The Character Test Is Dead
In 2016, Donald Trump confounded every informed opinion about his campaign’s chances for success. The same question kept returning: why didn’t this particular outrageous display of personal character sink his ship? Trump was confident that his personal morality would make little difference: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That was in January 2016.
A report on new poll results says “only 73% of Republicans” approve his performance. Why “only”? The great majority approve of what he has done, and presumably are looking forward to more of the same.
This keeps surprising the media. In February, CNN tried to explain what puzzled them: “Why Trump’s supporters still love him.” In April, the Huffington Post asked, “At 100 Days, Why Do Most Of Trump’s Voters Still Love Him?” Now it’s August and little has changed. Trump bet that character doesn’t matter, and he keeps winning.
A sea change has swept over the public consciousness of our country since the 1950s. In the America that Trump’s supporters believe was great, character mattered. You might be a jerk in business, in academia, in politics and get ahead. You might be a jerk in town, and still get elected to important local positions. You might be jerk at home and abuse your family, but still parade as a family man.
But being a jerk didn’t help. Those who got caught cooking the books or cheating their customers or beating weaker people up could lose everything. Failing the character test in a public way meant disaster.
Passing the character test depended a lot on what the media were willing to make public. Dwight Eisenhower’s affair with Kay Summersby and JFK’s liaisons with many women were known, but treated gingerly by the press. Searching for the personal scandals of powerful men was considered sleazy.
Nixon’s enormous character failure, and the long-running national scandal that dominated the media in 1972-1974, changed the character test. Journalists and publishers grew more attuned to the use of character flaws as news. But adultery was not yet enough to sink an important politician. Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills was caught with a stripper, Fanne Fox, in 1974, but was reelected the next month. As the media embraced a new sexual ethic of visual exploitation in the 1970s and 1980s, it also embraced the virtues of sensationalized print. Gary Hart’s extramarital affair while he was running for President in 1988 showed that adultery had become a major element in the character test.
Other questions on the character test assumed conservative ideology was moral character. That has long been true. In the postwar decades, made-up accusations of “Communism” were sufficient to attribute severe moral failings to crusaders for labor and civil rights. 1950s gender rules were clearly represented in the character test: gay was sick, dominance was manly, ambition was unwomanly. Blackness was itself considered as a moral failing. The character test often functioned to weed out liberals by turning emotion into a flaw. Ed Muskie failed the character test in 1972 by tearing up in a New Hampshire snowstorm as he defended his wife against scurrilous lies planted by the Nixon White House.
These politicized claims about character have lost their persuasiveness. People, a lot of whom suffered personally from these ideas about character, have changed the test by challenging its premises. Race may always be a failing of our union, but the certainty that black skin is a character flaw is gone. Homosexuality no longer needs to be hidden from view for political success.
I have no statistics, but I believe that Republicans have adopted better to a media hungry for sensationalized scandal and contributed much to its triumph. Republicans tried during Bill Clinton’s entire presidency to make his sex life the key test of character. They impeached him for lying, an almost amusing idea in the Trump era. The character assassination of John Kerry in 2004 became the birther controversy for Obama.
That brings us back to Trump, who demonstrates that the character test is dead. His abuse of women, his cheating of people he hired, his personal nastiness, his lying and bragging, seem to have contributed to rather than hurt his appeal. Trump fails every test of character, but it makes no difference.
Even as personal behavior has become important in the careers of NFL players and TV personalities, it seems to have lost its relevance in politics. The careers of Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice were damaged by evidence of domestic violence, but Mark Sanford could have an affair, lie about it, use public funds to finance his adultery, and then get elected to Congress.
In fact, the character test may have been turned on its head. Trump appeals to a surprisingly large segment of Americans who like nastiness, who applaud insults, who cheer bloodshed, and who hate liberals and liberal ideas. When he grabs women and laughs about it, when he tells lies about good people, when he calls journalists “sick”, when he mocks the handicapped, and when he winks at white supremacists, his supporters are happy. Criticize what look like his character flaws and you’ll get nowhere with them.
But do it anyway. The character test is dead only if we let it die.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 29, 2017
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