Tuesday, June 26, 2018

On the astonishingly morally impoverished character of Donald Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign and after the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, there have been countless negative assessments of his character. I have collected the most poignant here in chronological order. (Related topics such as the risks of working for someone with poor character and whether Trumpism might be a cult are in separate posts.)

Before the election

Tom Nichols wrote on April 26, 2016 in "If I Lose Friends Over Trump, So Be It":

"Yes, fellow conservatives: Trump is worse than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Their policies are liberal, even leftist, often motivated by cheap politics, ego, and political grandstanding. But they are policies, understandable as such and opposable by political means.

Trump’s various rants, by contrast, do not amount to policies. They are ignorant tone poems, bad haikus, streams of words whose content has no real meaning. They’re not positions available either to the GOP or Democrats, because they do not contain a vision of the future over which those parties can fight.

In fact, Trump’s policies are not policies. They’re just feverish revenge fantasies. Trump, a scam artist whose entire career has been based on victimizing the working class, should be the target of that anger. Instead, he is encouraging Americans to turn their hostility away from him and against their fellow citizens, inviting us into a war of all against all over which he will preside as an amused dictator.

The division between Trump’s supporters and the rest of us is not about reconciling our political differences. It is not about opposing policies we hate. (Most of Trump’s policies are actually quite liberal, but that is irrelevant.) There are no real principles on the table here, only Trump’s demagogic stoking of incoherent and even paranoid rage."

In August 2016: "In a Facebook post directed at the Republican presidential candidate, President Ronald Reagan's daughter blasted Donald Trump's 'glib and horrifying comment' on the Second Amendment."

After the election

On Feb. 6, 2017, Victoria McGrane described in the Boston Globe how Trump insulted a senator from his own party:

"McCain has publicly challenged Trump on refugees and immigration — saying the action may do more to recruit terrorists than beef up national security — as well as on the issues of torture, Russia, and trade. Trump has shot back, accusing McCain of 'looking to start World War III.'"

* * *

"Trump openly mocked McCain during his presidential campaign for being a Vietnam POW, saying “I like people who weren’t captured.’’ It was a highly personal attack that stunned the Republican Party, whose leaders rushed to McCain’s defense and called him a war hero."

In April 2017, Trump claimed inflated ratings for his appearance on Face the Nation. (He would continue in subsequent months to make distorted, baseless claims about the ratings of other media depending on whether it praised or criticized him.)

"“It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation,' " Trump told the AP's Julie Pace, referring to the CBS News Sunday political talk show. “It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center — since the World Trade Center came down.” * * * At the same time, Trump used the opportunity to denounce, as he has repeatedly, the press corps again as “fake media” that treats him “very unfairly.”"

George F. Will, May 3, 2017:

"It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence."

On May 11, 2017, Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, called Trump "encyclopedically ignorant", and Jesse Berney fretted that "There's No One to Hold Donald Trump Accountable":

"There is no one, absolutely no one, in the federal government to hold the president of the United States accountable for anything he does. * * * Trump is consolidating and expanding executive power in a way never seen in modern politics. Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, now James Comey — anyone who shows any independence or stands up to this president is summarily fired."

The next day, Stephen Collinson wrote for CNN about the president's anger:

"In three-and-a-half months in office, the 45th President has shown that indignation, impulsiveness and a prickly desire to protect his own self image are at the core of his governing philosophy.

* * *

Trump is not the first President to feel the bile boiling within. Lyndon Johnson's temper was legendary. Richard Nixon's stomach-clutching fury about his foes is revealed in the White House taping system that led to his downfall. Bill Clinton's staff feared his puce-faced rages. And even Barack Obama vented in private when the cameras were off in rants mostly reserved for his staff, like on the occasion when the Healthcare.gov website crashed on its launch day.

But unlike those Presidents, Trump's emotions and anger form the dominant strain of his political persona. They seem to largely dictate how he conducts his business as president, lashing out at perceived enemies, seemingly without forethought."

Although character is not decided by majority opinion, how others perceive us (our public image) is nonetheless an important part of our character. The Pew Research Center found in June 2017 that global opinion of the US and the U.S. president had slipped significantly from the end of Obama's presidency to the beginning of Trump's presidency in Spring 2017. Those who trusted the US President to do the right thing in world affairs slipped from 64% to 22%, and those who had favorable views of the US slipped from 64% to 49%.

