How many times have we heard that it is righteous and fair to dig into the minutia of a candidate’s personal past, no matter how small or seemingly trivial the issue or how mean-spirited and tendentious the investigation, because, after all, it “goes to character” and, as we all know, when it comes to a presidential candidate, character is everything.
That’s why we need to know that 40 years ago Mitt Romney gave some guy an unwanted haircut, or that Ben Carson might be fibbing a bit about… whatever.
Maybe we vote largely on policy or, as they say, an assessment as to which candidate is best for our wallet, but character is a deal-breaker. Bad character equals no vote, it is thought. Hence: Unleash the dogs of investigative journalism and lay bare as many foibles, peccadilloes, and bad grade-school report cards you can unearth. It goes to character.
How much more do we need to see to know this notion is entirely preposterous? The only character issues most voters care about are the ones associated with the candidates they have no intention of voting for: Yes, those character flaws they care about. A lot.
With candidates they support, not so much. With their own favorite, there is no limit to the amount of obvious bad behavior and despicable character traits they will engorge without even beginning to choke. Maybe it’s a matter of turning a blind eye, or rationalizing, re-framing, or putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and humming “Embraceable You,” but the goal is the same: Move on. (Hey, didn’t a website with that name spring forth for the explicit purpose of papering over one particular president’s slimy and probably felonious conduct?)
The idea is to achieve stratospheric levels of high dudgeon about bad behavior in the guy you don’t support, while ignoring equally bad behavior, or worse, in the one you do, and by “guy” I mean Hillary. Or Donald. You get the idea.
We’ve Ignored Bad Character for Decades
Admittedly, and most certainly, it didn’t start with Hillary and Donald: Yes, William Jefferson Clinton may be many things, some of which are considered admirable, even presidential; but his behavior towards women, chronicled over and over for decades, shows he was (and probably still is), by even the most charitable analysis, a pig, everything mainline feminism has found repellent and execrable for 40 years, touching all the bases. Yet they voted for him, overwhelmingly.
Nixon may have profoundly improved the geopolitical landscape (a matter of continuing debate, but still), yet he was a twisted, petty man, overtaken by the irresistible tide of his own ugly vindictiveness. Not a nice man, you might say. He won in a landslide.
Kennedy, we now know, was, among other things, essentially a prep-school advantaged pimp. To this day, he is revered. (Okay, not by everybody, but pretty much.)
Three presidents, all men of very questionable “character,” as that term is customarily (and rather incessantly) applied in the context of presidential political gymnastics. No, that’s not all they were, but it is certainly part of what they were.
All three were given a pass by the majority of the electorate, and they were given that pass for the same reason and in the same way Hillary and Donald are currently being given a “character” pass.
That Brings Us to Hillary and Donald
Does anyone—other than Hillary supporters—have the ability to un-see the completely obvious corruption, insider finagling, roaring personal ambition, arrogance, phony-baloney pandering, and habitual prevarication (okay, call it “Clintonian Parsing”) that has draped her entire career, a level of broad-based malfeasance that would not only disqualify anyone else for any public office, but most likely land him in the pokey?
Does anyone—other than Trump supporters—not understand that he has made his fortune by cynically buying off politicians to get them to put their thumbs on the scale, his scale; that, over and over he has shown a willingness to say or do anything to further his own personal interests, happy to roll over anyone or anything that stands in his way; that at his own father’s funeral all he could talk about was himself, that he is a guy willing to cut off the health insurance of a deathly ill infant nephew if it suits his purposes; that he is a nasty, mean-spirited bully obsessed with self-aggrandizement so rampaging that it is possible to imagine him doing just about anything, changing any position at any time, in order to get his next magazine cover; and that his level of debate discourse rises only insignificantly above “Your mother wears combat boots”?
They don’t care. Or, more accurately, character only counts if it’s the other guy we’re talking about, and, even then, it only counts with people already inclined against the candidate, serving to deepen their antipathy, not create it.
Try This Litmus Test
Here’s a litmus test. Go see the movie “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s gripping account of the events at Benghazi, as told by the people who were there and lived it. If you are not a Hillary supporter, here’s what you are going to be thinking.
You will experience a building fury at and loathing for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as you watch a magnificent American ambassador murdered and a group of stunningly heroic young Americans fight it out with no support. Your detestation will not only be fueled by the incompetence of the people these guys had every reason to believe would be there for them—but were not—it will be based upon your belief about why it happened, that it occurred two months before the end of a re-election campaign grounded in large part on the claim that Cool Hand Barack had smoothed the waters in the Middle East.
That’s why the planes weren’t scrambled: To do so would etch in concrete actions whose authorization could only be accounted for if our adversaries were not “on the run,” not by a long-shot. That’s why there was no official response of any recordable type. It was necessary to pretend the problem didn’t exist, to make sure nothing indicated otherwise, all to get Obama re-elected.
