When Character Matters
Posted on January 25, 2017
Character is of no direct importance in a politician. What matters is policy and action. Nevertheless character is of great indirect importance, because we use it to predict future policies and actions. However some aspects of character are far more politically relevant than others.
I have no particular interest in which politicians do or do not commit adultery or visit prostitutes–except when they themselves make a political issue out of private sexual behavior. (Trump did make an issue briefly of Bill Clinton’s adultery.) Sexual hypocrisy tends to predict political exploitation of sexuality rather than a desire to craft well-considered domestic policies.
Taking trophy wives is a rather ugly practice (especially when described using that term), but I don’t think divorcing someone in order to take a beautiful young wife tells us all that much in itself about what a politician will do in office. However it could be significant if there were other indicators of callousness. (In the case of Trump, there are many indicators of callousness.) Callousness tend to predict policies that harm the powerless.
Sex abuse is a different case. I would distinguish an isolated youthful sex crime from serial sex abuse. The latter case seems to be true of Trump. Serial abuse reflects a bullying personality, which is very dangerous in national politicians, because they face many opportunities to bully enemies and scapegoat entire groups for political profit.
Sharp business practices are a no-no in politicians. They indicate a willingness to cut corners in public action, a relative lack of concern for upholding one’s reputation, and an inordinate love of money that may make one susceptible to bribes and override any allegiance to good policy. Trump is famous for stiffing the people he owes money to.
Lying is a complicated business in politics. I do not especially condemn politicians who oversimplify facts and statistics for the purpose of generating sound bytes that will get through the noise. I understand an occasional need to lie about private negotiations. I hate politicians like Trump who repeatedly make statements wholly contrary to publicly known facts when they should have known better. If we do not attempt to reach public agreement on a body of facts, reaching good public policies in a democracy becomes a quixotic cause. What is even worse is having so little respect for facts as to change your lies from week to week–which is Trump’s predilection.
Promise breaking is different from lying. Keeping promises is a great virtue in politics, because it makes it possible to reach credible agreements and to place faith in particular politicians you might vote for. Trump cannot possibly be a reliable promise keeper, because he has promised both sides on many issues. He also loves dog whistle politics, which means signalling bigotry in indirect ways while making pious statements about tolerance.
Forbearance is a critically important virtue. Politicians should not rush to judgment nor focus inordinately on slights. Trump’s greatest joy in life may be taking revenge upon his critics.
What have I missed?