Henry Rollins wrote for LA Weekly on July 13, 2017 ("It's Amazing How Quickly We Got Used to the Trump Dumpster Fire"):

"George W. Bush’s use of the English language fascinated me. As his administration dragged on, it seemed to progressively devolve. When Bush was the governor of Texas, he was noticeably sharper, at times bordering on witty. By the end of his second presidential term, he seemed to marvel at getting through a sentence. During his speeches, it sounded not only like he was reading the material for the first time but that he was just saying the words, devoid of context. I wondered if it was the horror of knowing he sent so many people to their deaths needlessly, finally taking its toll. He went out crushed, like Johnson.

Over those eight years, I got used to how he faltered both domestically and abroad. It took a while but eventually, how he was as he disintegrated became normal. It was like passing through stages of grief — if you can somehow get there, you accept.

The Obama years were so different. While I felt bad for the president and his family because of the attacks that started as soon as he began his campaign, I enjoyed how most of the criticism was more about the ignorance and bigotry of the accusers than anything real. Not that there weren’t things to take President Obama to task for; there were. There always are. That being said, at least when the man spoke, you had the idea that he was truly engaged and understood what he was talking about, whether you agreed with him or not. Much of the frustration from “the other side” stemmed from the fact that they knew they were outmatched."

David Faris's essay was printed in The Week on Aug. 31, 2017:

From throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game to rallying hopeless citizens in the aftermath of disaster, one of the president's most critical tasks is mustering eloquence and public spirit in the service of shared ideals.

When the country suffers a calamity or a tragedy, the president must work carefully both to convey a sense of the situation's gravity as well as to express optimism and hope for those who need it in their most desperate moments.

* * *

The best way to be competent at the presidency's ceremonial functions is to not be a pathological narcissist. The kind of emotional intelligence required to respond to a national crisis is something that many functioning adults possess almost instinctively. It's how you instantly mobilize to help a family member in need, or how you surround the sick or the grieving with love, run their errands and cook their meals. Most people know, without being told, not to respond to crisis by starting fights, reopening old wounds, or making someone else's tragedy about them.

President Trump is not most people. He is a narcissist. He's the kind of person who starts wailing inconsolably when your mom dies. He's the sort of friend who descends into self-pitying coldness when you get a promotion. These kinds of poisonous people suck up all of the emotional energy in the room by turning everything into a maelstrom of selfishness and performance and rage. Everyone is, by happenstance or poor decision-making, stuck with a handful of people like this in their lives, but over time we find ways to minimize their presence, and to distance ourselves from their worst outbursts.

President Trump's leadership during the Hurricane Harvey nightmare is a microcosm of everything he is incapable of as a human being: sustained empathy, determined focus, and the ability to put aside one's short-term needs and desires for the sake of people who need help. He put the dark abyss of his soul on display for everyone to see.

* * *

These are not political failings, things which President Trump possesses in almost biblical abundance. They are, instead, the pathologies of a deeply broken man, a person so devoid of feeling for his fellow humans that he reliably has exactly the wrong reaction to every single event that captures the public's attention. And while such people are, in some cases, deserving of a certain kind of sympathy, they have no business being in charge of the world's most critical symbolic job.

Susan Neiman, interviewed by Chauncey DeVega for Salon on Sept. 19, 2017:

"In the end, what matters in determining evil is not the state of one’s soul, but the effects our actions have on the world we live in — which is why having good intentions but not significantly acting on them is never enough. And here it is just unquestionable that what Donald Trump has done is evil. We all have our lists of least-favorite things he has done so far (though, mercifully, he hasn’t achieved as much as he would like). But what is absolutely clear is that Trump has made open and violent racism acceptable. Perhaps even worse, I fear, is that he has made it acceptable not to have values at all — except grasping for power and money. I worry about the effect his example will have on young people who are already uncertain about whether or not any value but power and money is real. Unfortunately, so much in the culture tells us that we should be embarrassed to believe in ideals of goodness, justice and mercy."

* * *

"Unfortunately, because it can be so easily abused, many progressives tend to avoid the concept altogether. This is a terrible mistake, because it leaves the most powerful concepts we have in the hands of those who are least equipped to use them thoughtfully. Instead of avoiding strong moral language, it’s imperative to use it reflectively and well.

I don’t think definitions of evil are of much use, but I think it is possible to do careful analyses of people’s words and actions to decide when words like 'evil' are appropriate."

* * *

"Americans with moral values need to unite around those values, and not let ourselves be divided by differences of race or gender or minor political differences. What we are facing now is not a political problem but a moral one."

