Trump and the American Character


Our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. Megyn Kelly is a bimbo. The Mexicans are smarter than us because they are sending us their drugs, their crime, and their rapists. We have a weak President that [sic] kisses everybody’s ass. Rosie O’Donnell is a disgusting slob. Some women are fat pigs, dogs, and disgusting animals.

Donald Trump getting headlines. Donald Trump branding Donald Trump. Donald Trump ‘having fun.’

These Trumpisms also seem to appeal to the anger seething in millions of people over the state of their lives, their society,  town, workplace,  schools, the country, the world;  the sense that there’s so much that’s not right and no one strong enough to fix it. Trump knows well that the anger can be exploited to his advantage because it is the worst kind of fury, that which is  rooted in fear, a fear that it keeps running deeper and hotter. Trump gets it. He understands marketing and branding and the degrees of risk-taking required in politics. He is that lethal combination of politician, entertainer, and entrepreneur.

Of course, Trump has said some gentler things. He said some illegal immigrants are nice people and that children are not horses, so they ought to be vaccinated a little at a time. He also said: “In the end, you’re measured not by how much you undertake but by what you finally accomplish.” A good thought, but I would put money in a Trump casino that the latter were not his words, but those of a professional wordsmith he keeps on the payroll for those rare times when he wants to wax philisophical.

Trump is like an astrological black hole, absent light, devoid of elements that should be essential to political behavior and the media coverage thereof: (1) civility; (2) reason; and (3) truth, all very hard to come by and all not worth much in the open-air bazaar that is American politics. Civility is a form of human behavior that enables men and women of decent character to reason together, to consider differing but legitimate viewpoints and arrive at some truth; enough truth for consensus to be formed, solutions found, and positive actions taken.

Civility, reason, and truth, are the ingredients for good politics.

But few candidates for public office behave civilly, or exercise reason, or seek truth. It is not the nature of the beast. It is not what drives campaigns or attracts media attention to them. In most campaigns, however, incivility, unreasonableness, and the emasculation of facts have their limits. Most candidates, or more appropriately, their surrogates, incite public passions, but are careful to fall just short of alienating those they are trying to titillate. Candidates are careful not to cross lines from which they cannot retreat.

Not so with the Donald. He leaps across lines and just keeps on Trumpin’. Last week he introduced Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle into the public discourse.

Columnist Jennifer Rubin referred to this Trumpacade as the “utter debasement of politics and the celebration of impulsive, aggressive, sentiments in place of reasoned political debate.”

Most observers try to attach some analytical relevance to Trumpspeak. They say it is an extension of Tea Party libertarianism, or another test of the limits of freedom of speech, or a new iteration of the populism of William Jennings Bryant or Ross Perot. Any of those associations give Trump’s behavior too much credit and too much value.

Here’s the good news: If it is Trump’s strategy to continue behaving the way he does, he may actually, if unintentionally, restore a semblance of civility, reason, and truth to an otherwise vacuous campaign culture. We think him in the vanguard of those bring disrepute to our campaign politics, but he may end up in the vanguard of those who save it from itself.

Trump and only Donald Trump has that capability. Only he has the capacity, with his surreal caricature and the hypnotic command of media attention, to make his debasement of our politics more repugnant than politics itself.

The reason is rooted in the American character, which is the embodiment of our values and the framework for basic human behavior. It is what ultimately defines us. It is what drives us to achieve what some call exceptionalism, but it is also what pulls us back from those excesses other peoples and other nations are sometimes guilty of, whether it is imperialism, the imposition of our beliefs on others, or insufferable, intolerable, inhumane behavior. It is a key element in the American experience that we believe the rest of the civilized world has looked up to and has tried to emulate since our founding.

American character usually prevails over those in our society and in our politics who lack it and demonstrate it in ways that eventually make us turn our head. There just comes a time when we say no, that is not me, that is not us.

Trump’s behavior is the antithesis of the American character. He may have a lot that attracts that 18 percent to him; he may have insights into our most exploitable and basic instincts and impulses, but as Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney put it: “Trump’s fatal flaw isn’t his oversized ego, but his undersized character.”

And it is that flaw that will eventually separate him from us assuming he continues on the path he is on, unchained, unedited, unrehearsed, and unapologetic for what he is doing to our system of governance.

It is easy to cheer when Donald says our leaders are stupid, until it sinks in that if our leaders are stupid, so, too, are those who elected them.

Trump will not be our President, although it may not be as clear whether he could influence who is. But Trump will have an impact on our public discourse and the tenor and tone of our campaigns for a long time to come. Hopefully, the people and the press will grow weary and leery of him, clearing the stage so other candidates will finally be given an opportunity to engage the issues with discourse that is more civil, more reasoned, and more truthful.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.