‘Today you get to say I told you so.’
‘Today sir, I don’t want to…but I did bloody tell you.’” — Alfred Pennyworth
It is difficult to overestimate how pessimistic I felt about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency when his candidacy caught fire in 2015. Taking into account his temperament, his incoherent and bizarre ideology, and his openly authoritarian instincts I thought him not only unfit, but a genuine threat to the people and government of the United States should he accede to the presidency. (I would link as evidence some of the articles I authored for a student-run news site as a 22-year-old undergraduate, but the site is now defunct and my entire archive has been removed from the web — a fact about which I am not entirely unhappy).
That said, I spent most of the first three years of Trump’s presidency being relieved that my worst fears were not being realized. Not, mind you, that his administration did not undertake policies of which I disapproved or that I did not find his personal conduct objectionable; only that he had not sunk to the low floor of my expectations. He would be overachieving as long as he didn’t do anything that threatened the immediate integrity of republican governance in the United States, such as attempting to overturn an election and stirring up his base to violence with conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric. Which brings us to today.
What we have witnessed from the president in the last two months, beginning with his refusal to concede the results of the election and culminating in the violence on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, is the ultimate rebuke of an oft-used apology for Trump’s character, namely that it is window dressing or irrelevant next to his utility as a political actor. Criticism of Trump’s character during his presidency was often met with the objection that it was just about tweets, that it was superficial, that it was irrelevant to the political struggle at hand. A particularly bizarre species of apologetics equated Trump’s brazen and unrepentant moral bankruptcy with the failings of King David, an otherwise noble monarch whose notable sins spawned some of the most heart-rending verses in the Bible. What was always left out of that analogy was that while David himself was redeemed, the Old Testament still clearly identifies his sins as the first step toward the eventual downfall of Israel, but that, of course, would spoil the excuse.
Whether made on biblical terms or secular ones, this argument always elided the real question. Character determines human actions; human actions determine ends. What was always at issue in discussion of the President’s disturbing personal behavior was not merely tweets or remarks themselves, but the mentalities and tendencies they indicated. For the last two months, we have seen precisely those mentalities and tendencies in action, and the result was not just hurt feelings among journalists or Twitter users; it was a country divided, a political party in chaos and disgrace, and a violent riot at the Capitol. So the answer to the question, “they’re just Tweets, what are you worried about?” is: this. This is what we were worried about.
Donald Trump did not spend two months promoting abject lies and conspiracy theories about a nonexistent stolen election because of ideological commitments, which have never been all that important to him; or out of devotion to his policy agenda, which is incoherent and ever-changing. He did it because he is a self-obsessed, impetuous, incontinent, duplicitous and utterly reckless demagogue whose unbounded pride and vanity could not allow him to accept defeat, and he would be that no matter what party he was a member of. He did it because he has no regard for the institutions which he is meant to serve except to the extent that they can serve him. And he had a mob willing to violently rise up in support of him — which, to be clear, I do not believe represents a lion’s share of conservatives or even Trump voters — because he preyed on fear and anger to build a cult of personality that offered validation and self-righteousness in exchange for idolatry.
No matter how the election had shaken out or under which circumstances it happened, this was always what was going to happen if the results went against Trump. Of course he was not going to accept the results of an election in which he was defeated. Of course he was going to sow chaos and confusion and discontent. Of course he was going to lie relentlessly to his own supporters to protect his esteem in their eyes. His character made these things inevitable, as his personal egotism would always remain even after political questions were settled. This is who he is.
Whatever other lessons emerge from the Trump era, let this one stand out above all others: that January 6 is the kind of thing that happens when you elevate a man of immeasurably low character to a position of immense power. We are lucky it only got this bad, and it is a testament to the wisdom of our constitutional framing that it was able to contain him to the extent that it did.
Conservatives should have no problem understanding this, having spent most of the 1990s rightly emphasizing the importance of character in leadership and criticizing then-president Clinton for failing to show it. I do not remind them of this to wound them, but in an effort to appeal to the principles I share with them. And it is important to note as well that in criticizing Trump’s character I am not implicitly praising that of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or anyone else. They present their own problems, and it is rare to find an unblemished actor in politics. But it also rare to find a politician whose shortcomings of character were as blatant and brazen as Trump’s, and in whose defense so many were willing to burn their credibility and moral authority in exchange for fleeting political advantage.
If character is destiny, then it is so regardless of political standing or ideology; and if there is to be any silver lining in the events of last week it will be if it awakened partisans across the political spectrum to that fact.