Republicans don’t want to take a tough stand against Russia, oppose the protective tariff, or hold a lecherous president accountable for his lies and personal peccadilloes.)
The role reversal has been on my mind lately as I’ve been listening to the second season of Slate’s great new “Slow Burn” podcast about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, with the obvious subtext being the current calls for President Donald Trump’s own impeachment.
When you start listening to “Slow Burn,” your first response might be that the “deep state” was out to get Clinton—and they did. They hounded him for years, and when they couldn’t get him on the Arkansas land deal they were initially tasked to investigate, they got him on consensual sex. When you dig a little deeper, you start to see that it was something more. In the “Me Too” era, we are more sensitive to questions about power—as well as the appropriateness of a President of the United States using that aura to attract a young intern. There are also questions about lying under oath—questions that speak to a president’s character and integrity.
In the movie Ocean’s Eleven, there’s a great scene where Julia Roberts’ character accuses her ex-husband, played by George Clooney, of being a thief and a liar. He retorts, “I only lied about being a thief.” Even if Bill Clinton only lied about sex, it was the lie (more than the sex) that did him in.
Liberals in the 1990s were wrong when they effectively argued that character doesn’t matter. They were happy with Clinton’s policies and didn’t care to police his “off the field” behavior. This drove conservatives of the era insane. Recently, some of Vice President Mike Pence’s essays from the 1990s resurfaced, in which he made the case for a moral president and suggested that a lascivious president with a penchant for lying should resign or be impeached.
Today, of course, that Pence no longer exists. He and other conservatives like Trump’s tax cuts and judicial picks. They don’t understand why people like me see his tweets and rhetoric as a deal breaker.
The political parties have changed uniforms and adopted each other’s arguments. But for intellectually honest observers who are trying to call balls and strikes, one question remains relevant: Should a president’s character even matter? The truth is that it should.
But when you say that, people think you’re a prude. They assume you’re talking about sex. Only part of my concern about Trump has to do with the Access Hollywood comments and the controversies about Playboy models and porn stars.
When I talk about character mattering, it includes a lot more. It includes, as Doug Mataconis recounts, all the “disgusting remarks regarding Mexicans and Muslims, disabled people, women such as Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina and when he encouraged his supporters to engage in violence against counter-demonstrators.”
I could throw in his constant lies—and his continued attacks on a former P.O.W. who is suffering with brain cancer. It is almost impossible to recount all the ways that Donald Trump has demonstrated to us that he lacks character and is unfit to hold the highest office in the land.
Should character still matter to 21st Century Americans? James Strock, author of the book Serve to Lead, frames this as a question: “Has it been shown to be an outdated notion that character is destiny, or are we being instructed that it remains a useful notion to guide our evaluation of a president?” Coming from the author of a book on servant leadership, this sounds more like a rhetorical question.
Of course, character is destiny. The etymology of the word has to do with an indelible mark or imprint. Having a bad character is sort of like having a flawed part in the engine of a car. You might not notice it when you buy it. But sooner or later, it’ll be exposed and you’ll break down. As David Brooks put it Sunday, “Nobody remembers where George Wallace stood on tax reform.”
A bad character—and here, again, I’m not talking about imposing some sort of prudish standard—should be a disqualifying attribute. But based on the fact that we elected Clinton and Trump (though neither garnered 50% of the vote) it clearly isn’t.
Americans get the presidents we deserve, but my hope is that—just as the post-Watergate era ushered in a more ethical breed of president—the post-Trump era might lead to voters finding a renewed interest in character.
It should be a non-negotiable issue that counts for more than policy preferences. As a center-right columnist, I have appreciated many of Donald Trump’s policies and judicial nominations. However, as I recently noted on Jamie Weinstein’s podcast, “If you are a bad leader in terms of character, rhetoric, and providing moral authority, then you just can't be a good President.”
Conservatives made this argument in the 1990s, and liberals are resurrecting it today.
Both sides are hypocrites, but this go-round, conservatives are defining deviancy down.