Reflections on Trump’s Inauguration: Why Character and Judgment Matter in Politics

Trump is a shameless liar, a divisive bully, a misogynist, a thin-skinned narcissist, and an ignoramus. Does it matter? Why should we care about the character and judgment of those we elect to public office?

To answer this question, I start with a line of argument that suggests character and judgment are less important than good institutions, and that good institutions can compensate for poor character. I then want to consider some of the problems with this viewpoint. I argue that good institutions are not enough. Good institutions can foster good character and judgment, and vice versa; but bad character and judgment can undermine good institutions and corrupt democracy.

Whatever we may think of Trump and, in particular, whatever doubts we may entertain about his judgment or temperament, he will operate within a rule-of-law-based system, with a powerful set of checks and balances designed to limit the damage that he can do to the democratic system. Should he seek to violate the constitution or act arbitrarily, he will confront not only the courts but also constraints within the executive branch that have been established to ensure procedural or administrative justice is done. Republicans control the Congress, and this means he will have an ally there, but the new President does not control the Republicans in Congress. They will be a weak mechanism of accountability, since the GOP has increasingly become an anti-system party, but there are a few responsible Republicans in Congress, and the Democrats will also use their influence to uphold democratic oversight. Moreover, the US democratic system as a whole provides many veto points for the public, the media, and powerful private interests to prevent government from act in ways that might threaten basic liberties. In short, the US Constitution will constrain what Trump can do, and the basic realities of the political process are likely to prevent him from doing any real, lasting damage to US democracy.

There may be flaws in this line of argument, but let’s accept that a Trump presidency doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the republic. What does this argument, nonetheless, leave out? It leaves out all the damage that can be done to institutions when the politicians who operate within them fail to respect the underlying principles and values they embody. Institutions may or may not be robust enough to survive this, but even if they do, the vitality of democracy depends on the way in which good institutions foster practices that in return reinforce those institutions rather than corrupt them. This basic point can be made in at least four different ways.

First, the separation of powers is not a strong bulwark against despotism unless properly understood. In the United States, the separation of powers tends to be understood in terms of checks and balances, which is a feature of presidentialism. To use Madison’s immortal phrase, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If we have learned anything from the current era of hyperpresidentialism it is that this formula is problematic. It is actually very hard for courts and legislatures to stop over-weening presidents from acting in ways that violate constitutional norms. The original meaning of the separation of powers, which can be traced back to Aristotle and forward through Montesquieu to contemporary theories of deliberative democracy, holds that the separation of powers is about the importance of office holders performing specific functions.

A separation of powers system requires that legislators bring laws into effect, judges interpret and apply laws with respect to particular cases, and the executive implements decisions necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the constitutional order in a manner consistent with the rule of law. In other words, it is essential that office holders understand the competence and jurisdiction associated with their roles and learn to perform them well.

This is where Trump represents a problem. At no point since his entry into politics has he indicated any interest whatsoever in adapting to his new public roles. From the moment he descended by escalator in the gilded Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, to when he failed to pivot from candidate seeking the support of his party to presidential aspirant, to his failure to moderate his behavior when he became president-election, Trump has proven impervious to the need to adapt as he shifts from private to public roles. He gives no indication that he intends to comport himself in government any differently. Yet if he continues to criticize judges, excoriate the media, and bully legislators, he will do damage to the separation of powers properly understood.

Second, we can say that Trump’s victory is already a symptom of a deeper malaise in the US body politic. Trump’s message resonated with what Arlie Hochschild, in her remarkable book, Strangers in Their Own Land, calls the “deep story” – a story she heard again and again among the people who support the Tea Party in the American south. Hochschild spent years talking with tea party supporters, trying to make sense of their worldview. They seemed to hate the federal government without acknowledging the benefits they received from it, and to resist regulation that could improve their lives. As a result, they voted for Republicans who were often responsible for perpetuating their plight. To explain their political attitudes she developed a powerful metaphor.

Imagine, Hochschild writes, you are in a line of people on a pilgrimage, trying to climb a hill, over the summit of which lies the American dream. At the back of the line are people of colour, the poor, the elderly, the uneducated. The line moves slowly, and even begins to reverse; then you see people “cutting into the line ahead of you.” They are not following the rules, but they are getting a leg up—special preferences, benefits, and sympathy. Not only that, they are also getting the support of the government. The government is supposed to be like an umpire monitoring the line, ensuring it is orderly, but rather than making sure everyone stays in line, it is actually helping those who are cutting in front of you. You feel betrayed and angry.

Given this frame, or “deep story,” the appeal of Trump is readily understandable. In promising to “make America great again,” he appeals to the way things were before the principle of equal opportunity was betrayed. He promises to take the line-jumpers to task, and to restore the status quo ante. His electoral success reflects the depths of disenchantment among those who feel left behind. For them, Trump’s many vices are more than balanced by his ability to craft a message that resonates with their deep story.

One of the great paradoxes of Trump is that he breaks all the established codes of appropriate communication—he Tweets whatever is on his mind, at any time of day or night; he berates reporters and criticizes comedians and rates actors; he holds grudges against people who criticize him, especially in the media; indeed, he treats the media as a whole as part of a rigged system.  And yet at the same time he is an extraordinarily effective communicator with his base. This is, of course, the essence of demagoguery. It is the mark of the politician who is wily but unwise.

