The GOP needs to learn that char­ac­ter mat­ters

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— Since Thomas Jef­fer­son’s con­cu­bine, War­ren Hard­ing’s love nest and Bill Clin­ton’s in­no­va­tive in­tern pro­gram, Amer­i­cans have de­bated the role of char­ac­ter in lead­er­ship. But the con­cept of char­ac­ter has of­ten been de­fined too nar­rowly. Sex­ual ethics — in­volv­ing a range of be­hav­iors from doomed long­ing to cruel ex­ploita­tion — is a part of it, but not the largest part. “The sins of the flesh are bad,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst plea­sures are purely spir­i­tual: the plea­sure of putting other peo­ple in the wrong, of boss­ing and pa­tron­iz­ing and spoil­ing sport, and back-bit­ing; the plea­sures of power, of ha­tred.”

Repub­li­cans are be­gin­ning to see that the main prob­lem with their pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee is not his lack of ba­sic knowl­edge or his in­abil­ity to stay on the script of san­ity for 10 min­utes at a time. The prob­lem is Trump’s pub­lic char­ac­ter, which no amount of last-minute coach­ing can change.

Trump’s in­stincts were on full dis­play in his re­ac­tion to the Or­lando ter­ror­ist at­tack. There was a pro­nounced lack of em­pa­thy for vic­tims. There was a re­sort to in­sanely par­ti­san con­spir­acy the­o­ries — in­clud­ing in­sin­u­a­tions that Pres­i­dent Obama is the Manchurian Mus­lim. There was an al­most glee­ful credit grab in as­sert­ing that his ac­cu­sa­tions about the vi­o­lent na­ture of Is­lam were vin­di­cated.

Trump’s re­sult­ing pro­nounce­ments — dou­bling down on im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tions and rais­ing ques­tions about the loy­alty of Amer­i­can Mus­lims — are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to the task of coun­tert­er­ror­ism, un­der­min­ing do­mes­tic co­op­er­a­tion on home­land se­cu­rity and com­pli­cat­ing re­la­tions with al­lies and prox­ies. This is just ter­ri­ble pol­icy. But it is Trump’s mo­ral world­view that re­sults in ter­ri­ble pol­icy and prom­ises worse to come. He be­lieves that events al­ways vin­di­cate his in­stincts, which in­volve racial, reli­gious and eth­nic prejudice. He be­lieves that any po­lit­i­cal tac­tic — in­clud­ing ac­cus­ing your op­po­nents of be­ing en­emy agents (as Joe McCarthy did) — is jus­ti­fied to fur­ther his in­ter­ests. And he holds a Putin-like con­cep­tion of how a great power should be­have.

Trump’s world­view of­fers no lim­it­ing prin­ci­ples when it comes to the use and abuse of power. He is not an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist — the kind of politi­cian who ven­er­ates our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem and its bal­ances. He is not a tea party con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist — the kind of politi­cian who holds an ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment to limited gov­ern­ment and is sus­pi­cious

WASH­ING­TON

of ex­ec­u­tive power. He is not a civil lib­er­tar­ian — the kind of politi­cian con­cerned about the rights of in­di­vid­u­als and groups.

The pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee has al­ready pro­posed the largest po­lice oper­a­tion (by far) in Amer­i­can his­tory — the round­ing up of more than 11 mil­lion peo­ple and forc­ing them across the bor­der. What lim­it­ing prin­ci­ple would pre­vent a roundup of all Mus­lims? Trump has al­ready pro­posed the mur­der of ter­ror­ists’ fam­i­lies. What is the lim­it­ing prin­ci­ple that would pre­vent his use of nu­clear weapons against the Is­lamic State cap­i­tal of Raqqa? Trump has al­ready raised the pos­si­bil­ity that Obama is a Kenyan and a ji­hadist and that Hil­lary Clin­ton was in­volved in Vince Fos­ter’s mur­der. What lim­it­ing prin­ci­ple would pre­vent Pres­i­dent Trump from tar­get­ing con­gres­sional op­po­nents with in­nu­endo that they are traitors or mur­der­ers, or any other ac­cu­sa­tion that Alex Jones puts on the web? Trump has al­ready pro­posed to change li­bel laws in order to re­strict press crit­i­cism against him. What lim­it­ing prin­ci­ple would pre­vent him from, well, chang­ing li­bel laws to re­strict press crit­i­cism against him?

None of this is re­duc­tio ad ab­sur­dum. These are the nat­u­ral im­pli­ca­tions of a world­view. Un­der the stress of events, it is clear that Trump’s or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­ments are eth­nic na­tion­al­ism and a be­lief that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment is too weak — too con­strained by po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness — in deal­ing with threats to Amer­i­can iden­tity. He is rid­ing the line be­tween clown­ish­ness and fas­cism.

Repub­li­cans may go into the Cleve­land con­ven­tion with the worst case of buyer’s re­morse in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Their pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee may have his­tor­i­cally high dis­ap­proval rates, lit­tle money in the bank, al­most no or­ga­ni­za­tion on the ground and may trail a weak Demo­cratic nom­i­nee by a large mar­gin.

For now, Repub­li­cans such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McCon­nell are con­tent to crit­i­cize the can­di­date they have en­dorsed. But a party con­ven­tion is an up-or-down mo­ment. Will they al­low the bal­loons to drop on a leader with a bro­ken mo­ral com­pass? Or will they try to change the con­ven­tion rules — per­haps to re­quire a su­per­ma­jor­ity in pick­ing a nom­i­nee — in an act of des­per­ate re­sis­tance? Ei­ther way, Repub­li­cans are learn­ing the hard way that char­ac­ter counts.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

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