Presidential Politics and the Death of Character

In his 1974 book, The Roots of American Order, which he viewed as his contribution to America’s Bicentennial, the great scholar Russell Kirk said that the virtue and dignity of a great president like Lincoln was “still respected by the American democracy.” In the 2016 presidential campaign so far, it is not so clear that such considerations are still in the minds of many American voters.

The Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has assembled a substantial following in the electorate that is so unwavering in its support that he boasted he could shoot someone in the middle of New York City and it wouldn’t hurt him. While his example is hyperbolic, it not only illustrates his point, but also indicates the degree to which attention to character has slipped off the radar screen in our current politics.

Trump has not only had multiple marriages, but a background of serial adultery—which he virtually boasted about in his first book. He has made a sizable amount of his fortune on the back of human weakness via gambling casinos. His Atlantic City casino featured a virtual strip club. His massive business successes have been accompanied by shady business practices (many of which have led to lawsuits), questionable associations, loan defaults, the use of political connections and maneuvering to get what he wants (as with the much-publicized attempt to have eminent domain invoked—he also did it elsewhere—against a widow who wouldn’t sell her property so he could expand his Atlantic City casino operation), and a general tendency to use pressure tactics on those who get in his way. One notable example was the massive lawsuit he filed against the Miss USA beauty pageant contestant who went public with evidence that the results were pre-determined.

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Trump has admitted that his life has not been one of moderation, and it certainly hasn’t been characterized by humility. When asked why he was justified in receiving compensation of two million dollars per year for being board chairman of a company that went bankrupt, he said, “Because I’m a genius.” He has made many similar statements over the years. While he contributes to charity, it’s not so clear that being service-oriented has been a high priority for him. He said he got into real estate simply because it’s lucrative.

Trump is hardly the only 2016 presidential candidate about whom serious character questions can be raised. The public widely views Hillary Clinton as dishonest, but she’s still the Democratic frontrunner. The Clinton shadiness is almost legendary. Her behavior in the Benghazi episode, the mounting evidence about misuse of her personal email accounts, in apparent violation of espionage laws, while Secretary of State (which by now would have easily gotten a lesser figure indicted), and the issues concerning foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation and influence buying, seem to have done little to hurt her politically. It’s almost as if for a significant segment of the electorate, all this is irrelevant.

Her opponent, Bernie Sanders, apart from his radical past, lived a “hippie” existence; divorced his first wife after giving her a shack for a home; fathered a child out of wedlock by another woman with whom he cohabited; had an irregular work history before being elected to public office when nearly forty; has a reputation for improvidence; and is now married to a woman who identifies as a Catholic, but is divorced from the father of her children (I don’t know if she ever got an annulment or is practicing). The fact that he has fervently clung to his socialism throughout his adult life perhaps says the most about his character. It indicates a willful resistance to getting a sound intellectual formation, being attentive to history, and properly shaping one’s views about the world. The literature about the evils of socialism and the historical examples of its failures are abundant. Sanders, with his Catholic wife, could have started by reading the encyclicals Quod Apostolici Muneris and Quadragesimo Anno. I doubt he ever has.

The term of the year in the Republican race has been “liar.” While this is a serious charge to make against someone in any context, a few of the candidates don’t seem to blink an eye about it. They seem to be following one of Saul Alinsky’s “rules for radicals” which inspired Barack Obama: say something enough times so people will start to believe it, whether it’s true or not. Actually, doing this says a lot more about the character of the accuser than the person he’s trying to tarnish. It seems as if these candidates—who call themselves Christian—have never heard of the sins of calumny and disparagement. It seems as if Ted Cruz has been the most frequent target of the “liar” slur. Regardless of whether one supports him and whatever his other shortcomings, upon examining the subjects that have elicited this attack. I’ve found, frankly, that it hasn’t been warranted. Is it good to have people who could become president making strident and untruthful attacks on their political opponents?

Cruz also took heat for his flyer that, in effect, “shamed” voters who haven’t turned out in the past as a way to get them to the Iowa caucuses. To be sure, it’s not a tactic I care for. However, both parties have used this approach in elections in various states, apparently to try to counter voter apathy. That didn’t stop Rubio from trying to convince voters that it shows Cruz is “unethical,” even though he did a similar thing. That would perhaps have been a deliberate case of rash judgment, not far from the sin of disparagement, even if it were not also hypocritical.

Charity, another quality of character, certainly hasn’t been a hallmark of this campaign season, either. Confusion from a CNN report led to the Cruz campaign erroneously telling caucus-goers in Iowa that Ben Carson might be withdrawing, given his decision not to actively campaign in New Hampshire after the Iowa caucuses. Even though it almost certainly didn’t affect the result, and Cruz explained why it happened and publicly apologized—even expressed his personal admiration of Carson—Carson kept hammering Cruz about it. It was hardly a charitable response.

Speaking of humility, while it’s understandable that candidates want to stress their accomplishments, all the candidates’ embellishing of themselves—such as by claiming to have led this or that fight in Congress—doesn’t exactly demonstrate it.

The campaign so far has been anything but an exercise in civility. That’s another thing that tells us something about the character of the candidates. At a time when the country cries out for civility, what we need are politicians who can promote it, while at the same time standing unflinchingly for sound principles (a rare combination, to be sure).

Distinct character flaws clearly weakened or undermined three presidents of recent memory. LBJ’s egotism and unwillingness to take criticism led to a Vietnam policy that was his undoing. Nixon’s sense of insecurity, secretiveness, and tendency to see critics and opponents as enemies led to his Watergate disgrace and resignation. Bill Clinton’s inability to control his sexual impulses, along with his dishonesty, led to his impeachment.

Character, then, has made or broken various presidencies. Its deficiency has caused ensuing agony for the country. It is the essential starting point for any man or woman in public office, and the basis of integrity in politics. So why do voters currently seem so oblivious to it?


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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