Third, Trump’s path to power exposes weaknesses in the democratic system, including the nomination process, the electoral system, the party system, and party organizations. The failure of these institutions to prevent the rise an outsider – a leader without prior experience in elective office at any level of government – is a remarkable indictment of the political system as a whole. There are evidently breaches in the various filters that have been put in place to ensure that elected officials are socialized by the political process. Politicians are expected to understand the working of government. Before a candidate can occupy the highest office in the land he or she should have a record of successful administration in lower offices of government. Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the presidency, lost against someone who had no record of public service. None of the political filters designed to promote excellence in public service were sufficient to prevent the rise of a candidate who promised, in effect, to tear the system down. It was precisely Trump’s evident contempt for the rule of law that resonated with many voters, which places him in a position to potentially undermine institutions with impunity. It sets up a tension between the democratic legitimacy of a leader with a mandate and the legitimacy conferred by the institutions themselves. Such tensions, familiar to those who work on precarious democracies, are unusual among established democracies.

Fourth, the argument that institutions will constrain the excesses of a leader is weakened by the fact that the United States is a super-power. Not only does the president have his finger on the nuclear buttons, he controls the most powerful military machine in human history. By questioning international norms and institutions like the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, Trump makes it clear that he does not intend to play by the rules of international diplomacy or statescraft. It is in those spheres in which the president has the greatest discretionary power that the importance of character and judgment are most apparent. Trump’s worst mistakes are likely to be in those areas of decision-making that largely affect people outside the United States, especially in theatres in which the constraints on the exercise of US power are weakest.

A robust democracy requires good institutions, but good institutions are not enough. They need to be sustained by democratic practices that demand wisdom and virtue from both politicians and voters. The rise of a leader who lacks good character and judgment represents a fundamental threat to democracy. The threat is not necessarily that the institutions will collapse, but that they will lose their meaning and legitimacy. There is every reason to fear that the American dream, once a unifying vision, has been replaced by deep divisions over the destiny and purpose of the republic. Trump will exacerbate rather than heal those divisions. For those who wish to preserve the republic, the challenge will be not just to resist Trump, but to challenge him with a more generous and democratic vision of the American dream.

Aristotle’s Principle of the Mean

Aristotle says “It is by refraining from pleasures that we become temperate, and it is when we have become temperate that we are most able to abstain from pleasures. Similarly with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation” (1104b). When we are placed in an alarming situation we feel panic and confusion, partly because we don’t know what is going on; we may react badly, focusing on the wrong things. But if we prepare for dangerous situations, and start with risks we understand and have prepared for, we learn to overcome our fears and we let our training take over. Once we have done this with small risks, we can confront larger risks. By becoming brave, we learn to face greater danger. This is a kind of iterative, self-reinforcing process.

At each iteration we may error on the side of becoming over-confident or over-apprehensive. If we are over-confident, we become reckless and may harm ourselves or others; if over-apprehensive, we will not master our fears. Moreover, not all experience is good – some experience may teach us bad habits. That is why we need wise mentors who can point us toward the right balance, which will allow us to progress toward our goal or aim. And this will vary from one person to another. Aristotle emphasizes that the mean is in relation to us, not to the thing we are doing. A good mentor or teacher will know what the individual student needs to learn.

But then Aristotle throws a curve ball (1107a). Virtue is a mean with respect to two vices (excess and deficiency), but “in respect to what is right and best, it is an extreme.” Thus, there can be no mean or excess or deficiency in courage because “the mean is in a sense an extreme” (1107a25). Courage is a virtue that does not require moderation, just as adultery (his other example) is a vice which cannot be accepted even in moderation. What great courage demands in a particular situation, however, will be the mean between recklessness and apprehensiveness. To say courage is an extreme doesn’t mean an endorsement of extreme courage or recklessness. Rather, courage will mean different things to different people at different times and places, but getting it exactly right is always desirable and that requires action guided by the right principles as well as the insight to know what to do in a particular situation.

With the right orientation we can achieve virtue by following the principle of the mean. Using “evidence of visible facts to throw light on those that are invisible” (1104a15), Aristotle says excessive of insufficient exercise are harmful, and the same is true for eating and drinking. It is not just that different people need different amounts of exercise and food. Someone who drinks and eats only for pleasure will not find the mean, but someone who eats and drinks to be healthy will. Contrary to the view that the principle of the mean is useless or vacuous, Aristotle is saying not only that there are right and wrong ways to do things, but that we will only find the mean if we are oriented to the good. But this does seem to beg the question: why would we be oriented toward the good?

Aristotle attaches considerable importance to goods intrinsic to activities. I think this has to do with activities that enable us to function well—i.e. excellence. “Any kind of excellence renders that of which it is an excellence good, and makes it perform its function well” (1106a15). Think about riding a bicycle. It is a purposive activity not only in the sense of going from one place to another (an external aim), but it is intrinsically important not to fall off in the process! In other words, there are purposive actions that are performed as part of the activity—the pedalling, the balancing, the moment-to-moment judgments of speed and direction—so that were one to stop, the activity would come to an end. One could stop trying to get from place to place and still be biking, but one cannot stop pedalling and continue to bike. And the activity here requires finding various means: for example, you can’t go too fast or too slow, you can’t tilt too far in one direction or another, and you need a mix of automatic and conscious effort. Learning to ride a bike is not done by first acquiring technical skill and then putting it into practice. It is through the practice that we acquire the skill.

The mean is intrinsic to the structure of the activity. This seems borne out by the idea that failure is “possible in many ways,” but success “in only one” (1106b30), i.e. that which is the best. The “best” means, presumably, the best of which we are capable. Phronesis arises through activity, specifically the development of one’s potential. Aristotle starts Book II with the observation faculties are endowed as potentialities and are only later actualized, but virtue we learn by doing. It is as if he is saying that when we try to be virtuous we realize we’ve already doing it, or that the aspiration to do something well comes from the practice of already doing it. The minute I try to make a work of art, I am already trying to do it well. Rawls calls this the Aristotelian principle: “other things equal, human behings enjoy the exercise of their realized capabilities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity” (Theory of Justice, p. 426).