Monday, February 29, 2016

Presidential politics and the death of character

from Crisis Magazine....

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 that 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, with 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, using 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 tendency generally 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 predetermined. Trump has admitted that his life has not been one of moderation, and it certainly hasn’t been characterized by humility. When asked about 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 over the years made many similar statements. 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 that serious character questions can be raised about. 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 when Secretary of State in apparent violation of espionage laws (which would easily by now have 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 enough of a 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 the life of living in a shack, fathered a child out of wedlock with another woman whom he cohabited with, 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 and was also previously divorced and had 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 resistance rooted in the will 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 record of its failures is 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 “rules for radicals” of Barack Obama’s inspiration, Saul Alinsky: 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 about 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 on him 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 have been a perhaps 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 may 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 to him—and even expressed his personal admiration of him—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 public man or woman and the basis of integrity in politics. So why do voters currently seem so oblivious to it?


  1. Quite frankly this article by Mr. Krason is rather disheartening and for the most part is an argument not to even bother voting since all individuals sited by the writer’s own conclusions have no character. This may have not been his goal but I think he has managed to accomplish increased voter apathy. After reading his opinion why would any values voter be convinced that they should vote in the present public arena? As someone who has not enjoyed the verbal cannibalism that has taken place within the Republican Party I can only reflect on how this current ugly atmosphere can point right back to the Republican Party elites. Time after time promises were broken whether it be defunding Planned Parenthood, stopping Obamacare, halting illegal immigration, etc. The latest budget agreement led by Paul Ryan (a Roman Catholic?) once again kept taxpayer money flowing to Planned Parenthood. No fight. No nothing. Is it any wonder the voters are turning away? The Republican Party has no one to blame but themselves. We have been lied to pure and simple. And now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell & chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley agree to have discussions with Obama in regards to the vacant Supreme Court seat. We were told no hearings will be held. Should I have any confidence that yet another promise will not be broken? The Republican Party created the Donald Trump movement whether they like it or not and they have also created this politically charged back biting. I am disgusted with 95% of them. It really appears that they would be OK with Hillary Clinton in the Whitehouse. At least in their minds they could continue to take cover for doing nothing to stop the degradation of our country.

    1. Hi Ed - I share your sentiments exactly. I posted the Crisis article in fact because I was feeling particularly disheartened by the whole scene (and still am feeling that way for the most part). I don't have much confidence in the vast majority of the very ones who we should have been able to rely on to turn things around - instead, as you mentioned, they seem to be just fine with pushing the country over the cliff. It's all so mind boggling and dispiriting. But will try my best to keep my chin up. Thanks for your post - you're always so well spoken:-) Talk to you later!

  2. You can blaim the republican party it self for the fix they are in. You all loved the Trump when he was putting down the president, saying he wasn't born in America. And when that republican called the president a liar during his address. And the way you Julie, have disrespected him throughout his presidency at every turn. I remember. Now you have come to hate both the sinner as well as the sin and its too late. You made your bed...its your big republican tea bag bed.

    1. You sound so clueless. You make unreasonable assumptions & ramble all over the place so it makes it impossible to take you seriously. One thing is for sure your current president is most definitely a liar. I could list all the occasions he has proven himself a liar but you would most likely be unable to comprehend it. And the same goes for Hillary. I won’t speak for Julie, but Obama has done nothing to earn my respect. And you can definitively keep your current Democrat bed all to yourself. It without question needs to be cleaned and changed.

    2. You sir are the reason you party is in trouble. Take off your rose colored glasses, see the turmoil before its too late. I need not say more.

    3. Like I said. Impossible to take you seriously.