Corey Robin wrote in his updated book The Reactionary Mind, published in October 2017: “Amid the vast desert of deprivation that is the Trumpian self, there appears to be no room for anyone else. ... Without a genuinely emancipatory left to oppose, Trump’s rage seems to be nothing more than what it is: the ranting and raving of an old man.”

Ironically for someone who seems to care primarily about gaining attention for himself, his proclamation for October 15-21, 2017 as "National Character Counts Week" stated: "Character is forged around kitchen tables, built in civic organizations, and developed in houses of worship. It is refined by our choices, large and small, and manifested in what we do when we think no one is paying attention."

Rep. Peter King (Republican, New York) told MSNBC on Nov. 29, 2017 that his constituents ask him to tell Trump to stop tweeting, which should imply what they think about the content of those tweets.

Ed Simon wrote in December 2017 (in “A spiritually illiterate man, a moral midget”): “At his core he is simply a consummate narcissist with little intelligence and less curiosity, one who has somehow become the most powerful man in the world.”

Adam Davidson wrote in The New Yorker on April 14, 2018: "There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the endgame of this Presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded. Last week, federal investigators raided the offices of Michael Cohen, the man who has been closer than anybody to Trump’s most problematic business and personal relationships. ... This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency. This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth." He adds:

"It has become commonplace to say that enough was known about Trump’s shady business before he was elected; his followers voted for him precisely because they liked that he was someone willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and they also believe that all rich businesspeople have to do shady things from time to time. In this way of thinking, any new information about his corrupt past has no political salience. Those who hate Trump already think he’s a crook; those who love him don’t care.

I believe this assessment is wrong.

* * *

The narrative that will become widely understood is that Donald Trump did not sit atop a global empire. He was not an intuitive genius and tough guy who created billions of dollars of wealth through fearlessness. He had a small, sad global operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen, a lousy lawyer who barely keeps up the pretenses of lawyering and who now faces an avalanche of charges, from taxicab-backed bank fraud to money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

Cohen, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka monetized their willingness to sign contracts with people rejected by all sensible partners. Even in this, the Trump Organization left money on the table, taking a million dollars here, five million there, even though the service they provided—giving branding legitimacy to blatantly sketchy projects—was worth far more. It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

* * *

Of course Trump is raging and furious and terrified. Prosecutors are now looking at his core. Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world; he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships with sketchy oligarchs. He wasn’t a slick politico who showed up for a few months. He knows everything, he recorded much of it, and now prosecutors will know it, too. It seems inevitable that much will be made public. We don’t know when. We don’t know the precise path the next few months will take. There will be resistance and denial and counterattacks. But it seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency."

Paul Begala wrote in May 2018:

"The kind of intelligence I believe Trump has is enormously useful if you want to, say, be a politician — even better if you want to be a demagogue.

He has a cynical, innate intelligence for what his base wants to hear. It's like a divining rod for division, prejudice and stereotyping. His relentless rhetorical repetition ("No collusion, no collusion, no collusion") is brilliantly designed to tell folks who are predisposed to like him what they want to hear.

* * *

The problem is, Trump's idiosyncratic intelligence, while enough to propel him to the White House, does not serve him well for the job of President. He lacks, by most accounts, the broad curiosity, the policy depth, the healthy skepticism of his own positions, the attention span, the appreciation of nuance, and most of all, the intellectual humility that successful presidents must have."

Later that month, The Hill reported that Sen. Jeff Flake said in a commencement address to Harvard Law that Trump "has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division," that Congress "is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily," that "we may have hit bottom," and that "opposing the president and much of what he stands for is not an act of apostasy. It is, rather, an act of fidelity."

On June 6, 2018, Charles M. Blow focused on Trump's comment about the Central Park Five: "I want to hate."

Paul Krugman wrote for the New York Times the next day: "But what’s really striking to me is not so much the extent of corruption among Trump officials as its pettiness. And that pettiness itself tells you a lot about the kind of people now running America." For example, Scott Pruitt has committed corrupt acts to achieve "everything from [obtaining] customized fountain pens, to telling an aide to procure a used mattress, to an attempt to use his office to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife." Krugman says: "Consider how weak your self-control must be if you’re willing to put this huge payoff [a future lobbying career] at risk for the sake of a used mattress. But," he continues, "the downward arc of corruption from Teapot Dome to Chick-fil-A isn’t just telling you about Trump officials’ immaturity; it’s also a window into the emptiness of their souls." Of Pruitt: "The absurdity of his demands is a feature, not a bug: I have doubts about whether he ever uses that $43,000 soundproof phone booth, but he surely took pleasure in making his staff jump to provide it." It seems that Trump "sees nothing wrong in what they’re doing; it’s what he would do, and in fact does himself. So as I said, we’re being governed by men with small and empty souls. Does it matter?" Yes, insofar as: "We don’t need a government of saints; people can be imperfect (who isn’t?) yet still do good. But a government consisting almost entirely of bad people — which is what we now have — is, in fact, going to govern badly."

