Charles Kesler on Character

By | 2018-05-16T19:01:43+00:00 May 16th, 2018|
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Charles Kesler’s “Thinking About Trump” essay from the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books is a masterpiece. It ranks right up there with some of the best political essays written in the past couple of years.

There’s so much to note about this fine essay, but I want to focus particularly on Kesler’s extended discussion of the relationship between character and presidential success. As his essay makes perfectly clear, a straight line cannot be drawn from possessing good character to being a good president and vice versa.

We’ve had presidents with bad character—e.g., Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel, nearly half of the presidents in the twentieth century were serial philanderers, etc.—who have been good to very good presidents.

It’s not uncommon, however, for bad men in this and similar senses to do good by the public. Gouverneur Morris, “the rake who wrote the Constitution,” as Richard Brookhiser calls him in his excellent biography, felt a kind of calling to sleep with other men’s wives. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a serial adulterer, as the tireless public servants in the FBI of his day knew well. These sins, which were habitual enough to be called vices, did not prevent—and detracted from, if at all, only slightly—the enormous public good they did.

And we’ve also had the opposite. George W. Bush, anyone? I rest my case.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Trump, who has his flaws but also particular virtues that are lacking in our politicians generally speaking, is having so much success.

And we should be extremely wary of arguments from our moralists about Trump’s supposed “unpresidential” or “disqualifying” lack of character. Beneath the upstanding veneer, such arguments neglect all human history and human nature.

Since there is no actual principle being appealed to other than some subjective feelings of ickiness, it’s merely the will of those asserting this claim against the nearly 63 million people who voted for Trump.

As it is currently being deployed, this argument is simply another form of the “king-craft” argument Lincoln spoke about during his debates with Stephen Douglas. This argument, which “always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden,” is “for enslaving the people in all ages of the world.”

I don’t mean to claim that character doesn’t matter at all. It does, in a way. But when the ruling class has undermined any shared sense of character necessary for public office in one breath and then bashes Trump for his supposed horrendous character in the next, it’s pretty obvious what’s really going on.

About the Author:

Tom Doniphon
Tom Doniphon is not, as you may imagine, an iconic character from John Ford's greatest western. He is, rather, a writer in the Midwest. The moniker, suffice to say, is a pseudonym.