The man Trump wishes he were

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAVID BROOKS

In the first few months of his pres­i­dency, Don­ald Trump sur­rounded him­self with a cer­tain sort of ram­rod mil­i­tary man: John Kelly, Michael Flynn, H.R. Mc­Mas­ter and Jim Mat­tis. Th­ese men had or ap­peared to have the kind of manly virtues and bear­ing that Trump likes to see in him­self: courage, toughness, com­bat­ive­ness.

But when you look at how some­one like, say, Jim Mat­tis forged his char­ac­ter, you re­al­ize that he is ac­tu­ally the ex­act op­po­site of Trump. Mat­tis built strengths and virtues through the steady ap­pli­ca­tion of in­tense ef­fort over decades. Trump is a man who has been pro­gres­sively hol­lowed out by the acid of his own sel­f­re­gard.

Mat­tis is a man who is in­tensely loyal to oth­ers and at­tracts loy­alty among those around him. Trump is dis­loyal to oth­ers and at­tracts dis­loy­alty in re­turn.

The con­trast be­tween how th­ese two men were forged is so stark that it throws into re­lief how char­ac­ter is and isn’t formed.

Mat­tis was a medi­ocre col­lege stu­dent. He par­tied too much and was jailed for un­der­age drinking. But then he dis­cov­ered the Ma­rine Corps. His new book, “Call Sign Chaos,” which he wrote with Bing West and which will be re­leased next week, is pur­port­edly about lead­er­ship, but re­ally it is a por­trait of Mat­tis’ lifedefin­ing love for the Ma­rine Corps.

His prose sings when he de­scribes those times when he was out on some bat­tle­field ex­er­cise with front-line Marines. When he is stuck away in­side the Pen­tagon or high up com­mand­ing NATO, you feel his long­ing for their pres­ence.

Mat­tis reads Ro­man writ­ers like Mar­cus Aure­lius, but he is no stoic. Decade af­ter decade he is tour­ing some front or another, start­ing a mil­lion af­fec­tion­ate con­ver­sa­tions. “How’s it go­ing?” “Liv­ing the dream, sir,” is how those con­ver­sa­tions be­gin. He trusts his Marines enough to del­e­gate au­thor­ity down. He clearly ex­presses com­man­der’s in­tent in any situation and gives them lat­i­tude to adapt to cir­cum­stances.

Love is a mo­ti­va­tional state. It pro­pels you. You want to make prom­ises to the per­son or or­ga­ni­za­tion you love. Char­ac­ter is forged in the keep­ing of those prom­ises. If, on the other hand, you are un­able to love and be loved, you’re never go­ing to be in a po­si­tion to make com­mit­ments or live up to them. You’re never go­ing to forge yourself into a per­son who can be re­lied upon.

Mat­tis’ drive, born of his de­vo­tion to the Corps, is his most telling trait. He works in­sanely hard, pro­pels him­self ex­tremely quickly, mak­ing him­self, ev­ery day, a bet­ter Ma­rine. Much of the work is in­tel­lec­tual. He thought the sec­ond Iraq War was a crazy idea, but when he was or­dered to com­mand part of it, he started read­ing Xenophon and an­cient books about warfare in Me­sopotamia.

“If you haven’t read hun­dreds of books, you are func­tion­ally il­lit­er­ate, and you will be in­com­pe­tent, because your per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences alone aren’t broad enough to sus­tain you,” Mat­tis and West write.

He is also will­ing to sub­mit him­self to an in­sti­tu­tion. Some­body like Trump is anti-in­sti­tu­tional. He thinks ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion is about him­self, and ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pro­ce­dures and tra­di­tions should bend to his de­sires.

But a per­son with an in­sti­tu­tional mind­set has a deep rev­er­ence for the or­ga­ni­za­tion he has joined and how it was built by those who came be­fore. He un­der­stands that in­sti­tu­tions pass down cer­tain habits, prac­tices and stan­dards of ex­cel­lence.

Mat­tis as­serts that his way of do­ing warfare is sim­ply the Ma­rine way. In the Ma­rine way, for ex­am­ple, “Am­a­teur per­for­mance is anath­ema, and the Marines are bluntly crit­i­cal of fall­ing short. … Per­sonal sen­si­tiv­i­ties are ir­rel­e­vant.” Each mis­sion gives him another body of knowl­edge, another strength, greater ca­pac­ity to live and ex­e­cute his de­vo­tion to his coun­try.

James Davison Hunter, who wrote, “The Death of Char­ac­ter,” once noted that good char­ac­ter does not re­quire re­li­gious faith. “But it does re­quire the con­vic­tion of truth made sa­cred, abid­ing as an au­thor­i­ta­tive pres­ence within consciousn­ess and life, re­in­forced by habits in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized within a moral com­mu­nity. Char­ac­ter, there­fore, re­sists ex­pe­di­ence; it de­fies hasty ac­qui­si­tion. This is un­doubt­edly why Søren Kierkegaar­d spoke of char­ac­ter as ‘en­graved,' deeply etched.”

In Mat­tis’ ca­reer you see some­thing one saw in the great Ge­orge Mar­shall’s ca­reer: that you need to work within a struc­ture to be cre­ative. Both gen­er­als were to­tal com­pany men, ded­i­cated to their ser­vice, yet they were con­stantly try­ing to change its prac­tices to keep up with the times.

Mat­tis barely men­tions Trump in this book and doesn’t de­scribe what must have been one of the truly chal­leng­ing tasks of his life — work­ing un­der Trump with­out get­ting tainted.

He didn’t write about Trump because he didn’t want to un­der­mine the people still work­ing in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But, he told Jef­frey Gold­berg of The Atlantic: “There is a pe­riod in which I owe my si­lence. It’s not eter­nal. It’s not go­ing to be forever.”

Like Gold­berg, I think it would be proper for Mat­tis to end his si­lence about Trump be­fore the next elec­tion. Vot­ers need his first­hand per­spec­tive to make a judg­ment about the fit­ness and char­ac­ter of the com­man­der in chief.

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