After Trump canceled peace talks with North Korea without informing the U.S. ally South Korea (they learned about it from the news), Nicole Gaouette wrote for CNN about how allies perceive the US. She quoted Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, as characterizing the administration's policy as "'You're with us, even if you don't want to be with us. We're dragging you along.'" She also quoted Aaron David Miller as saying that the America First approach means that "allies become much less important unless they fundamentally address a goal that's important to Donald Trump," and that as President he chose to take his first overseas journey to Saudi Arabia and Israel simply because: "He knew he'd be feted and flattered." (In her 1984 book Wickedness, Mary Midgley wrote: "A morbidly proud person reads everything that the people around him do as an answer to the single question 'Do they honour him enough?' If this is his central motive, that is his basic rule, the plan of his life. And in that case the honour he is looking for is something enormously higher than any of them could possibly give. This is because it has to take the place of all other motives...") The result, as Gaouette explained Miller's point, is that "Trump can flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping because he needs his support on North Korea, and chastise Mexico for illegal immigration, but he doesn't have to cultivate the Europeans because the issues he would need them on, including the Iran nuclear deal and climate change, 'he doesn't care about.'" She also quoted Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, regarding the U.S. exit from the Iran nuclear deal: "It's hard to overstate how angry and resentful the Europeans are." In June 2018, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia announced his resignation and commented on Facebook: "For the President to say the EU was 'set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,' or that 'NATO is as bad as NAFTA' is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it's time to go."

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt announced in June 2018 that he was quitting the party. "I won’t share a party label with people who think it’s all right to put babies in internment camps," he said. “Trump didn’t destroy the Republican Party — it’s the cowardice of the Republican leaders, their complicity in all of it, the lack of courage to stand up for what's right."

Chris Cillizza wrote on June 29, 2018: "Past presidents have openly pined for circumstances that allowed them to sit astride history, emerging as the great men they believe themselves to be. (Remember: Many "great" men are not "good" men.)"

What does it say about Americans?

Roger Cohen wrote for the NYT on Aug. 24, 2018:

The thing about all the shocking Trump revelations — Michael Cohen’s about violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women in coordination with a “candidate for federal office” being the latest — is that they are already baked into Trump’s image. His supporters, and there are tens of millions of them, never had illusions. I’ve not met one, Babcox included, who did not have a pretty clear picture of Trump. They’ve known all along that he’s a needy narcissist, a womanizer, a lowlife, a liar, a braggart and a generally miserable human being. That’s why the “Access Hollywood” tape or the I-could-shoot-somebody-on-Fifth-Avenue boast did not kill his candidacy.

* * *

Americans elected Trump. Nobody else did. They came down to his level. White Christian males losing their place in the social order decided they’d do anything to save themselves, and to heck with morality. They made a bargain with the devil in full knowledge. So the real question is: What does it mean to be an American today? Who are we, goddamit? What have we become?

Trump was a symptom, not a cause. The problem is way deeper than him.

In December 2018, Bret Stephens suggested that Trump, who rarely makes jokes and then only self-centered or cruel ones,
"isn’t unfunny. He’s anti-funny. Humor humanizes. It uncorks, unstuffs, informalizes. Used well, it puts people at ease. Trump’s method is the opposite: He wants people ill at ease. Doing so preserves his capacity to wound, his sense of superiority, his distance. Good jokes highlight the ridiculous. Trump’s jokes merely ridicule. They are caustics, not emollients."

But he also cautioned: "This is an angry age, in which Trump’s critics also simmer in rage, ridicule, self-importance, self-pity — and hatred, too. They think they’re reproaching the president. Increasingly they reflect him."

December 2018 also brought changes in the attitudes of Trump's inner circle. Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and Fox News contributor, said that attorneys from New York's Southern District "are clearly going after the president on campaign finance violations and I think if you read the sentencing memo the Southern District filed in Cohen’s case, it’s clear that Trump is the target and he’ll be indicted eventually." And journalist Carl Bernstein said on CNN on Dec. 9: “Donald Trump for the first time in his life is cornered. As a businessman, he always could bully his way out of a corner. He always could buy his way out, cheat his way out. He is boxed in by Mueller, and the people around him know that he is.”

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