“The only thing I’ve really learned from studying politics for 25 years in Washington is that the only thing that matters is character.”
So said Christopher Hitchens in the fall of 2006 upon being asked his thoughts on the presidential campaign that would begin a few months later. Pressing on, Hitchens explained that while it seems noble and mature to value issues over personalities in the sanctity of a voting booth, the truth is that policy positions are only as good as the word of the person espousing them. A candidate’s character, Hitch argued, is “the only thing a voter can make a really informed decision about.”
He wasn’t wrong, was he?
Indeed, take a closer look at the elections of the last three or four decades and you’ll find that the nominee perceived to be the most honest and dignified has almost always been the one with the most overall votes. Coincidence? I would hope not.
I bring this up as a form of good news, because if this tendency holds up—that is, if the American people err on the side of integrity when they cast their votes on November 8—it means Donald Trump could not possibly become the next leader of the free world. Believe it or not, the majority of American voters have a limit to the amount of lunacy they are willing to accept in their commander-in-chief. They understand that, in the words of Harvey Keitel’s Wolf, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”
The moral argument against a President Trump is the same as it’s always been: He believes in nothing, he cares about no one but himself, he is obsessed with publicity and profit and he is playing Republican voters for saps.
All of this helps to suggest what makes Trump so unique among all presidential candidates in history: It’s not just that he is utterly lacking in any moral fiber. Rather, it’s that he is so completely unbothered by what a wretched little parasite he is. To him, being an insufferable gasbag is not a defect—it’s the main attraction. He says he isn’t interested in being “politically correct,” but what he means is that he isn’t interested in behaving like someone who graduated from the second grade.
For proof of this, we need look no further than the awe-inspiring one-two punch last week, when Marco Rubio made a crack about the diminutive size of Trump’s hands and what it must mean for the size of his, ahem, “something else.”
A clearer test of character there could never be. Faced with this most infantile and un-presidential taunt, the obvious, dignified response would be either to ignore it completely or to shame Rubio for dragging the level of discourse even further into the toilet.
But Trump—unsurprisingly—opted instead to turn into George Costanza, who, following the famous “shrinkage” incident in “The Hamptons,” felt compelled to inform his would-be girlfriend, “I think you think a certain something is not all that it could be, when, in fact, it is all that it should be…and more!”
In his defense of his own “something else” during last week’s GOP debate, Trump might not have quoted George verbatim, but he came pretty gosh darned close, saying, “I guarantee there’s no problem. I guarantee it.”
What is truly unnerving, in any case, is how Trump is so manifestly insecure about his masculinity that he felt Rubio’s sexual innuendos were worth addressing at all—as if jokingly questioning a man’s endowment were akin to questioning his patriotism or his honor. As far as Trump is concerned, it is. In his mind, all personal slights are created equal and every last one must be answered, no matter how petty or irrelevant.
There’s a common refrain among public officials, “I am not going to dignify that with a response.” Per contra, Donald Trump dignifies everything with a response, and in so doing, he removes the dignity from everything, up to and including himself.
As he reminds us—albeit indirectly—there is a certain grace to individuals who do not feel the need to opine about everything that anyone has ever said or done. Historically, the presidency has drawn precisely that sort of person—or, perhaps more accurately, the majesty of the office has induced its officeholders to temper their more trigger-happy instincts. Sitting at the Resolute desk, even the thickest of chief executives realize that their words have consequences and that sometimes silence—or at least tact—is preferable to speaking one’s mind.
On the available evidence, Trump has no discretion whatsoever. He says whatever pops into his head without any consideration for how other people might react to it. He is so oblivious to the rest of humanity that he genuinely doesn’t understand why, for instance, saying “Islam hates America” is morally, strategically and of course factually insane. He is so magnificently self-centered—so infatuated with the very fact of his existence—that it never really occurs to him that the Earth revolves around anything other than his own bloated head.
Dignity means not embarrassing yourself in public. It means taking the high road and setting an example for others. It means appealing to people’s best instincts instead of their worst. It means treating people with courtesy and respect, even when you think they don’t deserve it. It means being capable of feeling shame when you fail to accomplish any of the above and more.
Very few of this year’s presidential candidates satisfy all of those requirements, but Donald Trump has the singular distinction of not satisfying any of them and being damn proud of it. He is the personification of shamelessness.
More recently, Trump has implied his whole shtick has largely been for show and that, should he win the election, he would magically tone down the more blustery, freewheeling side of his personality—i.e. his entire personality—and suddenly take world affairs and himself seriously.
Taking this claim at face value—believing, for instance, the recent diagnosis by Ben Carson that there is a secret thoughtful side to the Donald that has been carefully concealed from public view—somehow doesn’t make the idea of voting for him any more appetizing. Yes, it’s reassuring to know that a President Trump might not be quite as absurd as Candidate Trump, but that reassurance is tempered by the unbelievable cynicism with which his entire public persona is imbued.
After all, one of two things must be true: Either Trump really is as puerile as he appears, or he has made a concerted effort to appear that way to secure the votes of idiots.
Which of those scenarios would you prefer? Personally, I don’t like either one.
Nor, I would say, do the majority of my fellow Americans, and that is why Trump will not be elected in the fall. When the moment of truth arrives and voters decide which face they want to project to the rest of the world, they will take a final look at Trump’s and, like Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings, find themselves asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”