If you are not a Hillary supporter, you have not one scintilla of doubt that for the same reason, for purely partisan and self-serving electoral purposes, she promulgated the “video tape” hooey, calculatingly and cynically foisted a bald-face fable on the American public, and lied to the families of the men who died. That notion, as you watch the movie, is nauseating, literally.
Yes, that’s what you’re thinking if you’re not a Hillary supporter. If you are a Hillary supporter, here’s what you’re thinking. That Michael Bay is a conservative hack with a long history of producing hyper-patriotic drivel. You can’t take it seriously; it’s propaganda. It’s a typical pre-election hit-job on Hillary, engineered by the vast right-wing conspiracy. Poor Hillary: What she doesn’t have to put up with…
Donald Trump: The Man Who Makes Money From Nothing
Trump, for his part, has made long strides and accomplished astonishing things by relentlessly and almost obsessively finding ways to convince people that he is a much bigger deal than he actually is. Read “The Art of the Deal” and you’ll see that even he, himself, makes no bones about that: It’s the core of the game.
Along the way, Trump figured out something that has become not only his hallmark, but makes Trump Trump, and it is that what you actually do is less important that what you can make people believe you have done. That belief can be turned into increasing credibility, opportunity, and money, step by step, until you reach the ultimate, the Elysian fields of hot-air-based success: The ability to be paid for doing nothing.
That is exactly where Trump is right now. Everything he set out to do—disengaging revenues from accomplishment—has been achieved. Most of his income now derives from nothing more than licensing his name, which is to say, taking a cut of what other people charge folks who mistakenly believe Trump has anything to do with anything.
He is making a huge fortune by allowing others to prey on the false belief that this project or that is a “Trump” project, with all that implies, and it implies the kind of overblown illusion of Trumpian greatness that he has spent a lifetime constructing (literally and figuratively). This, despite the fact that he now has little or nothing to do with these projects that are being sold under his name. He no longer needs to do anything or risk anything.
This is a pretty good gig, and you have to hand it to him. You don’t, however, have to elect him president, and you don’t have to make it into something it is not. It is opportunism and self-dealing writ on a scale so large that it can be a little hard to see for what it is, and while it tells you a great deal about what he is prepared to do for himself, it tells you nothing about what he can actually be relied on to do for you, if what you want him to do conflicts in the slightest way with what he wants to do for himself.
Try Swapping Names with Characters
None of this matters to their respective supporters. Character doesn’t count; maybe we don’t vote our wallets, or even our hearts. Maybe even ideology doesn’t hold the day. There’s plenty of evidence that Trump is the furthest thing from a true conservative and may be, in fact, an utterly shameless and thoroughly pragmatic panderer willing to change any stripe at any time if it suits his purpose. But plenty of conservatives are in his corner, foursquare, you betcha.
Here’s the irony, and perhaps the saddest part of all: If you play the substitution game and swap character flaws between candidates, the hypocrisy becomes glaring.
Sure, the Clintons have gone from selling the Lincoln Bedroom during Bill’s tenure to selling the State Department during Hillary’s, engineering what is undoubtedly the largest influence-peddling scheme in the history of the planet, and her supporters have little or nothing to say about it.
What if it was Trump who did that? What if it was Trump and not Hillary who did this to Kathleen Willey? What would they have to say, then? The world would see the most sustained explosion of righteous indignation ever recorded.
What if it was Hillary and not Trump who had spent a lifetime greasing politicians of every persuasion to get them to provide the abatements and favors that made her whole empire possible, who adopted any policy or political position one day if it suited and the opposite the next, and who, when running into trouble, declared bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and who never passed on an opportunity to go for the jugular with sleazy personal attacks? What would Trump’s supporters have to say about that behavior if it was in Hillary’s resume instead of The Donald’s?
Resentment Is No Way to Build a Life
We all know what the answer is: There is a kind of dishonesty, a willful obliviousness, that is unseemly no matter which side of the political spectrum embraces it. That’s why we might have to simply accept the fact that in our day, until further notice, character doesn’t matter, nor does policy or even one’s wallet. Maybe we’ve reached the point where the only thing that matters, the only thing driving the votes of the great, heaving majority of voters is bile.
Hillary spends all day every day validating the perceived victimhood of her constituency, promising to stick it to the bastards who have engineered their misery—you know, the fat cats who have caused them to be completely incapable of affecting their own circumstances in any positive way: It’s not your fault, and I’m going to make the people who did it to you pay.
Trump taps into the seething resentment of people who go about their lives treating people fairly, working hard and trying to be decent citizens, and for their trouble are painted as racist, greedy, uncaring. unenlightened Yahoos. They are sick unto death of it and willing to overlook everything, or anything, if their guy is going to stand up and punch the bullies in the nose.
It’s of a piece; it’s not good, and to move beyond it we’re going to have to get smarter, fairer, more respectful of our opposites—and very, very lucky.